Greeks walk off the job

Three-hour protest against reforms made in exchange for bailout
||Last Updated: 02/01/2011

(Reuters) - Greek civil servants and private sector employees walked off the job for three hours yesterday in Athens in a week of protests against reforms prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a 110 billion-euro bailout.

The stoppage was seen as a prelude for a 24-hour nationwide strike on December 15, which was expected to ground all flights to and from Greece and shut down schools, shops and public services, bringing the country to a standstill.

Workers at state enterprises and media, transport and bank employees rallied outside parliament around midday, as a bill that caps wages at state-run firms and introduces company-level wage bargaining in the private sector was being debated.

Bus drivers, who have been on strike since Monday and refuse to return to work unless the bill is withdrawn, marched through Athens chanting "Thieves, thieves." They will strike until Thursday, causing more traffic jams throughout the capital.

"We'll continue, they can't stop us," said Nikos Kouloumparitsis, head of the bus workers' unions. "This is now a matter of survival, they are cutting our salaries again."

Bank employees also kicked off a 48-hour strike on Tuesday.

The ruling Socialists have a comfortable majority in parliament and the bill is expected to be ratified later in the day. The Socialists still lead in opinion polls although the gap with the opposition Conservatives is narrowing.

The draft law sets a 4,000-euro cap on gross monthly wages at non-listed state firms. Salaries above 1,800 euros a month will be cut by 10 per cent. Top management is excluded from the restrictions.

The new pay cuts will affect about 90 per cent of workers at these companies. They come on top a 15-per cent salary reduction passed earlier this year.

The cash-strapped government announced the law as part of additional budget cuts pledged after it missed its 2010 fiscal targets following weaker than expected tax revenues.

Prime Minister George Papandreou met party leaders on Tuesday in a bid to gather support as he struggles to exit the country's worst debt crisis in decades. But the main, conservative opposition said there was no room for consensus.

"We will not give our consent to a policy that leads to unjust, futile and hopeless sacrifices," said Antonis Samaras, leader of the New Democracy party. "I'm not giving my consent to this policy because then I would be an accomplice."

International lenders have insisted public sector waste must be cut and labour contracts made more flexible to boost competitiveness and secure the economic growth the country needs to repay its debt, and avoid a sovereign default that would shake the euro zone.

But the bailout plan has enraged labour unions which hold Greece's lenders responsible for a prolonged recession and rising unemployment in one of the euro zone's poorest countries.

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