MADRID  - Protesters from across Spain descended on Madrid Saturday for a rally against government austerity measures aimed at slashing the public deficit and avoiding the need for a financial bailout.
The demonstrators assembled in groups along the central streets of the Spanish capital ahead of the rally which gets underway at noon at the Plaza Colon square and is expected to draw tens of thousands of people.
Many were wearing different coloured T-shirts depending on their profession: teachers wore green; health care workers were in white; public administration workers in black.
Over 1,000 buses ferried people to Madrid for the protest, which was organised by Spain’s two leading trade unions, CCOO and UGT, along with roughly 150 smaller organisations.
“They have cut salaries, raised taxes, we have gone backwards 20 or 30 years,” said 44-year-old fireman Roberto Saldana who wore a red helmet and who travelled all night by bus from the southern city of Huleva to take part in the rally.
In July, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government eliminated public workers’ annual Christmas bonus, equivalent to a seven-percent reduction in annual pay, as part of austerity measures worth 102 billion euros ($126.5 billion) to be put in place by 2014 to reduce Spain’s public deficit.
The spending cuts have led to reductions in staffing levels at schools and hospitals and they follow a cut in public workers’ salaries of an average of five percent in 2010.
Rafael Navas, a 52-year-old receptionist at a hotel in Cordoba, said the austerity measures were hurting the tourism sector as people cut back on spending.
“The austerity measures are very bad for the leisure sector, people don’t have money and consumption has dropped greatly,” said Navas who left Cordoba at 4 am by bus along with several co-workers to attend the rally.
“A protest like this, with people from across the country, has a greater impact than several protests in provincial capitals,”he added.
The last major march against government austerity measures was on July 19 when hundreds of thousands of people marched through Madrid. Protests were held in over 80 Spanish cities that day. Demonstration organisers argue the government austerity measures are hitting mainly the middle and lower classes and spare the wealthy and large companies. They want the austerity measures to be put to a referendum.
UGT head Candido Mendez said Spanish people should be given the chance “to clearly say whether they are in agreement or not” with the spending cuts.
“It is not inevitable that that the markets govern us, that Spain gets a bailout for its economy,” he added.
The government hopes the spending cuts it has put in place will prevent Spain from needing a multi-billion-euro bailout like the ones received by Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which come with detailed conditions and regular inspections.
But with Spain facing a worsening recession, high borrowing costs and looming debt repayments including about 30 billion euros ($38 billion) in October, investors believe the country will soon seek a full-blown bailout.
Madrid has already accepted a eurozone rescue loan of up to 100 billion euros to save its banks, still reeling from a 2008 property market crash.
The government is committed to lowering Spain’s deficit to 6.3 percent of output this year from 8.9 percent in 2011, the third-largest in the eurozone.