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Competition & Antitrust
In the past three months, three telecom giants received unexpectedly heavy fines from the Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) in consumer protection cases. In 2019 the HCA imposed more fines in total for unfair commercial practices against consumers than in cartel cases and, on the basis of its recent decisions, it looks likely to do the same in 2020. These recent decisions also show that repeated infringements are now subject to a stricter assessment.
Since 1 July 2014, companies have been able to initiate settlement proceedings with the Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA). Recent case law suggests that the HCA has aimed to foster cooperation between itself and market participants and is striving for cooperation even when market participants allegedly commit grave infringements of competition rule commitments.
Misleading business-to-consumer information may lead to significant fines. Two recent Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) decisions prove that the HCA has maintained its position as a watchdog of both consumer rights and fair competition. In both cases, the companies were investigated by the HCA because they had omitted to tell customers important information, thereby harming them.
In 2017 the Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) initiated a sector inquiry into the bank card acceptance market. Although the market was found to be competitive and functioning in accordance with the relevant regulations, the HCA has made a number of recommendations to both the legislature and market players in order to stimulate further growth.
The Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) has launched a market study to explore the specific market developments relating to the application of digital comparison tools and their effects on consumers' decision making. The market study puts the HCA's mid-term digital consumer protection strategy paper into action and demonstrates the HCA's recent focus on consumer protection and efforts to serve as a lighthouse in the digital age.
After a record-breaking Black Friday promotion, an online retailer is now suffering the consequences. According to the Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA), eMAG may have failed to meet the standards of professional diligence by misleading consumers with its 2018 Black Friday campaign. This action was one of the first to be initiated under the umbrella of the HCA's digital consumer protection strategy paper.
The Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) recently published a strategy paper presenting its views on consumer protection in the digital age. The paper subtly indicates that the HCA will continue to follow the European Commission's guidance in this regard. It also highlights the measures which the HCA deems necessary to protect consumers and keep up with the developments and companies central to this process.
In recent years, the Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) has seemingly aimed to foster cooperation between itself and market participants. Recent case law shows that the HCA strives for cooperation even when market participants allegedly commit grave infringements of the competition rules. Market participants are advised to harness this tendency and the HCA's willingness to reach decisions more efficiently.
With the global development of the Internet, life has changed radically in just a few decades, and legislation can barely keep up. The Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) has been monitoring developments and has not been afraid to intervene in the interests of fair competition and the protection of consumer rights. Influencers have recently been targeted by the HCA, especially regarding their promotional activity.
A recent Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) decision concerning Vodafone demonstrates that a reasonable cooperative approach may significantly affect the level of fine imposed on an undertaking, as the HCA reduced the fine imposed on Vodafone by more than 50% based solely on its cooperative measures. Although this case is unique, it signals that compliance and cooperation efforts which exceed the necessary legal requirements do not go unnoticed.
The Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) was recently given significant new investigative powers under the framework of its merger control duties. Should parties decide not to submit a voluntary filing when meeting the voluntary notification threshold, the HCA can initiate an investigation on its own accord and undertake a fully fledged merger control proceeding. The HCA recently announced that it has commenced its first such ex officio merger control investigation.
Following a Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) decision that its rebate system violated the Trade Act, retail chain Spar went all the way to the Supreme Court. All judicial forums upheld the HCA's decision and the illegality of such rebates seemed to be settled. However, the Budapest Metropolitan Court recently overturned another HCA decision, which was somewhat surprising considering that the Supreme Court had already upheld the HCA's decision in the relatively similar Spar.
Public procurements are often targets for bid rigging and the Hungarian authorities and legislature have made extra efforts to fight this kind of behaviour. While it is not the primary authority for monitoring public procurements, the Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) is one authority fighting anti-competitive behaviour in public procurement. Besides investigating violations, the HCA is also taking steps towards prevention and raising awareness.
An important part of the recent major amendment to the Competition Act was the timely implementation of the EU Antitrust Damages Directive into Hungarian law. While it was already possible to claim damages for a competition law infringement under Hungarian law, the directive's implementation introduced special rules for damages claims arising out of competition law infringement and the enforcement of such claims. It also introduced several solutions which are new to Hungarian law.
Recent amendments to the Competition Act have significantly revised the merger control threshold system. The turnover thresholds for triggering a filing obligation have been increased. In addition, a voluntary threshold has been introduced, effectively transposing the voluntary notification system into Hungarian competition law for transactions where the mandatory thresholds are not met, but the parties have achieved a combined turnover in Hungary of more than Ft5 billion.
Following the latest amendments to the Competition Act, the Hungarian Competition Authority recently published an updated filing form and new guidelines on merger control proceedings. Together with the increased merger control thresholds introduced by the amendments, the new filing form and merger control guidelines should make Hungarian merger control proceedings easier for concentrations from January 15 2017.
