By João Camargo
26 December 2011
Reforms that have been announced include the end of Christmas bonuses, which are equivalent to one month's wages. These so-called bonuses have been undoubtedly necessary for a country that has historically provided the lowest wages in the European Union, but have never been provided to precarious workers. The average income for Portuguese workers is €777/month, and the minimum salary €485/month.
But there is more. The extension of the workday for all workers will be increased by 30 minutes; employers no longer have to provide justification for laying off employees; the reduction of unemployment benefits to 75 percent of their current value; the reduction of the period for pensions; and the cutting of 7 days of holidays, just to name the cuts to labour. Health, education, housing and transport are also taking swingeing cuts. The government now is publishing the extent of the cuts, but resistance is mounting in the streets.
On 24 November there was a successful national general strike, with over 3 million out of a 5 million-strong workforce participating. The employers' tactics to break the strike went from hiring scabs on a massive scale to having special police forces attack the picket lines, particularly those on train and bus services. The resistance was fierce and the strike held on almost all lines.
During the afternoon there was a massive protest in Lisbon, as well as in Porto, where unions joined the movement on the streets. In Lisbon the protest headed towards parliament. There, we were able to observe the most blatant police infiltration – agent provocateurs attacked the fences in front of parliament, removed them, and then started confronting other police in uniform.
There were seven arrests, but fortunately the gathering of photographic and video footage that unequivocally showed undercover police provocateurs was useful in publicly exposing the attempt to criminalise the protest and the strike. It was an episode that opened many eyes to the importance of what social movements of resistance are actually doing. No political or criminal consequences came out of the incident, but public exposure of the case was beneficial for the struggle, as both the minister responsible and the police came under fire for their illegal actions.
The 15th of October Platform, formed to call the international protest of that date and bringing together over 40 social movements, continues to work together and has recently, in the wake of the last general strike, called another protest to take place on 21 January. Mobilising for that protest has already begun, with the targeting of the Ministry of Finance and the support of many international actions.
Other mobilising initiatives are currently taking place in Portugal, namely the launch of the citizen's audit on public debt. On 17 December the Lisbon Convention was launched. The Convention had invited Eric Toussaint (Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt, Citizen's Audit in multiple countries), Costas Lapavitsas (Greek Citizen's Audit on Public Debt) and Maria Lúcia Fattorelli (Brazilian Citizen's Audit on Public Debt, Equador Citizen's Audit on Public Debt).
The technical group presented a preliminary analysis of the Portuguese public debt, analysing it as a whole and pointing out particular aspects of indebtedness – namely the nationalisation of private banks, the establishment of public-private partnerships, the transfer of private debt onto the public sector and the usury of interest rates on national and international banking loans. A commission of 44 people was elected at the Convention, as well as the political resolution that guides it. The Lisbon Convention has gathered many forces from the Portuguese left and is expected to produce results soon.
But the most outrageous development since the austerity drive is the appeal by the government to Portuguese youth and graduates to emigrate. The Youth Secretary of State, the prime minister and the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs have repeatedly made this appeal publicly. It has led to a perception of a government unable to carry out its basic obligations to the population and it has produced the lowest popular rating of the government for decades.
The next struggle will be against the massive privatisation programme. The government's plan is to sell every last public company in all sectors at bargain prices to Portuguese and international capitalists with the usual excuse of having to pay the public debt. The first stage of this process was the selling of the state's shares in the only electrical company in the country – EDP – not to a private company, but to the state-owned Three Gorges Chinese electrical company. Sovereignty is now but a pale mirage.
Tough times ahead for Portugal. But the movement resisting austerity does not waver.