LJUBLJANA Some 30,000 workers, pensioners and students from all over Slovenia demonstrated in the centre of Ljubljana on Saturday for a higher minimum wage and against a rise in the retirement age.
Trade unions organised the gathering to back their demand for a 31 percent rise in the minimum wage to 600 euros ($900) and the scrapping of a government plan to raise the retirement age to 65.
At present men can retire at 58 and women at 56 in Slovenia.
Despite the threat of lay-offs, "we will continue to demand that the minimum wage be raised to 600 euros," Davorka Pregl, a public sector trade union representative, told the crowd.
"We demand that the government scrap its pension reform plans," Pregl added, winning cheers from the crowd, many of whom waved red flags and wore red raincoats carrying the slogans "For higher wages" and "For social Slovenia".
Slovenia, the richest of the European ex-communist states, declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, joined the European Union in 2004 and in 2007 became the first former communist state to adopt the euro.
Before the recession Slovenia was the fastest growing member of the euro zone, but it has been badly hit by the global crisis because of its dependence on exports, resulting in a significant increase in labour unrest.
The economy is expected to shrink by 7.3 percent this year and to stage a modest recovery in 2010. But the number of unemployed is expected to continue to rise throughout next year from 9.4 percent at present.
"I'm here because our salaries cover nothing but our basic needs, while managers' wages are much too high," administrator Jasmina Ruznik, 33, told Reuters. "I'm also strongly against the rise in the retirement age and I think pensions are too small."
Retired accountant Ivana Pisp told Reuters she had found it hard to make ends meet on her modest pension. After Slovenia adopted the euro, "everything became more expensive while our pensions remained more or less the same," said Pisp, 75.
Centre-left Prime Minister Borut Pahor said this week that an immediate rise in the minimum wage would endanger Slovenia's competitiveness and result in job cuts, while the retirement age had to be raised to keep the pension system sustainable.
"... if labour costs are too high, employers will have to fire people or move production elsewhere," Pahor said. "We are ready to negotiate ..."
The Chamber of Commerce and Industry says that raising the minimum wage in line with union demands would endanger 74,000 jobs in the tiny Alpine state with 2 million citizens.
(Reporting by Marja Novak; editing by Tim Pearce)