Greek unions hit back at minumum wage cuts

Associated Press
An employee at the state-run Workers' Housing Organization, OEK, holds a banner in front of riot police during a protest in central Athens, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. Late Tuesday, parliament approved new cuts in public sector pensions and government spending required to secure a second package of international rescue loans, while the Cabinet formally imposed deep cuts to the minimum wage, retroactively to Feb. 14. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's largest unions held protests and a work stoppage Wednesday, as the crisis-hit country's coalition government pressed ahead with wage cuts and other painful austerity measures.

The stoppage disrupted services at tax offices and other public agencies, and a protest was held outside the EU representation building in central Athens.

Greece is in its fifth year of recession and unemployment has roughly doubled since the start of the financial crisis, reaching 21 percent after more than two years of punishing savings reforms.

But the country is still running high deficits and is obliged to adopt a new series of cuts before it can receive funds from a new euro130 billion ($174 billion) bailout package from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

"Workers' rights are being lost constantly," said Nicholas Kioutsoukis, a senior member of Greece's largest union, the GSEE. "We need elections, so that the public can express its will on these issues."

Several hundred people took part in a protest in Syntagma Square outside Parliament, called by the GSEE and other unions as part of Europe-wide anti-austerity protests. The demonstration quickly fizzled out amid heavy rain, which also forced the cancellation of a concert organized by unions in the square.

Parliament late Tuesday approved new cuts in public sector pensions and government spending required to secure the package of international rescue loans, the country's second in two years, while the Cabinet formally imposed deep cuts to the minimum wage.

Doctors at public hospitals and some private practices are also on a 24-hour strike to protest health care spending cuts.

As part of measures approved Tuesday, a 22 percent cut has been imposed on the minimum wage, which currently stands at euro751 ($1,010) per month for private sector workers. For workers under the age of 25 — where unemployment is running at about 50 percent — the minimum wage has been cut by 32 percent.

Greece on Wednesday also formally launched a privatization offer for its Public Gas Corporation, DEPA.

The move is part of an ambitious program to raise euro11 billion ($14.8 billion) by the end of the year as the country seeks to pay down its massive debts.

The government, which holds 65 percent of DEPA, has already held talks on a potential sale with a top official from Russian gas supplier Gazprom Export, who visited Athens this week.

Later, lawmakers are to vote on a new round of cuts that will merge debt-strapped supplementary pension funds — part of a long list of demands made by rescue creditors, who insist the government aggressively sell off or shut down state enterprises.

One of those agencies slated for closure is the Workers' Housing Organization, which assists low-income families with housing placements.

"I have a home loan with subsidies for interest payments from the organization, for which I'm currently paying euro750. If the organization closes and I lose the subsidy, the monthly installment will rise to euro1,200," said Evangelia Diamanti, a worker and beneficiary of a home loan from the agency.

"There is no money when you have a family with teenagers who have extra needs for school. You understand that ... our quality of life drops significantly."

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Theodora Tongas contributed to this report.

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