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Portugal hit by general strike against austerity pain

Public services across Portugal ground to a halt Thursday as unions staged a 24-hour strike against austerity measures agreed by the government in return for an international bailout.

Garbage went uncollected, ports and schools closed, and public transport was disrupted by the country’s second general strike in four months.

But while public services were hard hit, most banks, restaurants and supermarkets in the Portuguese capital remained open and the strike appeared to have fewer participants than other recent work stoppages.

Portugal’s biggest union — the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) — called the strike in February to oppose changes to labour laws that make it easier to fire workers, reduce holidays and cut layoff compensation, moves the government says will revive the economy.

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

Unlike the two previous general strikes in November 2011 and November 2010, Thursday’s action did not have the backing of Portugal’s second-biggest union, the historically more moderate General Workers Union (UGT), which reached an agreement with the government over the labour law reforms.

The CGTP did not give participation figures for the strike but the union’s secretary general Armenio Carlos blamed “financial difficulties”, with many workers unable to afford taking a day off work, and “intimidation in workplaces” for preventing many people from taking part.

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

The majority of ports, including in Lisbon and Viana do Castelo in the north, were closed while garbage collection was halted across the country, according to the CGTP.

Hundreds of schools closed their doors throughout the country, according to the Fenprof teachers’ union.

Government spokesman Luis Marques Guedes said the strike “won’t help solve the country’s problems.”

“We have the feeling that the overwhelming majority of Portuguese feel the same way,” he added.

Demonstrations and rallies were held in 38 cities and towns across the country, including Lisbon, Oporto and Coimbra.

Much of the strike passed peacefully, but a skirmish broke out between police and young activists who had organised their own march, said an AFP photographer who said she was roughed up by police.

At least one person was arrested in Oporto as demonstrators booed Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho during a visit to the northern city’s university.

“The choice of some (to strike) can’t hide the sacrifices and efforts many others are making to strengthen the country,” Coelho said.

Thousands of protesters, many waving red and white union flags, marched in the capital under a sunny sky from the central Rossio square to parliament. They chanted “IMF out!” and “Enough sacrifices”

“Since I was little, I have heard that we must tighten our belts, but there have been no more holes in my belt for a long time now,” said 33-year-old garbage collector Helder Eduardo taking part in the march.

Lisbon is locked into a three-year programme of debt-cutting measures and economic reforms in return for a 78-billion-euro ($103 billion) rescue package from the EU and International Monetary Fund agreed 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 the country, like fellow eurozone member Greece, will need a second bailout — which the government has strongly denied.

Portugal’s centre-right coalition government is racing to implement the bailout terms while grappling with the worst recession since its return to democracy in 1974 after decades of dictatorship.

The Portuguese economy is expected to contract by 3.3 percent this year, after shrinking 1.6 percent in 2011, and unemployment is set to rise to a record 14.5 percent.

Portugal has vowed to limit its public deficit to 4.5 percent of gross domestic product this year and to within the EU limit of 3.0 percent in 2013.