Spanish civil servants strike over wage cuts

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Hundreds of Spanish civil servants blew horns and chanted protest slogans yesterday outside the finance ministry in Madrid as they took part in a one-day strike to protest against wage cuts aimed at reducing the country's huge deficit.

The stoppage was seen as a first test of strength for unions who are considering calling a general strike if the Socialist government imposes too-severe labour market reforms. It was called after Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, ordered a 5 per cent average wage cut in civil servants' salaries as part of a plan to save €15bn (£12.5bn).

"This government is totally inept," said Alfredo Barrero Sanchez, 55, who said he earns €1,100 (£915) a month. He criticised the government for previously playing down the economic crisis and saying no cutbacks were necessary. "In the end, look what has happened to this country."

Spain's two main unions said the strike was being heeded by some 75 per cent of workers. The government, however, put the figure at 16 per cent.

Spain has some 2.6 million civil servants. Called to strike were workers in government offices, schools and hospitals but not public transport. Observance of agreed minimum services meant most workplaces functioned almost as usual.

In the protest outside Finance Minister Elena Salgado's offices, Pepe Molina, 50, wore a sign that read "I have been robbed of €80. How about you?" "Lowering a person's salary is the worst thing you can do to them," he said. "If Zapatero is not capable of getting us out of this mess he should call early elections."

Mr Zapatero has come under pressure from the EU, the International Monetary Fund and even the US President, Barack Obama, to take bold action to ward off a Greek-style debt crisis. Chiefly, Spain must find a way to rein in its deficit from 11.2 per cent of GDP last year to 9.3 per cent in 2010, and to 3 per cent in 2013.

Today, the government is to unveil its proposed labour reforms to union and business leaders, but the Prime Minister has warned that unless both groups reach agreement, the government will approve the reforms by decree on 16 June.