Spain faces further protests over retirement age reform


SPANISH prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is facing the first major union protest of his six years in power as tens of thousands of workers take to the streets to protest against his proposal to kick-start the troubled economy by reforming the labour legislation and raising the retirement age from 65 to 67.

Demonstrations took place in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia yesterday, to be followed by other towns and cities across the country throughout the week.

In a joint radio interview, Candido Mendez, leader of the General Workers’ Union (UGT) and Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, head of the Workers’ Commission (CCOO) warned the government of the dangers to social stability if their proposed pension reforms went ahead, and they threatened widespread strikes, even a general strike, unless they reconsidered their plans.

“They are making a grave error. Raising the retirement age goes against workers’ rights,” said Mr Mendez.

The country has been in recession for the past two years, and there is little hope of it emerging this year. For years Spain’s economy was heavily dependent on construction and the real-estate boom. Once the bubble burst, so did the economy.

Half-finished buildings line towns and villages around the country, hundreds of factories have closed, and shops are shuttered.

There are almost four million unemployed, including 40 per cent of young people, many of whom have never been in work.

Officials say that because of the unemployment rate, combined with an ageing population and a subsequent reduction in contributions, there will not be enough to pay pensions in a few years’ time.

Mr Zapatero is under attack from all sides. His popularity rating, and that of his party, has fallen dramatically in recent months.

“We are ready to talk. We are a government that wants to listen and does not govern by decree,” he said. His offer of dialogue has been rejected by the conservative opposition Popular Party unless Mr Zapatero agrees to meet on their terms.

But he has received the support of the employers’ confederation and of Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez, governor of the Bank of Spain, who backed the government’s plans for labour reform, public spending cuts and the raising of the retirement age.