The government recently exempted the state-owned national electricity provider and an energy company from having to fulfil merger control obligations before their intended merger. According to the relevant government decree, the concentration was of national strategic importance, as it facilitated affordable energy supply for consumers. This exemption is not unprecedented under Hungarian competition law.
Pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare suppliers have always been of special interest to the Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) due to the associated public health concerns. In light of this, the HCA has concluded several cooperation agreements with other agencies, including the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition, to facilitate the investigation of these markets, which has led to an increase in the number of consumer protection cases.
In July 2013 the Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) initiated a sectoral inquiry into the online accommodation booking market, following its identification of market tendencies that had a potential distortive effect on competition. The HCA recently published its final report, which provides valuable insight on the market and online travel agency practices.
The Hungarian Competition Authority (HCA) deals with consumer protection cases where market competition is materially affected by the alleged infringement. The HCA takes a thorough approach to the enforcement of consumer protection regulations; companies would do well to remember this in the course of preparing promotional campaigns or other forms of communication.
The Hungarian Competition Authority recently imposed one of its highest-ever fines on the Hungarian Banking Association for the anti-competitive exchange of information. Evidently, even activities in which market participants regularly engage and which they regard as lawful may help to reduce uncertainty in the market. This update provides an insight into anti-competitive information exchanges in order to minimise this risk.
The Hungarian Competition Authority (GVH) recently launched a promotion campaign for its leniency programme, emphasising that "a cartel will not stay hidden, but one may get away with a leniency application". In light of these great efforts on the GVH's part, it is crucial to examine the benefits and drawbacks of the leniency programme from the undertaking's perspective.
Swift, simple and less burdensome proceedings with a 10% reduction in fines – these are the benefits that the Hungarian Competition Authority chose to emphasise in its recent notice on the settlement procedure. Although the notice generally aligns with the relevant EU rules, it contains noteworthy deviations which may fundamentally affect its application.
Parliament recently adopted amendments to the Competition Act to reflect the practical lessons learned from the application of the rules which came into force in July 2014. The amendments introduce noteworthy exceptions to the cartel prohibitions. Some of these rules signal a more lenient approach towards certain competition law infringements, while others support more rigorous enforcement (eg, in bid-rigging cases).
The Competition Authority has imposed a fine of more than Ft1 billion (more than €3.3 million) on retailer Auchan for abusing its significant market power under the Trade Act – the highest fine that it has ever imposed in the sector. The decision signals that the Competition Authority is likely to be harsh on retail chains for similar abuses in future.
Employment & Benefits
Companies often use non-compete agreements to prevent highly skilled employees from using their know-how in favour of competitors following their termination. The Supreme Court recently addressed various questions relating to the compensation paid to employees for post-termination non-compete agreements. This article examines this topic in light of the Supreme Court's recent guidelines and a recent decision which led to debate among practitioners.
Parliament recently adopted a new law amending several sectorial laws concerning the processing of personal data. The new law aims to provide clarity in these areas and has amended the general rules of the Labour Code. It has also introduced a new chapter which sets out general rules on the handling of employee data. Although the amendments of the existing rules on the processing of employee data have been eagerly awaited, many practitioners have expressed their disappointment.
In Hungary, as is the case in other EU countries, recent economic growth has been accompanied by a labour shortage. Under pressure to find a solution, the government introduced a new law to amend the working time rules. Since its adoption, the new law has come under close scrutiny from opposition parties and trade unions, and in December 2018 thousands of people took to the streets to protest what has become known as the 'slave act'.
The European Commission has proposed to implement a directive on work-life balance for parents and carers which aims to increase the number of dual-earning families and help women return to work, while also requiring more flexibility from employers. Should the proposed directive enter into force, it will set minimum standards regarding parental and carer leave and will thus bring about considerable change for the Hungarian employment and social systems.
Hungarian law generally requires employers to justify the termination of an employment relationship, and economic grounds generally serve as valid grounds for dismissal. A recent Supreme Court case clearly shows that even when an employer has a rightful interest in dismissing certain employees for economic grounds, the justification of the dismissal must be formulated correctly in accordance with the law. Otherwise, employers may have difficulties protecting themselves in court.
With the constant development and advancement of digital technologies, the use of paper-based documents is gradually decreasing in all areas of life. This trend has inevitably affected the employment sector, as both employers and employees have an increasing need to reduce the volume of paper-based documents used in employment relationships. At the same time, the use of electronic documents has raised several practical questions.
