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Greece backs new pension reforms

Greece's parliament has approved new reforms to the country's struggling pension system, the latest move in a flurry of action required to secure new international rescue loans that will stave off bankruptcy.

MPs voted 213-58 in favour of a law that will merge debt-strapped supplementary pension funds, hours after the crisis-hit country's largest unions held protests and a work stoppage against further wage cuts and other austerity measures passed in recent days.

The stoppage disrupted services at tax offices and other public agencies, and a protest was held outside the EU representation building in central Athens. Doctors at hospitals and some private practices also held a 24-hour strike to protest against health care spending cuts.

Greece is in its fifth year of deep recession and unemployment has roughly doubled since the start of the financial crisis, reaching 21% after more than two years of deeply resented savings reforms.

But the country is still running high budget deficits and is obliged to adopt a new series of cuts before it can receive funds from a new 130 billion euro (£109 billion) bailout package from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

"Workers' rights are being lost constantly," said Nicholas Kioutsoukis, a senior member of Greece's largest union, the GSEE. "We need elections so that the public can express its will on these issues."

Several hundred people took part in a protest in Syntagma Square outside parliament, called by the GSEE and other unions as part of Europe-wide anti-austerity protests. The demonstration quickly fizzled out amid heavy rain, which also led to the cancellation of a concert organised by unions in the square.

Parliament has now approved new cuts in public sector pensions and government spending required to secure the international rescue loan package, the country's second in two years, while the Cabinet formally imposed deep cuts to the minimum wage.

As part of the measures, a 22% cut has been imposed on the minimum monthly wage, which currently stands at 751 euros (£629) for private sector employees. For workers under 25 - where unemployment is running at about 50% - the minimum wage has been cut by 32%.

The interim coalition government also formally launched a privatisation offer for its Public Gas Corporation, DEPA. The move is part of an ambitious programme to raise 11 billion euro (£9.2 billion) by the end of the year as the country seeks to pay down its massive debts.

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