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Strikes hit Greece, Portugal over eurozone austerity cuts

Greek workers held a general strike and Portuguese rail employees disrupted train traffic on Wednesday in renewed protests over austerity measures cutting painfully into wages.

The stoppages underlined the public anger in peripheral EU countries over budget belt-tightening imposed to rein in public debt and stabilise the eurozone.

The general strike in Greece occurred as EU and IMF auditors worked in Athens to finalise the recession-hit country’s next budget, looking to eliminate a fiscal shortfall of two billion euros ($2.7 billion), most likely through even more unpopular cuts.

The report from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank is required for Greece to obtain a vital one-billion-euro loan instalment.

But many Greeks say swingeing cuts have already pushed them to the brink.

Wednesday’s strike, the latest this year organised by the country’s main unions, shut down the civil service as well as train and ferry services nationwide.

Hospitals operated on reduced staff and several flights were cancelled because of work stoppages by civil aviation staff.

Greek journalists also staged a five-hour walkout.

The biggest union, GSEE, which represents the private sector, said workers were “carrying on their struggle against pointless austerity policies”.

“The government and (creditors) are talking about fiscal gaps and deficits. But they don’t say that the big gap is in the social state and society,” GSEE chairman Yiannis Panagopoulos said in a statement.

“We will not stop. Our only hope lies in struggle,” Panagopoulos said.

Defying pouring rain, some 4,000 members of the Communist-affiliated union PAME marched to central Syntagma square in Athens, according to a police count.

Another 1,000 protesters gathered outside the GSEE offices. But the main demonstration was scrapped due to the weather.

Similar protests were held in Greece’s second city Thessaloniki, with 10,000 demonstrators taking part, according to police.

Greece lurched into recession when the global economic crisis hit in 2008, and by 2010 rising borrowing costs on its massive debt forced Athens to seek a bailout from the EU and International Monetary Fund.

Two bailouts, worth up to 240 billion euros plus about 100 billion euros in a debt write-off, helped stave off a feared break-up of the euro and kept the Greek state financially afloat.

However they came at a stiff cost to Greeks. In order to tap the bailout loans the Greek government had to raise taxes while cutting benefits, wages, and jobs.

Since 2008, the unemployment rate has tripled to 27.6 percent while the economy has contracted by 22 percent.

On Tuesday, protestors heckled the EU-IMF auditors outside the finance ministry and a man was briefly detained after throwing coins at the car of the IMF mission’s chief.

A number of government deputies have protested plans to increase tax on agricultural land, a move that has put pressure on Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

“This is a negotiation… we should remove the notion that this is a war,” Samaras said in a televised interview late on Monday.

Beggar’s life

The anger over austerity was also seen in Portugal, where a 24-hour strike by rail workers over planned pay cuts left fewer than a third of trains running.

The stoppage was “a clear response by the workers” to a proposal in the 2014 budget to slice “30 to 40 percent” from wages, said the head of the Federation of Transport and Communication Unions, Abilio Carvalho.

An anti-austerity demonstration is scheduled to take place in Lisbon on Saturday.

In the Romanian capital Bucharest, 5,000 teachers staged a march protesting their “beggar’s life” of low pay.

Even though Romania does not use the euro, it suffered under the 2009 recession and concluded a 20-billion-euro bailout deal with the IMF and the EU in exchange for strict austerity measures.

“The worst thing is that the young and competent people are leaving Romania. They can’t live with the wages here now,” one protesting teacher, Charlotte Divoiu, a 56-year-old earning 400 euros a month, told AFP.