MADRID — Spanish civil servants, many dressed in mourning black, took to the streets Friday in angry protest as the government approved new sweeping austerity measures that include wage cuts and tax increases for a country struggling under a recession and an unemployment rate of near 25 percent.
Spain is under pressure to get its public finances on track amid concerns in the markets over the state of the country's banks and the wider economy.
"Spain is going through one of its most dramatic moments," Deputy Prime Minister Saenz de Santamaria said after a Cabinet meeting at which sales tax hikes and spending cuts were approved.
Admitting that the austerity measures were "neither simple, nor easy, nor popular," she said the government would try to enact the measures "with the maximum justice and equity."
The conservative government has come under mounting criticism that the austerity measures are hitting the middle and working classes the hardest.
"The government should go after the big companies that don't pay tax and bankers that have committed fraud and have run this country to the ground," said Pablo Gonzalez, 52, who works for the Madrid regional government. "Instead, we have to pay."
The aim of the latest package of measures is to chop $79 billion off the budget deficit through 2015, the biggest deficit-reduction plan in recent Spanish history.
As dusk fell, several hundred mainly young protesters marched in Madrid, stopping to jeer outside the headquarters of the ruling conservative and opposition Socialist parties before heading to the parliament.
Though the hike in sales taxes, which risks slowing consumption and worsening Spain's recession, will take effect Sept. 1, other reforms will be left for later in the year, including a plan to speed up the gradual raising of the retirement age from to 65 to 67.
The austerity is prompting widespread opposition, not least from civil servants. In Madrid, several hundred government workers blocked traffic briefly in different parts of the city. In Valencia, several hundred Justice Ministry workers shouted "hands up, this is a stick-up" at a protest.
The civil servants — whose wages were cut 5 percent on average in 2010 in the first round of austerity cuts — are usually paid 14 times a year. The government is now axing an extra payment made just before Christmas.