Frontline supermarkets: Hungarian unions work with SPAR to contain COVID-19

Monday 23 March 2020

As the Coronavirus outbreak reaches Hungary, its supermarkets have become key battlegrounds in the contagion effort. Retail workers at KASZ union have struck a deal with food retail chain SPAR that lays down a marker for the whole country.

Across the continent, unions and companies have been working together to find practical solutions to the Coronavirus pandemic. In Spain and Italy, unions were instrumental in enhancing equipment and infrastructural provisions early on to slow the spread of the virus across supermarkets and save lives across their countries. From France to Sweden, unions have been instrumental in establishing income security for those having to self-isolate.

Equipment shortages are a major issue across Europe. However, instead of heading to this reality and laying out a plan to deal with it, the Hungarian government accused the medical profession of blackmail when it highlighted the issue. While the government has taken very few concrete steps to apply proven measures to protect those most at risk, it has placed a heavy emphasis on blaming immigrants and increased restrictive measures for residents of foreign nationality.

Securing jobs to save lives

Due to the major labour shortages in Hungary, many shop workers are retirees who work part-time in order to supplement their pension income. Recognising that age is the most determining risk factor associated to the Coronavirus threat, the SPAR deal takes decisive steps to protect older workers. While securing their jobs after the crisis and ensuring them some baseline financial support, it provides workers over the age of 65 with real access to the most effective measure: self-isolation.

Job security has been extended for other workers too. The deal provides workers with a postponement option to stop work for weeks at a time while continuing to get their full salary. The accumulated contract hours missed must be then be worked as overtime, once the crisis is over. As school closures sweep the country, these new measures will also help workers who take care of their families.

Frontline services, among which supermarkets now count, are under major strain. Recognising that strain, the deal also includes a set hourly pay raise of approximately 20 percent. While the government has changed the rules of working time, the deal provides those workers who are healthy the option to have 150 percent overtime pay or accumulate the time in paid leave for the period after the crisis. While there continues to be a shortage in protective equipment including masks, all those at work are provided with medical sanitizer.

A minority sport

The SPAR Hungary deal provides another example of how industrial relations contribute to a society’s crisis resilience. Existing working conditions, that had been collective bargained for, were rapidly adapted. Building on the mutual trust established during previous joint decision-making, special measures were not only quickly agreed upon, but they are also set to benefit from a more engaged level of implementation.

However, this process is unlikely to be replicated in many of Hungary’s other frontline workplaces. The FIDESZ government of Viktor Orban has both made it harder for workers to collectively bargain at company level and reversed efforts to build collective bargaining at the sectoral level. The result is that only one in five working people in Hungary are covered by collective bargaining agreements.

“This new deal with SPAR shows how, by working together, workers and employers can ensure everyone has the tools to play their part in containing this killer virus. What we are seeing is that where there is a well-established relationship between management and workers, adaptation has been quickest. While it is essential that government measures respond to the needs of those on the frontlines, it is evident too that ensuring that workers are involved in company-level decision-making boosts adaptability and ultimately increases safety for both consumers and workers.

“Longer-term, Europe must learn from this experience and move forward through collective bargaining. Building inclusive economies not only results in shared prosperity, it builds resilience to shocks too. In a world of heightened volatility, that will become increasingly determinant,” said Oliver Roethig, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa.

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*image credit: Lyza (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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