MADRID - Hundreds of thousands of people, many waving red and white union flags, protested across Spain on Sunday against sweeping labour market reforms that make it easier to slash pay and lay off workers.

Spain's two biggest unions, the CCOO and UGT, led protests in 57 cities against the reforms which Spain's new conservative government argues are needed to slash a jobless rate of 22.85 percent, the highest in the developed world. The two largest protests were held in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's second city. They drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, according to AFP reporters at the scene.

Union officials said 500,000 people hit the streets in Madrid, 400,000 in Barcelona, 150,000 in Valencia and 50,000 in Seville.

Police offered far lower participation figures. They said 50,000 people turned out in Madrid, 30,000 in Barcelona, 25,000 in Valencia and 5,000 in Seville. In the Spanish capital, protesters marched under sunny skies behind a large banner that read "No to the unfair, inefficient and useless reform".