Crisis: Portuguese town, pop. 20,000 and no ambulance

Torre Vedras, symbol of the economic catastrophe

07 September, 20:23

An ambulance in Algarve An ambulance in Algarve

(by Maria Novella Topi) (ANSAmed)- ROME - A blue and yellow ambulance gathering dust in a city hospital parking lot in the town of Torre Vedras, pop. 20,000, has become a symbol of Portugal's economic crisis. The story of the ambulance, as told by Spanish media, is that the cash-strapped city hospital subcontracted the service, but the subcontractor lowered gross wages for the emergency medical team from 21 to 18 euros an hour, without warning. The medical workers struck rather than labor under the new regime, which they called "intolerable," and so the inhabitants of this town in Lisbon province have one less emergency vehicle to rely on.

The hospital ambulance used to work alongside the firefighters' ambulance, which now goes out on call alone. "She goes out alone, without specialists," said local firefighting chief Fernando Barao. "It's a huge risk, especially for cardiac emergencies and for car crash victims, who normally start getting treatment right on the ambulance." The wage cuts were forced on them by recent national agreements, the subcontractor said. Effective August 1, new labor regulations have imposed 5.23% salary cuts, reduction of paid holidays (from 25 to 22), and, in descending order, cuts in overtime, unemployment benefits, and compensation for unfair dismissal. In some cases, Portuguese nurses are now making as little as 4 euros an hour, according to El Pais newspaper, citing the case of Nurse Angela Mendes, who used to take home 700 euros a month, and now clears just 250 euros.

Monitored by every international economic organization, Portugal still falls prey to market vagaries, and boasts wages that are among the lowest in Europe. But the data is not all grim, according to proponents of financial rigor like Finnish Premier Jyrki Katainen, who along with Germany, is a eurozone economic hardliner. "Portugal, Spain and Italy are doing a great job on the restructuring front, thanks to numerous reforms," Katainen has said.

"Portugal's program is ambitious, but realistic, and the markets should take that into account," Italian Premier Mario Monti told visiting Portuguese Prime Minister José Passos Coelho in February. Indeed, just two days ago, the 10-year bond rate fell below 9% for the first time since 2011, to 8.99%. But the outlook remains negative, according to the ratings agencies, while July data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirmed the recession is ongoing. Portugal's sovereign debt will equal 114.5% of GDP in 2012, 120.3% in 2013, according to the OECD.

While some say a single ambulance doesn't tell the whole story, others quote figures showing fewer and fewer Portuguese take the highway to save on tolls, leading to a 30% drop in revenue for restaurants along the nation's thoroughfares. In Torre Vedras, some blame the "gang of thieves" that is pauperizing the country, while others seem resigned: "It's getting worse and worse, we ask less and less from life," Spanish media quoted one citizen as saying. (ANSAmed).