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Strike brings Portuguese services to a halt

Union group calls for general strike against austerity measuresA 24-hour union strike against austerity measures has brought public services to a stand-still in Portugal.

Thursday's strike, the second in four months, is in protest against the broad cost-cutting measures agreed to by the government of President Aníbal Cavaco Silva in return for an international bailout of the recession-hit economy.

"The participation rate is strong in the public transport sector, among garbage collectors and the health sector,"  Armenio Carlos, secretary general of the Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP), the group organising the strike, told reporters on Thursday.

The union is opposed to government austerity measures such as the elimination of public employees' Christmas and vacation bonuses - each roughly equivalent to a month's pay - in an effort to rein in the public deficit.

Public transportation in the capital, Lisbon, and Oporto - Portugal's second-largest city - were closed, forcing tens of thousands of commuters to find an alternative way to get to work or school. The majority of ports, including those in Lisbon and Viana do Castelo in the north, were also closed.

The Lisbon airport however, has remained open.

On the streets, garbage went uncollected in several cities including Lisbon and its suburbs.

In the southern city of Evora, famed for its Roman ruins, garbage lined the streets. "Dozens" of schools were shut according to Carlos, head of the nation's largest union.

Some taxis in Lisbon sported black ribbons in solidarity with the strikers.

While public services were widely affected, however, most banks, restaurants, supermarkets and pharmacies in the Portuguese capital remained open.

Widespread protests planned

"The strike is useless and it hurts the country," said Pedro, a waiter in his thirties at a Lisbon cafe, adding business was not down.

Camilo Lourenco, a financial commentator, is also sceptical of the effectiveness of the strike. Lourenco said that in times of economic downturn, "people are willing to stick to their jobs and get whatever salaries they can other than being unemployed". She cited a sense of fear in a country where 300,000 people receive food aid from charitable organisations every day.

Demonstrations and rallies are also planned for 38 cities and towns across the country, including Lisbon, Evora and Coimbra.

The CGTP, which organised the protests, put up posters and banners in recent days across Lisbon urging workers to take part in the strike.

The 600,000 strong group, with connections to the nation's Communist party, organised a similar strike in February to protest against a reform of the labour code making it easier to hire and fire workers.

Unlike the last general strike held in November, Thursday's action lacked the backing of the eurozone nation's second-biggest union, the historically more moderate General Workers Union (UGT), which reached an agreement with the government over the labour law reforms.

Lisbon is locked into a three-year programme of debt-reduction measures and economic reforms in return for a 78-billion-euro ($103 billion) financial rescue package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed in May 2011.

Portugal was the third EU country after Greece and Ireland to receive such a bailout.

The strike comes amid rising concern among analysts and investors that the country, like its fellow eurozone member Greece, will need a second bailout. The government strongly denies that such an intervention would be needed.

Portugal's centre-right coalition government is racing to implement the bailout terms while grappling with the worst recession since its return to democracy in 1974, after decades under dictatorship.

Portugal has vowed to limit its public deficit to 4.5 per cent of its gross domestic product this year and to within the EU's limit of three per cent in 2013.

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