'Nothing left to hope for': Greek seamen, farmers protest planned pension reforms

TEMPE, Greece -- Greek ferry crews launched a two-day strike Wednesday while hundreds of farmers prepared to block highways to protest unpopular draft pension reforms that will further cut incomes in the austerity-weary country.

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Unions representing practically all sectors of economic activity -- including private and public sector workers, lawyers, doctors, farmers and seamen -- fiercely oppose the reforms proposed by the radical left-led government.

They say the cutbacks demanded by the country's bailout creditors, combined with further tax hikes, will eradicate more than three quarters of annual income for some professional groups, particularly farmers.

Hundreds of farmers drove their tractors towards key road junctions, which they plan to block in coming days.

Convoys of about 800 tractors were heading through snow-covered countryside from the agricultural region of Thessaly in central Greece to Tempe Vale, a vital point on the main highway traversing Greece from north to south.

"The (new) pension system will triple our contributions, and, with the taxes, the state will end up keeping 85 per cent of our income," said farmer Antonis Fasfalis, 45, from the village of Platykambos.

Farmers say the reforms will increase their social security contributions from 6.5 to 27 per cent, while income tax will double -- going from 13 to 26 per cent.

"This year I will pay 4,000 euros ($4,350) in taxes, and next year it will be 10,000 ($10,870) with the new measures," said 60-year-old Constantinos Ougiaros, also from Platykambos.

"There's nothing left to hope for, not even the roadblock protest I'm heading to," he said. "(Authorities) will leave us to tire ourselves out, and then we will leave without having achieved anything."

In the northern town of Komotini, police fired tear gas at farmers who tried to break a cordon and meet the country's agriculture minister.

In the nearby Kilkis region, farmers briefly blocked a highway while hundreds of tractors were parked at the Promahonas border crossing to Bulgaria, which farmers have threatened to close.



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