The Supreme Court recently issued a reasoned opinion on certain legal and procedural aspects of employment-related suits involving equal treatment claims. The reasoned opinion addresses, among other things, the interpretation of the burden of proof in such suits, the equal pay principle, the concept of discrimination based on other grounds and the way of hearing and deciding anti-discrimination claims in suits initiated on the grounds of unlawful dismissal.
Employers are often frustrated by employees' incapacity to work for health reasons, but they must act with care when addressing such situations. In an attempt to protect employee interests, legal regulations provide certain restrictions on what employers can do if an employee is unable to work for health reasons. A recent Supreme Court decision has further clarified some of these restrictions.
Organisations with legal entities and employees in several EU member states often try to centralise their human resources (HR) functions to some extent, which occasionally requires them to share employee and HR data within their group. Although existing Hungarian law provides a stable legal environment with clear rules for employers as data processors, there is a general feeling of uncertainty around this topic, which is partly due to the upcoming entry into force of the EU General Data Protection Regulation.
Although the Labour Code fails to define a 'conflict of interest', its general principles prohibit employees from engaging in conduct which could jeopardise their employer's rightful economic interests. Depending on the circumstances, a conflict may constitute a severe violation of the employee's employment terms and can be punished appropriately. In other cases, a conflict may arise that is not the employee's fault, which can therefore be appropriately rectified without penalties.
The existing Labour Code amended employers' consultation duties in the event of a collective redundancy. When the code entered into force, this change seemed technical and went somewhat unnoticed among other more significant changes. However, the change is important, as it simplifies employers' consultation duties in the absence of employee representative bodies. Simultaneously, the new rule's compliance with EU law has raised questions around how employers should act.
In Hungary, employers have significant freedom to change their organisational structure and reorganise their workforce, which includes dismissing employees. However, there are some limitations – both generally and in the context of anti-discrimination rules. Even if the courts respect employers' freedom in organising their workforce, employers must be careful not to exceed the limits of this freedom in order to prevent disputes.
A recent amendment to the Act on Labour Safety reduced the number of employees who can be employed at a workplace before an employer must elect a work safety representative from 50 to 20. Employers that are affected by the new regulation are advised to ensure that they comply with the requirements governing health and safety at work and elect a work safety representative.
Although performance-based compensation has long been an integral part of Hungarian employment law, neither the Labour Code nor the relevant commentaries provide a clear-cut definition of a 'bonus'. As a result, the definition and key legal principles governing bonuses have been developed by court practice, which shifted after the economic crisis and the adoption of the new Labour Code in 2012.
While the conclusion of non-compete agreements or inclusion of non-compete clauses and other restrictive covenants in employment contracts is common practice in Hungary, a number of issues frequently arise – particularly in regards to statutory compensation, enforceability and unilateral termination. To avoid legal disputes, employers should carefully consider these issues before concluding non-compete agreements.
Under the Hungarian fringe benefit framework (the so-called 'cafeteria system'), employers offer employees a choice of different benefits of a set value, which are subsidised by the state and therefore beneficial to both parties. Several amendments to the system are planned, mainly due to a potential amendment to the personal income tax laws and a recent European Court of Justice judgment, which held that the system violated EU law.
Considering the importance of unilateral declarations and commitments in the employment relationship, Hungarian labour law sets out detailed rules regarding the representation of the employer when making such declarations. While the previous legislation raised certain practical issues in this regard, the new Labour Code provides greater freedom for employers in establishing the system for exercising their rights through representatives.
Hungarian labour law provides employers with the right to monitor employees' behaviour and actions, provided that such monitoring pertains exclusively to employees' work. The law affords employers a significant degree of flexibility in this regard, but careful consideration of the company's needs and thoughtful legal analysis are required before implementing surveillance systems.
Employing overqualified employees has long been a source of debate among human resources (HR) professionals. However, overqualification has recently become a more prominent issue due to the growing number of graduate workers and the pace of technological development. Several practical HR aspects must be addressed when employing overqualified workers, which often give rise to legal issues.
The use of temporary agency workers is particularly popular among employers whose workforce needs fluctuate or which require employees for short-term or seasonal jobs. As a general rule, employers may employ an unlimited number of agency workers for any job position, for a period of up to five years. However, the law imposes certain restrictions and prohibitions on the use of temporary agency workers.
The 2012 Labour Code introduced significant changes concerning the compensation to be paid by employers in the event of unlawful dismissal. As the previous regime put an unreasonably high burden on employers, the new Labour Code introduced a new penalty regime for unlawful dismissal. The Supreme Court has now issued an opinion addressing the most important questions relating to this new regime.
A new act recently entered into force which introduced new rules governing the opening times of retail shops. The new act brings significant changes, including a prohibition against retail shops opening on Sundays. The new rules are intended to preserve employees' rights and allow them more time to rest, but have nonetheless provoked heated debate.