ATHENS Thousands of Greeks walked off their jobs and marched through central Athens on Wednesday protesting against additional austerity measures being demanded by international lenders in exchange for disbursing scheduled bailout funds.
The strike was called by the country’s main public and private sector unions a day before Greece’s parliament is due to vote on reforms that would help unlock the funds from the 86-billion-euro bailout, the country’s third in seven years.
New austerity attached to the funds release include the 13th cut in pensions since 2010 and a reduction in tax-free allowances on income. They come after years of cuts that for a time threw the country into deep recession.
Unemployment is running at close to one in four and there is a 48 percent jobless rates among the youth.
Pensioners, teachers, doctors and lawyers stopped work while public transport was disrupted throughout the capital Athens. At least 14,000 took to the streets in protest marches, according to initial police estimates.
Protesters held banners reading “No to austerity, yes to debt relief!” and “Bring back the conquered rights that you stole from us!”. They chanted “They talk about losses and gains and we talks about human lives”.
Some expressed anger at the coalition government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose leftist Syriza party one election promising to stop the cuts.
“They told us they would end austerity and tear apart the bailouts,” said Paraskevi Tsouparopoulou, 62. “Instead they brought us disaster.”
Greece has agreed to the further spending cuts to end a logjam in talks with its foreign lenders over its bailout progress.
Once the new measures are approved by Greek lawmakers — as is expected — euro zone finance ministers will then discuss the disbursement of the loans at the next scheduled Eurogroup meeting on May 22.
Athens needs the funds urgently to repay 7.5 billion euro ($8.18 billion) in debt maturing in July.
SAVINGS AND RELIEF
The new cuts are designed to produce savings worth 2 percent of gross domestic product and meet a target for a 3.5 percent of gross domestic product primary surplus – which excludes debt servicing costs.
If it outperforms those goals, it will activate a set of measures offsetting the impact of the additional austerity, including mainly lowering taxes.
Once approved, the Eurogroup has said it will consider some form of debt relief for Greece, which is still struggling under a debt mount amounting to 179 percent of gross domestic product.
When this may happen, however, is in contention between the lenders – the International Monetary Funds and the euro zone.
Greece has needed three multi-billion bailouts since 2010 and additional spending cuts are a contentious issue Tsipras’s leftist-led government, which now trails opponents in polls.
“We have been fooled. We believed in their promises,” said Nikos Moustakas, 71, a retired mechanic who worked for 38 years. “They have lost me as a voter,” he said.
Tsouparopoulou, the pensioner, was waiting in a line for food handouts, a common feature in Greece where thousands have come to rely on charity. She held a bag with a loaf of bread, a packet of pasta and two eggs.
“Any other government would have at least given us a piece of bread.”
(Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)