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Portugal workers protest austerity

Workers at the Lisbon metro went on strike Thursday and businesses came to a standstill across Portugal to protest government austerity measures aimed at slashing the deficit and meeting the terms of an international bailout.

“We anticipate strong participation by workers who will also show their availability for a more general struggle,” said Armenio Carlos, the secretary general of the country’s largest trade union, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP), which organised the protest.

The metro system in the Portuguese capital closed late on Wednesday and will only re-open on Friday morning, forcing thousands of commuters to find an alternative way to get to work or school.

Walkouts were staged as several companies and unions organised assemblies at workplaces during business hours which slowed activity at offices and factories.

The union chose Thursday because it corresponds with the religious feast of Corpus Christi, one of four public holidays the government decided to scrap this year in an effort to improve competitiveness and boost economic activity.

“Workers are fighting against the theft of holidays and non-paid work,” said Carlos.

The CGTP, which is close to the Communist Party, and the more moderate General Union of Workers (UGT) are also discussing staging a general strike next month after organising two last year.

Portugal’s economy, which has been propped up since May 2011 by a bailout package from the European Union and International Monetary Fund of 78 billion euros ($100 billion), is expected to contract 2.3 percent by the end of the year. Unemployment is forecast to climb to a record 18.2 percent.

Under the terms of the bailout agreement, Portugal has had to make sharp spending cuts sparking popular discontent.

Unlike in neighbouring Spain or in Greece, where strikes and protests have sometimes been marred by violence, demonstrations in Portugal have so far been peaceful.

But charities and unions warn the welfare safety net is being stretched to the breaking point, threatening the social stability which has marked Portugal’s response to the economic downturn up until now.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s centre-right government has tried to calm rising public anger by introducing proposals aimed at encouraging growth, such as a tax credit for businesses.

It predicts the economy will grow by 0.6 percent next year.

Portugal agreed with lenders to bring its public deficit to 5.5 percent of output this year, four percent in 2014 and 2.5 percent in 2015, under the EU’s ceiling of 3.0 percent.

But with the economy contracting, many experts argue these targets will be difficult to meet.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts Portugal’s public deficit will come in at 6.4 percent this year and 5.6 percent next year.

Passos Coelho has insisted that his government’s public deficit targets are viable, but he recently admitted that Lisbon could ask the troika for another bailout.

Former Socialist prime minister Mario Soares, 89, will host a conference on Thursday night in Lisbon to discuss how to “free Portugal from austerity” which will be attended by representatives from all Portugal’s generally very divided leftist parties.

“Everyone is desperate. Not just the people. The people, bankers, businessmen,” he said during an interview with news radio TSF.