Unemployment in debt-ridden Greece hit new record highs in March as government officials wrangled over tough new austerity measures required to tap the country's rescue funds.
The jobless rate increased to 16.2 percent in March from 15.9 percent in February, the country's statistics agency said Wednesday. The total number of Greeks out of work was 811,340, up 40 percent from a year earlier, when the unemployment rate was 11.6 percent.
March's is the highest level of joblessness recorded since the statistics agency began issuing figures in 2004. The government had projected an overall unemployment rate of 14.5 percent for this year in its 2011 budget.
The situation is expected to get worse as the government imposes yet more austerity measures to meet targets set out in the agreement for Greece's 110 billion euro ($161 billion) package of rescue loans.
Cutbacks and tax increases taken over the past year have already led to anger among workers and unions, which has been compounded by the realization that the measures did not produce all of the results they were expected to.
Ministers are now tussling over the details of additional cutbacks and tax hikes, including €6.4 billion worth of remedial austerity measures for this year, and a midterm program to run from 2012-2015, two years beyond the current government's mandate.
The government is also pushing through a 50 billion euro privatization program that includes public utilities. Workers at state companies facing privatization have called their first strike against the plan for Thursday. Joined by much of the state sector in work stoppages, the strike will affect public transport, banks, post offices and the state television and radio stations.
Strikes have affected virtually all sectors at some stage, with workers holding demonstrations or picketing ministry buildings.
On Wednesday, radiology technicians became the latest group to protest, with about 300 gathering outside the Health Ministry in central Athens. The technicians, who held up placards printed on x-ray film, were protesting cuts to extra time off they receive due to their exposure to radiation at work.
Prime Minister George Papandreou is also faced with increasing frustration from within his own Socialist party — and among his ministers — over the new austerity.
Several Socialist lawmakers have criticized the measures, although none have said outright they oppose the plan, due to be voted on in Parliament by the end of this month.
Papandreou was holding a second day of consultations with his party deputies Wednesday before the Cabinet discusses the plan on Thursday and submits it to Parliament.
His finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, came under heavy fire from disgruntled deputies during a marathon meeting Tuesday.
Greek media reported that Vasso Papandreou, head of parliament's financial affairs committee, accused Papaconstantinou of "lacking a plan and taking measures that will be short-lived."
Labor Minister Louka Katseli said some of the proposed measures would be "re-evaluated."
The government also appears shaken by sustained anti-austerity rallies in Greek cities, which climaxed on Sunday with tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in central Athens.
Papandreou suggested after an informal Cabinet meeting on Monday that he was open to holding a referendum on austerity measures, although government spokesman George Petalotis said the following day that there were no immediate plans for such a vote.
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