Greeks strike against austerity before budget vote, bailout review

Parliament will vote Saturday on tax hikes, spending cuts

ATHENS (Reuters) — Greeks went on strike on Thursday to protest against planned labour reforms and painful austerity cuts demanded by European Union and International Monetary Fund lenders as part of a crucial bailout review.

Passenger ships remained docked at ports, city transport was disrupted and local administration offices shut down as workers joined the 24-hour nationwide walkout called by the country's largest private and public sector unions, GSEE and ADEDY.

"The burden we carry is already unbearable," the GSEE said in a statement, calling the demands of lenders "irrational".

About 7,000 workers, pensioners and students marched peacefully in central Athens holding banners reading "We won't compromise!" and "We want jobs." They chanted, "They just want our consent to take us to the bottom!"

Turnout in protests has been low since Greece signed up to a third international bailout in July 2015 after tough negotiations that almost forced it out of the euro zone.

Euro zone finance ministers said on Monday Athens and its lenders needed to speed up the review, which has snagged over labour reforms, including making mass layoffs easier. The international creditors also reject Greece's wish to revive collective bargaining between employers and unions.

Energy reforms and measures to plug a projected fiscal gap in 2018, when Greece's bailout program expires, are also among thorny issues in the review, which may resume next week.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hopes a deal can be reached by the end of the year for Greek bonds to be included in the European Central Bank's bond-buying program by March 2017.

This would help Greece return to markets next year, for the first time since 2014, and eventually reduce its dependence on bailout loans. Athens has rejected creditor demands for more austerity measures beyond 2018.

On Monday, the euro zone granted Greece short-term debt relief, something hailed as a success by the leftist-led government which has been sagging in polls for months after applying a range of austerity measures agreed with its lenders.

But the news did not impress austerity-hit Greeks, who have lost almost a third of their income since the crisis began in 2009. Thousands have lost their jobs during a severe recession.

"This leftist government was elected for the better, but from what I see ... they are going to take everything including our underwear," said Nikos Spanopoulos, 56, a factory worker.

Greece's unemployment rate dropped to 23.1 per cent in September statistics agency ELSTAT said on Thursday.

In parliament, lawmakers debated more tax hikes and spending cuts as part of next year's budget, which projects the economy growing by 2.7 per cent and attaining a 2 per cent of GDP primary surplus — excluding debt servicing costs.

Parliament is expected to vote on the budget on Saturday.

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