Hungary: Women face stark increase in discrimination and job insecurity in the workplace

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the longstanding problem of gender inequality in workplaces and the labour market in Hungary with women experiencing even higher levels of job insecurity and discrimination, a new report by Amnesty International finds.

No working around it: Gender-based discrimination in Hungarian workplaces reveals that gender-based discrimination in the workplace – rife even before the COVID-19 pandemic – has increased dramatically since lockdown, as many more women are forced out of the job market.

“Women in Hungary, particularly pregnant women and women with young children, face shocking forms of direct and indirect discrimination in the workplace. This has only spiralled during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Krisztina Tamás-Sáróy Amnesty International’s Researcher on Hungary.

“By ignoring their obligations to eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace, authorities are allowing employers to trample the rights of women precisely at a time when they are needed more than ever.”

The different impacts of COVID-19 on men and women in Hungary are clearly visible in a workplace which has always tended to historically favour men. One of the most glaring examples is the fact that the burden of childcare which has always fallen disproportionately on women, has seen significant numbers forced to give up their jobs to care for and educate their children as nurseries and schools have been closed.

Whilst data about both the breadth and depth of the effects of COVID-19 is still emerging, it is clear that the pandemic is exacerbating many aspects of pre-existing gender discrimination. More and more Hungarian women are paying the price for the government’s historic failure to ensure that international and regional human rights obligations are properly enacted into domestic employment law, whilst laws regulating employment relationships and equal treatment continue to leave gaping loopholes for employers to exploit.

This has particularly affected pregnant women who find their contracts terminated once their employers learn of their pregnancy. Despite protections against such dismissals being enshrined in the Hungarian Labour Code, employers without any substantive evidence often allege inappropriate conduct by the employee or find another unjustified reason to allow them to terminate the pregnant worker’s contract.

One woman, ‘Bernadett’, told Amnesty International how she was called into a meeting after telling her employer she was pregnant. “They told me that my salary was too high, so we could either sign a new contract with a lower salary, so I could go on maternity leave and get the benefits, or we should terminate the employment relationship.” She was forced to sign a contract and left the company.

The situation of employees is often compounded by the fact that they are unaware that the employer has a duty to reinstate them in their original or equivalent role but that employers often choose to ignore these obligations, and therefore it rarely happens. For example, many employers refuse to accommodate employees’ requests to work part-time after returning to work from maternity or parental leave, despite a legal obligation on the part of the employer to do so. 

Dora, told Amnesty International, how her manager was even discouraging employees from requesting part-time work, following their maternity or parental leave. “The part-time work is simply not supported in the institution, as it harms the organization.”

Women often fear retaliation for reporting discrimination both internally to their employer and also through external legal avenues, such as lodging a complaint with the Equal Treatment Authority or taking a case to court. Internal complaints mechanisms are often non-existent or ineffective and there are often overwhelming barriers to external remedies.

Whilst the need for employers to allow remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic could create a positive shift in attitudes towards working from home, there are fears that new types of abuse by employers might emerge. Loopholes regarding the regulation around remote working could be easily exploited by unscrupulous employers.

“Whilst the pandemic is impacting every aspect of our lives, it should not be used as an excuse to further undermine the rights of women in the workplace. Above all, pregnancy or motherhood should not be treated as stigma in the 21st century workplace,” said Amnesty International Hungary Director, Dávid Vig.

“Instead employers must do more to accommodate working women with children by offering more flexible and friendlier working practices. Such an approach will benefit both employers and, in the long run, the employees.”