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Portugal hit by general strike against austerity measures

Published on 22/03/2012

Portugal's major cities ground to a halt Thursday as unions began a 24-hour strike against austerity measures agreed by the government in return for an international bailout.

The metros in Lisbon and Oporto, Portugal’s second-largest city, were closed because of the strike, forcing tens of thousands of commuters to find an alternative way to get to work or school.

The ferry service linking the two sides of the Tagus river in the Portuguese capital was also suspended while buses and commuter trains in Lisbon were operating only minimum services.

Portugal’s airport operator ANA urged passengers to check on the status of their flights before heading to the airport, but air traffic controllers were not taking part in the strike.

The country’s biggest union — the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) — called the strike in February to protest against a reform of the labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire workers.

It is also angry over government austerity measures such as the elimination of public employees’ Christmas and vacation bonuses — each roughly equivalent to a month’s pay — among measures to rein in the public deficit.

Unlike the last general strike held in Portugal in November 2011, Thursday’s strike does not have the backing of Portugal’s second-biggest union, the historically more moderate General Worker’s Union (UGT), which reached an agreement with the government over the labour law reforms.

Portugal is locked into a three-year programme of debt-reduction measures and economic reforms in return for a 78 billion euro ($103 billion) financial rescue package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The centre-right coalition government, which has a majority in parliament, and the main opposition Socialist Party gave their blessing to the bailout conditions in May 2011.

Portugal was the third EU country after Greece and Ireland to receive such a bailout.

The strike comes amid rising concern among analysts and investors that Portugal, like its fellow eurozone member Greece, will need a second bailout — which the government has strongly denied.