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Protesters swarm streets of Spain against labour law reforms

Hundreds of thousands of people, many waving red and white union flags, protested across Spain on Sunday against sweeping labour market reforms that make it easier to slash pay and lay off workers.

Spain’s two biggest unions, the CCOO and UGT, organised protests in 57 cities against the reforms which Spain’s new conservative government argues are needed to revive the economy and slash a jobless rate of 22.85 percent, the highest in the developed world.

Union officials said 500,000 people hit the streets in Madrid and 400,000 in Barcelona. Police gave no estimate for the number of participants in Madrid but in Barcelona they put the figure at just 30,000.

In the Spanish capital, protesters marched under sunny skies behind a large banner that read “No to the unfair, inefficient and useless reform”.

The crowd chanted “strike! strike! strike!” as it made its way from Neptune Square near the Prado Musuem to the central Sol Square.

“We have to take action. They start like this and then they will continue to eliminate rights,” said 44-year-old unemployed construction worker Victor Orgando, who wore a black hat decorated with a red CCOO union sticker.

Among the participants were members of the “indignant” social protest movement that sprang up across Spain before local elections in May and teachers wearing green T-shirts with slogans against education spending cuts.

“It worries me that my generation will have fewer rights than my parents, that we are not going to be able to live as well. I feel like we are taking steps backwards in Spain and the rest of Europe with this type of reforms,” said 23-year-old engineering student Jordi Alsedo, who was dressed in black.

Many of the protesters said they were motivated by anger over government spanding cuts aimed at reining in the public deficit as well as disapproval of the labour market reform.

“I am here because of the labour reforms but also because of the cuts to public services. Education is not an expense, it is our future,” said Clemencia Alvarado, a 54-year-old Madrid public school teacher.

“It angers me that public spending on health and education is criticized so much but not spending on other things like on aid to banks.”

In Barcelona the crowd chanted “Bankers, thieves, give back the millions!”.

Under the labour market reform approved by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government on February 11, maximum severance pay is slashed to 33 days’ salary for each year worked from 45 days, going back 24 years at most.

Companies no longer need prior authorisation to lodge a labour force adjustment plan, allowing employers to set the conditions for mass layoffs.

Rajoy defended the labour market reforms at a congress of his Popular Party in Seville, saying it was “fair, good for Spain and necessary”.

“This is the reform that Spain needs to stop it from being the country in Europe that destroys the most jobs. It puts us on the same level as the most advanced countries in Europe,” he added.

Unemployment in Spain has tripled since 2007, when it dropped to a low of 7.95 percent a year before a property bubble implosion that laid waste to millions of jobs in the construction sector.

Spain is home to a third of the eurozone’s unemployed, according to Eurostat, the European Unions’s statistics office.