Protesters return to streets as Hungary's Orban digs in

Budapest (AFP) –


Several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of the Hungarian capital Budapest late Friday, as right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismissed a wave of protests against a new labour reform as "hysterical shouting".

Friday evening's demonstration is expected to be the last before the Christmas holidays, with the opposition hoping to keep up the momentum of the movement into the new year.

The current series of protests was sparked on December 12 when MPs passed a law hiking the amount of overtime that employers can demand from 250 to 400 hours per year.

The measure was quickly dubbed the "slave law" by opponents, and the protests against it -- at first organised on an ad hoc basis -- were then backed by an unusually large spectrum of the opposition.

Trade unions have also thrown their weight behind the movement and have threatened to organise a general strike.

Meanwhile, councils in Hungary's third-largest city of Szeged and the northern town of Salgotarjan on Friday passed resolutions promising not to implement the new law.

- 'Hysterical shouting' -

The president of the left-wing opposition MSZP party Bertalan Toth said at a press conference before the protest: "We will enlarge the demonstrations and protest to where it hurts, this is a regime built on greed and we will boycott the oligarchs with peaceful means."

He alluded to possible protest action against businesses with ties to Orban's Fidesz party, as well as the big employers who stand to benefit from the overtime law.

"We will target those that the Fidesz regime caters to with their laws," Toth said.

However, Orban used a weekly interview with public radio to double down on his defence of the law, saying that his Fidesz party "simply wants to get rid of silly rules so that those who want to earn more can work more".

Orban said in the interview that employees will be paid for overtime at the end of each month, but the text of the law allows employers to delay payment by up to three years.

Orban insisted that "this law is a good law, we have to judge it on how it works in practice".

"We heard this same hysterical shouting when we threw the IMF out of Hungary, when we cut taxes or introduced the public works programme, the opposition cried: 'Slave!'," he added.

He also repeated the government's accusation that the "most aggressive protesters are paid by George Soros," the liberal Hungarian-born US billionaire and a frequent target of Orban's government.

According to a poll published by the Publicus company on Friday, more than two-thirds of Hungarians thought the protests were justified and that the overtime law would hurt workers' interests.