Spanish civil servants take to the streets over austerity cuts

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Thousands of public sector workers took to the streets of Spain Thursday to protest a tough government austerity plan aimed at reining in the public deficit and easing fears of a Greek-style debt crisis.

Unions called the demonstrations to coincide with a cabinet meeting Thursday evening to approve the belt-tightening measures, which include pay cuts.

Waving flags of the country's major unions, thousands of workers demonstrated outside the finance ministry in Madrid, blocking one of the main roads in the centre of the capital.

Similar protests took place in front of public buildings in other parts of the country.

"It's totally unfair" to cut salaries. "There are other types of measures possible," said Diego, a teacher.

Carlo, a finance ministry employee, said "the public servants didn't create the crisis."

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced the austerity measures last week, worth 15 billion euros (18.5 billion dollars) over two years.

They include a five-percent pay cut for public sector workers from June, a freeze on state pensions and a wage freeze from 2011.

The plan comes on top of a 50-billion-euro austerity package announced in January designed to slash the public deficit to the eurozone limit of three percent of gross domestic product by 2013 from 11.2 percent last year.

The government is under pressure to take action from both its EU partners and from the markets, which fear Spain could follow in the footsteps of Greece, which received an unprecedented 110-billion-euro bailout by the EU and the IMF earlier this month to save it from bankruptcy.

"Spain is in a very difficult situation because it is potentially concerned" by the debt relief package, Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere said on Wednesday, referring to a 750-billion-euro fund agreed by eurozone members last week to help debt-ridden countries.

But the CCOO union has charged the government had "yielded to pressure from financial markets" and "is leading the country to disaster."

It and the country's other main union, the UGT, have also called a general strike of public service workers on June 8 to protest the austerity cuts.

Zapatero said Sunday his "responsibility ... is to think of the future of my country, rather than any political or personal future."

A new opinion poll on Sunday showed the cuts have triggered a nine-point plunge in support for his Socialist Party compared to the conservative opposition Popular Party.

The poll found that Spaniards approve of the pay cut for public workers, but two-thirds opposed the pension freeze, and three-quarters thought the measures will be insufficient to get Spain out of its crisis.

In an apparent bid to shore up public support, the prime minister on Wednesday said he plans new tax hikes for the rich.

"I believe most citizens consider this effort (to reduce the deficit) must be hardest for those who have the most," he said.

Spain entered recession in the second quarter of 2008 as the global financial meltdown compounded a crisis in the property market, which had been a major driver for growth in the preceding years.

Official data Wednesday showed the economy scraped out of recession in the first quarter, boosted by a rise in exports and household spending, but analysts have warned that any pick-up could be short lived.

© 2010 AFP

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