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General strike against pension reform sweeps Greece

AFP , Thursday 4 Feb 2016
Greece
Demonstrators march during a 24-hour general strike against planned pension reforms in Athens, Greece, February 4, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)
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Thousands of workers marched across Greece Thursday as unions launched a general strike to protest an unpopular pension overhaul that has sparked a major backlash against embattled leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Around 30,000 people joined protests in Athens for the 24-hour industrial action -- the third general strike in as many months -- that has stopped train and ferry services and grounded dozens of flights.

Lawyers, truck drivers and farmers also participated in the walkout and many traders shut down their businesses in support.

"They have massacred my generation. We can no longer get married or have children," said Dina, a 32-year-old underwear shopowner marching in Athens, referring to five years of austerity cuts under Greece's successive economic bailouts.

White-collar staff such as lawyers, notaries, insurers and engineers have joined the protests en masse in action media have dubbed the "necktie movement."

"It's true that the pension system requires reform but this reform cannot make it viable," lawyer Thomas Karachristos told AFP.

Hospitals will operate on an emergency footing, petrol stations will remain closed and taxis have been pulled off the streets.

Greek farmers have formed protest hubs at dozens of locations on national highways, intermittently blocking traffic with tractors over the past two weeks.

On Tuesday, they blocked freight trucks from travelling into Bulgaria and Turkey, causing long lines on the respective borders.

Government 'strong and cohesive'

The strikers are furious at government plans to lower the maximum pension to 2,300 euros ($2,500) per month from 2,700 euros currently and introduce a new minimum guaranteed basic pension of 384 euros.

Tsipras's leftist administration also wants to merge pension funds and increase social security contributions by both employers and staff.

Critics say the new system penalises those who dutifully pay their pension contributions over a lifetime of work and will encourage undeclared labour practises.

But Greece must save 1.8 billion euros from state spending on pensions under a three-year bailout signed with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in July.

The Tsipras government has warned the nation's pension system will soon collapse without the reform, which is expected to be put before parliament for a vote later this month, where the prime minister has only a razor-thin majority.

However, the government has rejected claims that the disputed overhaul has cast doubt over its survival.

The Tspiras government has only a majority of 153 deputies in the 300-seat parliament.

"The government majority (in parliament) is strong and cohesive," government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili said Tuesday.

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