independent

Friday 25 April 2014

European workers act against cuts

Protesters burn tyres at the main entrance to Mercabarna, the biggest wholesale market, during a strike in Barcelona, Spain (AP)

Hundreds of thousands of people across Europe have joined demonstrations or gone on strike as they demanded governments stop cutting benefits and create more employment.

Those with jobs and without spoke of a "social emergency" crippling the world's largest economic bloc, the EU.

The protests were met with tear gas in Italy and Spain, but were largely limited to the countries hardest hit by the austerity measures designed to bring government spending into line with revenues. Wealthier nations like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark saw only small, sedate demonstrations.

Governments backing the line of stringent austerity were not impressed by the show of force. "We must nevertheless do what is necessary: break open encrusted labour markets, give more people a chance to work, become more flexible in many areas," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "We will of course make this clear, again and again, in talks with the unions."

To combat a three-year financial crisis over too much sovereign debt, governments across Europe have had to raise taxes and cut spending, pensions and benefits. As well as hitting workers' incomes and living standards, these measures have also led to a decline in economic output and a sharp increase in unemployment.

The 17 country eurozone is expected to fall into recession when official figures are released on Thursday. Unemployment across those countries has reached a record 11.6%, with Spain and Greece seeing levels above 25%.

With no end in sight to the economic hardship, workers were trying to take a stand. "There is a social emergency in the south," said Bernadette Segol, secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation. "All recognise that the policies carried out now are unfair and not working."

Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide strike - the second this year - was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and construction industries. The country, reeling from austerity measures designed to prevent it from asking for a full-blown international bailout, is mired in recession with 50% unemployment among its under-25s. The Spanish strike shut most schools, and hospitals operated with skeleton staffs. Health and education have both suffered serious spending cutbacks and increased moves toward privatisation. Frustration spilled into violence when riot police clashed with demonstrators in Madrid and other Spanish cities.

In Italy, protests turned violent as well, with some of the tens of thousands of students and workers clashing with riot police in several cities.

In bailed-out Portugal, where the government intends to intensify austerity measures next year, the second general strike in eight months left commuters stranded as trains ground to a virtual halt and the Lisbon subway shut down. About 200 flights to and from Portugal - about half the daily average - were cancelled. Hospitals provided only minimum services and municipal trash was left uncollected.

Press Association

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