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Spanish report Spanish report
by Euro Reporter
2011-05-21 09:01:34
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Spain protesters defy ban to remain in Madrid square

Tens of thousands of Spanish protesters have defied a government ban and camped out overnight in a square in the capital, Madrid. The protesters are angry with the government's economic policies and have occupied the square for the past week. Spain's electoral commission had ordered them to leave ahead of local elections on Sunday.

But as the ban came into effect at midnight, the crowds started cheering and police did not move in.  The protest began six days ago in Madrid's Puerta del Sol as a spontaneous sit-in by young Spaniards frustrated at 45% youth unemployment. The crowd has grown to some 25,000 in the capital and has spread to cities across the country. Hundreds have camped out each night in Madrid. This should make the political classes aware that something is not right”

They are demanding jobs, better living standards, a fairer system of democracy and changes to the Socialist government's austerity plans. "They want to leave us without public health, without public education, half of our youth is unemployed, they have risen the age of our retirement as well," said protester Natividad Garcia. "This is an absolute attack on what little state welfare we had."

Another protester said she was taking part because she had no employment prospects despite having a degree. "This should make the political classes aware that something is not right," said 25-year old Inma Moreno. Many of the participants have drawn parallels between their actions and the pro-democracy protests in central Cairo that revolutionised Egypt.


Work but no pay

Charo Garcia scrubs toilets for a living and used to do it with a smile. She sweeps, mops and does other dirty work at a public high school, proud to create a better atmosphere for rowdy teens to learn. "I clean as if they were my own," said Garcia, who has a 15-year-old son. There's one problem: Garcia has not been paid for four months. Garcia's plight is shared across Spain: Legions of blue-collar workers, from gardeners to bricklayers, are working for months without pay as employers struggle to stay afloat in an economy shaking off recession, saddled with colossal debts, and with slim prospects for any major improvement soon.

People like Garcia are caught in a trap: If they quit rather than wait to be laid off, they lose entitlement to unemployment benefits. And if they do bail out, there's a monster awaiting them - a 21 percent jobless rate. "There are a lot of people getting up in the morning and going to work and not getting paid," said Gayle Allard, a labor market expert at IE Business School in Madrid.

It's a phenomenon seen in Eastern Europe as well, with workers in countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia waiting months, in some cases years, for a paycheck from cash-strapped employers. But Spain is one of Europe's richest countries, one with recent memories of a giddy economic boom - so the sight of workers toiling without pay will come as a deeper shock. Experts say there's no way to tell how many Spaniards are in such straits. But they say the number is significant and could rise after local elections this month, when debt-ravaged local governments are expected to reveal even bigger budget woes. Thousands of small and midsize companies that employ people like Garcia rely on these governments for contracting work.

Jose Juan Villagran, a gardener who calls himself a "tree doctor," staged a weeklong sit-in last month outside the Town Hall in Aranjuez, south of Madrid, to press for payment of 116,000 Euros ($165,000) he said he was owed for pruning and other services from his company, which employs five men other than himself. The Town Hall did not dispute the figure but said it simply lacked the money to pay, said Villagran, whose crew recently went two months without a paycheck. He had to lay off one worker. Aranjuez's Town Hall would not make anyone available for comment. The Platform Against Late Payment, a Barcelona-based pressure group, estimates at least a half million businesses have closed in Spain during the crisis because they could not survive payment delays.


Reforms must continue

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the continuing youth protests across the country are "understandable" and a consequence of high unemployment, but he vowed to continue the overhauls to fix the country's ailing economy. Speaking in an interview with Cadena Ser radio station, Mr. Zapatero noted that the protests have been absolutely peaceful so far, but he said the government will act "smartly" to ensure local elections Sunday aren't affected by the rallies.

Spain's electoral authority Thursday banned planned protests for Saturday and Sunday, fearing they could interfere with the election. The organizers of the rallies, who have been calling for the reform of Spain's political system and economy, have rejected the ban and said they hope to see an increase in the number of protesters over the weekend.  The movement has gathered pace, particularly after thousands of young Spaniards, mostly unemployed, filled public squares Wednesday night in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. In downtown Madrid, around 200 people have remained in a tent city since Sunday, demanding greater democracy and an end to the austerity measures introduced by the government to address the country's economic stagnation.

Mr. Zapatero said Spain must stick to its austerity measures, while maintaining social policies to help those most affected by the crisis. He also said that increasing Spain's productivity and competitiveness remains of critical importance. Asked about the appointment of new head for the International Monetary Fund, Mr. Zapatero said that Spain is in favor of a European candidate.

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