Workers turned out en masse Thursday for the second 24-hour general strike in recent months, called by the General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers (CGTP) against ‘social terrorism’.
Ordinary Portuguese protested against the government’s economically suicidal austerity measures imposed by the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The protests were also held to signal opposition to recently implemented labour ‘reforms’ that allow employers to hire and fire more easily and cut severance pay. Rejected by the CGTP, which represents 727,000 workers, the cuts to pay and employment rights were agreed by the smaller UGT confederation, which has about 500,000 members.
The CGTP rejects the reforms not only because it believes they are deeply unfair but because they will not create growth or jobs, as is claimed. Indeed it believes employers, especially in the current disastrous economic climate, will simply put an additional 100,000 people on the dole in order to maintain profit levels and fat cat salaries.
Also being challenged are higher taxes and cuts to civil servants’ holidays and bonuses.
The Lisbon underground, which carries more than half a million passengers every weekday, was closed. Train, bus and ferry services across the country were few and far between. Long traffic jams built up on roads into key cities, though arrivals and departures at Lisbon airport were not affected.
Some secondary schools sent children home because teachers and auxiliary staff stayed away.
Health services postponed or cancelled medical appointments and government departments shut their doors or were short of staff.
Tens of thousands of trade unionists and their allies rallied in the centre of the capital in the afternoon.
CGTP leader Arménio Carlos said ahead of the action that doing nothing “would be to allow the government to trample all over workers’ rights.”
“We are faced with the problem they created and it is the government who sets the political agenda and has now decided to review the labour legislation in effect for both the public and the private sector.”
“Workers are getting brutally poorer day-by-day, this is a general strike about the rights of workers and the younger generations,” he added.
On November 24, CGTP and UGT joined efforts to stage a general strike, one the biggest in Portugal’s history, with hundreds of thousands of workers taking part in the action.
Last May, Portugal requested a 78 billion-euro ‘rescue’ program agreed with the EU and the IMF, making it the third Eurozone country, after Greece and the Irish Republic, to receive a bailout.
Portugal’s government, seen as a model executor of Troika dictats, has hiked taxes across the board and has slashing spending to reduce its budget deficit as agreed under the bailout.
But the austerity programme is having devastating effects. The Portuguese economy shrank by 1.5 percent in 2011 and official forecasts are for the economy to contract 3.3% this year in what will be the worst recession since the 1970s.
This has helped ensure Portugal’s so-called ‘core’ public deficit nearly tripled in the first two months of this year: spending edged up 3.5% while revenues fell 4.3%.
Earlier this week, finance minister Vitor Gaspar dismissed suggestions that the country will struggle to hit the Troika’s fiscal target. But many economists and money men fear Portugal will follow Greece in requesting a new bailout, if not restructuring its debt.
The social impact of these counter-productive austerity measures is crushing.
Death rates are increasing in part because of because health service cuts.
Poverty rates, already highest in the EU, are rising with 2.7 million living below the poverty line of €434 a month. And there’s growing in-work poverty too, with half a million people (or 20%) under-employed, that is working less than they would like or need.
Furthermore, unemployment is soaring: during the final quarter of 2011 it hit a new record of 14% and the jobless total is expected to rise to 14.5% this year. Wages, meanwhile, are to be cut this year more deeply than any time in the past 25 years.
Not everybody is suffering. The richest 1%, including big shareholders and top executives of the country’s largest companies that made €20.6 billion in profits in 2009-2011, according to CGTP figures, are doing very well thanks.
The strike, called against what the CGTP describes as policies of ‘exploitation and impoverishment’, is expected to disrupt transport and other public services, including schools and hospitals. Some international flights may be cancelled or delayed.
Here is, at a glance, what the strike is about, and some alternatives to the current government’s failing policies.
- More power to employers, reduction in job security, casualisation of labour relations and cuts to workers’ incomes
- Forced, free labour through elimination of holidays which will lead to 98,000 job losses
- 50% cut in overtime pay and elimination of compensatory rest
- Deregulation of working hours providing flexibility for employers, not workers
- Hours banks that will force workers to work up to four hours extra a day and 60 hours a week without increase in pay
- Easing firing rules by widening acceptable reasons for dismissals without just cause and cuts to severance pay
- Destruction of collective agreements that protects workers and their replacement by individual bargaining
- Plans to extend the new ‘flexible’ labour rules to the public sector
- Renegotiation of the public debt (terms, amount and interest) and the period over which the deficit must be reduced
- Policies that promote growth investment and the real economy
- Creation of quality state and public sector employment
- Increase in wages, including national minimum wage
- Increase in pensions and welfare
- Improvement of public services and state social functions guaranteeing the principle of universality and quality
Sale of the century
To meet its obligations to the Troika the government is executing a fire sale of prized state assets. A quarter of electricity grid operator REN has just been sold to China State Grid for €387m. That followed a €2.7bn deal for China Three Gorges to take 21% of the utility company Energias de Portugal. Chinese companies are among the few ready to bid for Portuguese assets. The REN bid, presented jointly with Oman Oil, was the only one left on the table. Even the oil-rich former colony Angola is being courted as Portugal tries to meet a privatisation target of €5bn set when the bailout was agreed. The TAP airline and airport operator ANA are up for sale, along with parts of the postal service, water utilities, state banks, the rail service and the oil company Galp. This week the shipyards were added to the list.