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 MADRID: Tens of thousands of people, many waving red and white union flags, protested across Spain on Sunday against sweeping labour market reforms that make it easier to slash pay and lay off workers.

Spain's two biggest unions, the CCOO and UGT, led protests in 57 cities against the reforms which Spain's new conservative government argues are needed to slash a jobless rate of 22.85 percent, the highest in the developed world.

The two largest protests were held in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's second city. They drew hundreds thousands of thousands of demonstrators, according to AFP reporters at the scene.

Union officials said 500,000 people hit the streets in Madrid, 400,000 in Barcelona, 150,000 in Valencia and 50,000 in Seville.

Police offered far lower participation figures. They said 50,000 people turned out in Madrid, 30,000 in Barcelona, 25,000 in Valencia and 5,000 in Seville.

In the Spanish capital, protesters marched under sunny skies behind a large banner that read "No to the unfair, inefficient and useless reform".

The crowd chanted "strike! strike! strike!" as it made its way from Neptune Square near the Prado Musuem to the central Sol Square.

"We have to take action. They start like this and then they will continue to eliminate rights," said 44-year-old unemployed construction worker Victor Orgando, who wore a black hat decorated with a red CCOO union sticker.

Among the participants were members of the "indignant" social protest movement that sprang up across Spain before local elections in May and teachers wearing green T-shirts with slogans against education spending cuts.

"It worries me that my generation will have fewer rights than my parents, that we are not going to be able to live as well. I feel like we are taking steps backwards in Spain and the rest of Europe with this type of reform," said 23-year-old engineering student Jordi Alsedo, who was dressed in black.

Many of the protesters said they were motivated by anger over government spending cuts aimed at reining in the public deficit as well as disapproval of the labour market reform.

"I am here because of the labour reforms but also because of the cuts to public services. Education is not an expense, it is our future," said Clemencia Alvarado, a 54-year-old Madrid teacher who wore a green protest T-shirt.

"It angers me that public spending on health and education is criticized so much but not spending on other things like on aid to banks."

Under the labour market reform approved by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government on February 11, maximum severance pay is slashed to 33 days' salary for each year worked from 45 days, going back 24 years at most.

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

The government has made the labour market reform, along with steep spending cuts and a plan to clean up the country's banks, a cornerstone of its efforts to revive the economy.

Rajoy defended the labour reform at a congress of his Popular Party in Seville, saying it was "fair, good for Spain and necessary.

"This is the reform that Spain needs to stop it from being the country in Europe that destroys the most jobs. It puts us on the same level as the most advanced countries in Europe," he added.

Unemployment in Spain has tripled since 2007, when it dropped to a low of 7.95 percent a year before the property bubble burst, laying waste to millions of jobs in the construction sector.

Spain is home to a third of the eurozone's unemployed, according to European Union statistics office Eurostat.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012

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