By Gabriel Rubio

MADRID — More than a hundred thousand demonstrators protested across Spain Sunday at labour reforms introduced by the country's conservative government ahead of a general strike called for March 29.

Two of Spain's biggest unions, the UGT and CCOO, called for rallies ahead of the strike to increase pressure on the government to scrap cuts to unemployment payments and moves for a more flexible workforce.

Unions said rallies took place in 60 cities and towns across Spain, including Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville.

They said up to 500,000 demonstrators turned out in Madrid alone, with another 450,000 in Barcelona.

Police put the turnout at 30,000 in Madrid; 17,000 in Barcelona; 15,000 in Seville; 15,000 in Malaga; 9,000 in Grenada; and 5,000 each in Valencia, Cordoba, Almeria and Cadiz.

Waving red flags and shouting anti-government slogans, the demonstrators in Madrid marched to the Puerta de Alcala square for their rally.

Before the speeches started, they held a minute's silence in memory of the victims of the March 11, 2004 bombing of Madrid commuter trains that killed 191 people.

Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, the CCOO's secretary general, told the crowd that the workforce and the government were on a collision course that would have repercussions beyond the general strike.

"If the government doesn't fix this, there will be a fight and it won't end on the 29th," Toxo warned.

The unions argue the reforms will actually lead to more unemployment, as companies find it easier to trim workforces.

"Useless, inefficient and unfair," read one banner hanging from a Madrid bridge.

"I came because I'm convinced neo-liberalism is driving us to disaster," said Madrid protester Antonio Martinez, a retired professor. He carried a placard reading: "Don't let our grand-children be slaves."

The government hopes the reforms will boost job creation and revive the economy. Spain's unemployment rate is the highest in the developed world at nearly 23 percent, with the rate at almost 49 percent for people aged under 25.

Under reforms approved by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government on February 11, maximum severance pay is slashed from 45 days to 33 days salary for each year worked, for a maximum worktime of 24 years.

It also will be easier for companies to opt out of sector-wide or country-wide union collective wage agreements.

"The reform is only going to make it cheaper to fire people and will give more power to the bosses," said government worker Iker Rodriguez, 35.

"It's just going to make things worse."

Rajoy, in addition to the labour reforms, has announced spending cuts of 8.9 billion euros ($11.5 billion) that include a public sector wage freeze, and higher taxes on income, savings and property to bring in 6.3 billion euros).

And he has vowed further measures to slash the bloated public deficit and revive growth in a bid to avoid being dragged back to the centre of the crisis of confidence in eurozone sovereign debt.

He needs to bring the deficit down to the European Union limit of 3.0 percent of output by 2013, as he seeks to convince financial markets that Spain will not need a bailout like Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

The deficit target for this year is 5.8 percent of GDP.

Spain has seen only five general strikes since the country returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved.

Photo from AFP/Josep Lago