Lone crusader questions mass dismissal logic

June 7, 1996

Almost a year ago, Laszlo Hethelyi, a reader at Budapest's Technical University, was giving a mathematics tutorial when the phone rang. His head of department had bad news: Hethelyi, now 50 and a lecturer for 25 years, was being made redundant, a victim of an emergency budget cut that lopped 8,800 staff off the payrolls at polytechnics and universities, cutting jobs in higher education by 17 per cent.

"I was stunned. I was told the dean had overridden my head's decision to keep me on. But the cuts as a whole were both unjust and illegal. I was determined to fight."

His one-man crusade opened a can of legal, moral and political worms and unearthed evidence that he claims makes a mockery of the financial rationale underpinning the cuts, at least in the short term.

He initially approached the university authorities with two arguments to support his case. The dismissals, as opposed to the cases of those who took early retirement, were based on personal whims, and not on merit. And the move violated the public servants' act.

"It is not sufficient to say you do not have enough money. There must be a reason. Of course, the universities couldn't give any reason, they were happy with 95 per cent of the people. They hadn't done anything wrong."

He says he met a wall of silence, in spite of a lawyer's letter, which went unanswered. So, unlike the majority of his colleagues who acquiesced as the cuts went into effect last September, Hethelyi took his case to the labour court.

He contacted the ombudsman's office, then a new concept in Hungary and established only weeks before. "I did not want the ombudsman to investigate my personal case, because that was up to the court. I only asked him, if he agreed the dismissals were illegal, to tell the rector."

Two months later, the ombudsman reported that the dismissals contravened the law. "Lack of finance was insufficient reason for dismissal," Peter Polt, the deputy ombudsman, confirmed.

The Hungarian media took up the story, particularly the daily Nepszava, which estimated 3,000 had been dismissed illegally - the total figure of 8,800 includes those retired and others on contract.

Balint Magyar, new minister of education, accepted, in a letter to the rector of Budapest Technical University, that it was illegal to dismiss people on grounds of lack of finance, but said he was awaiting a labour court decision.

The minister also confirmed his acceptance of the ombudsman's findings, stating: "I hope by this we could settle the matter of dismissal, and your problem will be solved in the labour court."

One of Mr Hethelyi's obsessions was the cost of the redundancy programme. By comparing figures, he calculated that the 1995 budget amendment forecast salary savings from the higher education cuts of F1.7 billion (Pounds 7.4 million) for last year. Against this, F1.02 billion was allocated as compensation for redundancy payments.

But the latter figure did not square with the number dismissed. Hethelyi himself had F0.8 million in redundancy pay. After badgering the ministry he discovered the actual payments for redundancies totalled F3.16 billion, three times the budgeted sum.

"It's amazing. The finance minister said austerity measures were needed because the economy was on the verge of collapse. But the cuts in education were not even projected to make any real immediate savings, and in the end they cost three times the target."

Zsolt Aradi, finance ministry director, denied that the Fl3.16 billion payment was exceptional or unexpected. "It's going round that this cost more than we saved. This is nonsense. We saved Fl1 billion last year in salaries, true, but we will save Fl4 billion this year, and in the future."

Meanwhile, Mr Hethelyi had his first hearing at the labour court in April. If his hopes had been raised by the ombudsman's decision, they were all but dashed by the court. "I was stunned. I wanted to hand in this constitutional court decision as evidence, and the judge refused it as evidence."

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