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Europe

Portugal brought to standstill as workers strike

© AFP

Video by Catherine Nicholson

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-06-27

Members of Portugal’s two biggest unions, which together represent around one million workers, staged a general strike against government austerity measures Thursday, causing disruption to public transport, flights and hospitals.

The fourth general strike against austerity to be held by Portugal’s workers in two years brought the country to a near standstill on Thursday, as public transport was halted, flights grounded and hospital operations cancelled.

Most services operated by the national train company CP, the Lisbon subway and city bus companies - all of them state-run - were cancelled, forcing commuters to use their own vehicles and congesting traffic in the capital Lisbon and Porto, the second-largest city.

Airport management company ANA reported that 22 flights were cancelled by 10am, 17 of them at Lisbon airport.

Some health centres around the country stayed closed, Portuguese media reported, while hospitals rescheduled operations and medical appointments.

The strike was called by Portugal’s two biggest unions – the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers and the General Workers' Union.

Together, they represent about one million workers, close to ten per cent of Portugal’s 10.6 million population. Thursday's walkout was only their fourth joint protest in 25 years.

'The country is refusing to back down'

The unions want the country’s centre-right government to ease off austerity measures that they say are contributing to Portugal’s downward economic spiral and surging unemployment rate.

Unemployment in Portugal currently stands at 17.8 percent, while a third straight year of recession is forecast for 2013.

"The majority of workers are against the measures this government has brought in and that's why they're striking,” said transport union representative Abilio Carvalho. “This country is refusing to back down... what is happening in Portugal is very serious."

The latest government plans to upset the unions include increasing the working time of state employees to 40 hours a week from 35, increasing their monthly pension deductions while lowering their pension entitlements and laying off some 50,000 government workers out of the total of about 583,000.

Portugal has been locked into a deficit-reducing austerity program as part of the conditions for receiving a 78 billion euros ($102 billion) bailout two years ago from the so-called troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

'Some people have to go to work'

But although many among the Portuguese public agree that austerity measures are harming the country, not everyone is backing the strike.

"They have the right to strike, but they should keep transport services going. Some people have to go to work and have no choice,” said one woman.

"I won't strike. I have to go to work, otherwise I won't get paid by my boss and I need the money,” commented another.

The government made no immediate comment on the strike's turnout, though Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho told Parliament on Wednesday that Portugal "needs fewer strikes and more work and discipline".

Coelho approval ratings are currently at a record low, but with a sizeable majority in parliament, his centre-right coalition government has been largely immune to opposition calls to unseat it.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-06-27

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