LISBON (Reuters) — Hundreds of schools and hospitals across Portugal were shut or offered minimum services on Friday as public sector workers went on a one-day strike to pressure the minority Socialist government for more wage increases than it has offered so far.
The left-leaning government has reversed some of the austerity measures of the previous administration, trimming taxes and increasing wages and pensions in a bid to boost growth, but also kept up budget discipline and slashed the deficit last year to its lowest mark in more than four decades.
Protests had subsided since their peaks under the previous austerity-minded government as economic growth in the debt-laden country returned after the worst recession since the 1970's ended in 2014.
But wages in the public sector remain low after crisis-time cutbacks, and unions now seek raises back to old wages this year and a proper increase of 2.5 per cent next year. The government has already vowed to raise the minimum monthly salary to 557 euros in 2017 from 530 euros.
Fresh demands for higher wages, overtime pay and promotions in the public sector come a few days after the European Commission on Monday recommended to end the disciplinary process against Portugal for its excessive deficits, which would give the government more freedom in defining its spending policies.
Still, pressure for more public spending may be difficult to heed as the government's plans to cut the gap further to 1.5 per cent of GDP this year from two per cent in 2016 risks being thwarted by an ongoing recapitalisation of state-owned bank CGD.
Ana Avoila, coordinator of the Common Front of Public Sector Unions said some 75 per cent of all workers joined the labour action, while in the healthcare and education sectors the participation approached 90 per cent.
"Hundreds and hundreds of schools are shut," she said.
Also, the Portugues teachers' union, Fenprof, on Friday threatened to stage strikes and protests in June if the government fails to address their demands for a more favourable career progression and retirement, and to combat precarious employment in the sector, its leader Mario Nogueira said.