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Parliament approves new austerity measures

Enables government to sack or transfer of public sector workers

New law will put 12,500 public-sector staff, mostly teachers and municipal workers, in a programme that subjects them to involuntary transfers and possible dismissals. It will also pave the way for 15,000 layoffs by the end of next year

A school guard reacts as he sits in front of riot policemen guarding parliament, 17 July 2013 (Kostas Tsironis, AP) A school guard reacts as he sits in front of riot policemen guarding parliament, 17 July 2013 (Kostas Tsironis, AP) MPs narrowly approved a new batch of austerity measures early on Thursday, including thousands of public-sector job cuts and transfers, demanded by the troika to keep bailout loans flowing.

Lawmakers in the 300-seat house backed the cutbacks in an article-by-article vote, with two of the governing coalition's 155 deputies failing to back crucial articles.

One New Democracy MP, Dimitris Kyriazidis, was absent owing to a family bereavement. But veteran Pasok MP, Apostolos Kaklamanis, failed to turn up for the vote even though he had spoken in the chamber earlier.

In addition, Pasok's parliamentary group spokesman, Paris Koukoulopoulos, failed to support the article abolishing the municipal police. 

It was the first major political test for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras since Democratic Left abandoned his coalition government last month.

The new legislation will put 12,500 public-sector staff, mostly teachers and municipal workers, in a programme that subjects them to involuntary transfers and possible dismissals. It will also pave the way for 15,000 layoffs by the end of next year.

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras (L) and Prime minister Antonis Samaras are congratulated by New Democracy MPs, 18 July 2013 (AP) Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras (L) and Prime minister Antonis Samaras are congratulated by New Democracy MPs, 18 July 2013 (AP) City halls across the country have been closed this week, with uncollected rubbish piling up on the streets, and unions held a general strike on Tuesday against the proposed cuts.

"I fully understand the hardship the Greek people are going through during the great crisis," Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said during the debate. "But I am fully convinced that the path we have chosen is correct."

Some 3,000 people protested outside parliament ahead of the vote, chanting anti-austerity slogans in a third straight day of protests.

But the reaction - in the midst of the summer holiday season - was subdued compared to previous, often violent demonstrations that brought tens of thousands into the streets.

The crucial after-midnight vote came hours before a visit to Athens by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, planned amid security measures that main opposition Syriza denounced as "fascist and undemocratic."

The measures include a ban of all demonstrations in the city centre, including Syntagma Square.

On Wednesday, Samaras made a televised statement to announce a sales tax cut for restaurant and catering services from 23% to 13% - the first tax reduction since the crisis started in late 2009.

Samaras is due later on Thursday to meet Schaeuble, who is expected to discuss a programme of German support for small and medium-sized Greek businesses.

Schaeuble, widely resented in Greece as the driving force behind the country's painful cutbacks, said his one-day visit is meant to display confidence in the government's efforts at recovery.

"I can well understand people in Greece - it's just that we have to help Greece get on a better path," he told Germany's ARD television Wednesday evening. "The only thing that will really help people in Greece is achieving better economic development, they are on the right track ... it will continue to pay off."

But public sector staff targeted in the cuts said there was no justification for their treatment.

Sitting on the hot asphalt under an umbrella during a protest on Wednesday, 47-year-old Maria Denida joined other women who travelled from the northern city of Thessaloniki to protest outside parliament, together with many of the country's mayors.

"I've been a school guard for 13 years and suddenly we find out we have no job. They say we'll be suspended. But that means we'll be fired," Denida said, her voice cracking with emotion.

"All of us have kids, unemployed people at home, and bills we can't pay. We were getting €780 a month. And if we lose that, we're finished."

Municipal police officers from around the country rallied through the capital's centre with their motorcycles and patrol cars. The force, whose duties include monitoring street vendors and parking, is due to be disbanded and incorporated into national police after officers are suspended on reduced pay for up to eight months.

"We cannot understand why this is happening," union head Apostolos Kossivas said. "We asked the government if there was any financial gain - they said no. Did we provide a bad service? They said no."

"So we think they just wanted to make up the quota they needed for job cuts, and are proceeding without a plan," Kossivas said.
 

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