AUSTERITY

Portugal’s top court approves extension of civil servants’ working week

Ruling coincides with approval of 2014 state budget Labor leader “stupefied” at decicion which justifies increased workload as being in the public interest

Lisbon / Madrid -
Protestors outside the Portuguese parliament on Tuesday as the 2014 budget was being approved.
Protestors outside the Portuguese parliament on Tuesday as the 2014 budget was being approved. JOSE SENA GOULAO (EFE)

The Portuguese Constitutional Court on Tuesday surprised the country’s opposition parties and labor unions by declaring legal the government’s plan to extend the working week for civil servants.

By a majority, the court ruled in favor of increasing the working week from 35 to 40 hours for the same salary. The measure was proposed by the center-right government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho as part of an austerity plan to meet the deficit-reduction targets it is committed to under the terms of its 78-billion-euro bailout from the IMF and the European Union.

The court said the increase in the working week was acceptable as it “is aimed at guaranteeing significant public interests” and does not breach the Constitution.

The head of the UGT labor union, Carlos Silva, expressed “stupefaction” at the ruling.

The court had already thrown out a number of previous budget measures proposed by the Passos Coelho administration as unconstitutional.

The extension of the working week was included in the draft state budget for 2014, which was approved by the Portuguese parliament on Tuesday.

Now, to have children is synonymous with being poor”

The budget also includes further pay cuts for public sector workers earning over 675 euros a month, up from an initial proposal of 600 euros.

This was the third austerity budget approved by the Passos Coelho administration. The 2012 spending plan cut extra payments to public sector workers as well as general salary downgrades, while the 2013 budget was marked by tax hikes that will remain in place next year.

The vote on the budget took place as thousands of Portuguese protested against the austerity drive outside the parliament building in the center of Lisbon. The ranks of the protesters included many public sector workers, but also pensioners, who have also seen their benefits cut.

Tuesday’s protests were organized by the country’s labor unions and followed a wave of other demonstrations, strikes and stoppages over the past month. A public workers’ strike on November 8 affected hospitals and schools.

During the budget debate, Left Block deputy Catarina Martins claimed the government’s insistence on austerity had undermined the middle classes and provoked a fall in the birth rate. “Now, to have children is synonymous with being poor,” she said.

Finance Minister Maria Luís Albuquerque said the budget measures were necessary to avoid the “catastrophe” of another bailout. Portugal is due to exit the bailout program and return to funding itself in the markets next year.

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