Strike hits hard

Public workers held the latest in a series of strikes over the government’s labour law reforms and recently announced salary freeze last Friday, and hit the Algarve’s health and education sectors hard, closing down some of the region’s schools completely and leaving some hospitals virtually without specialised staff and only able to offer an emergency service.

Union leaders hailed the strike action as a great success. Abel Rebeca, president of the region’s Portuguese Union of Nurses, claimed that 96 per cent of overnight nurses followed the call to strike at Faro Hospital. At the Barlavento Hospital, the figure was 68 per cent and, at Lagos Hospital, it was 83 per cent. Figures for strike support during the day are unknown.

With respect to doctors, the figures varied according to the sector. More than 90 per cent of doctors from the surgical and psychiatric departments are believed to have stayed away from Faro Hospital, but strike adherence among doctors as a whole was estimated to be around 60 per cent. At Barlavento Hospital, about 70 per cent of doctors went on strike, while half the staff at Faro and Tavira health centres and all the staff at São Brás de Alportel’s health centre went on strike.

Children enjoyed an extra long weekend as schools throughout the region closed, particularly in Olhão where not one school opened its doors. The figures for strike adherence were more variable in courts and public offices, but services in the finance departments in Faro, Quarteira, Silves and Albufeira were heavily disrupted. And airport management company ANA advised any passengers planning to fly on Friday to call their airline, before heading to the airport, to ensure that their flight had not been affected by striking border control officers. But a spokesman revealed that Faro Airport was unaffected by the strike action and reported no unusual delays. Police officers, who are not able to strike by law, also held a demonstration on Friday to protest at the wage freeze and at alleged government under-funding of the security forces.

Wage freeze fury:

Manuel Carvalho da Silva, president of the country’s largest union, CGTP, claims that the action was “a fight against the unfair salary proposal which is a provocation to workers”. Da Silva was referring to the recently extended wage freeze, imposed on all but the lowest paid civil servants for the second consecutive year. Around 300,000 state workers have been affected by the freeze, and most are extremely unhappy, claiming that they are shouldering the brunt of government efforts to ensure that Portugal’s budget deficit stays below the three per cent limit imposed on euro currency nations.

Finance Minister Manuela Ferreira Leite remains unrepentant about the unpopular move. “The country is facing a serious budget crisis,” she said. “As a result, the margin for wage increases is low and the choice was to give all public workers an almost insignificant pay rise, or direct available funds to more significant rises to public workers who earn less.” In practice, this means that only workers earning less than 1,000 euros will get the two per cent increase on offer. Around 45 per cent of public workers will not have their wages increased.

Legal workers walk out:

In another development, judicial court workers on short-term contracts were also set to strike this week. Permanent workers were due to join them later, in a move forecast to jeopardise the functioning of courts throughout the country. The 600 workers with short-term contracts are court clerks and assistants who have been in what is described as “a precarious situation” for the last three years. Last week, the Ministry for Justice assured the workers that their positions would be guaranteed, once appropriate amendments had been made to the relevant legislation predicted for the end of March. Minister for Justice Celeste Cardona said the decision offered “unequivocal proof” that the government aims to integrate the workers into the permanent staff. But a spokesman for the Union of Judicial Workers challenged the government’s intentions, accusing it of offering “excuse after excuse” and failing to address workers’ insecurities. The union’s leader, Fernando Jorge, forecast strong support for the strike. Permanently employed court workers are joining the strike for pay-related reasons and out of solidarity with their colleagues. They also claim they are being forced to shoulder an excessive workload because 1,300 job vacancies in the service remain unfilled.