Six thousand Bulgarians protest against poverty

SOFIA, Mar 23, 2000 -- (Reuters) More than 6,000 Bulgarians from all over the country marched in central Sofia on Wednesday to demand higher wages and protest against rising unemployment.

The protesters waved trade union flags and carried banners reading "We want jobs, we want bread", "Unemployment, poverty, corruption - how much longer?" and "We have already hit bottom...or have we?".

Students dressed in black joined the march saying they were "mourning the plight of impoverished Bulgaria".

At a rally held at the end of the march the organisers, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria, read an appeal to the government demanding more jobs and wage increases.

"We want negotiations with the government on reducing layoffs and poverty. But if talks do not produce results, we will be forced to stage more protests," the confederation's leader Zhelyazko Hristov told the rally.

But he told Reuters this did not mean strikes.

The march, a response to by record unemployment of 17 percent, is the first major protest since the reformist government of the centre-right Union of Democratic Forces took office in mid-1997.

Union experts say the true unemployment rate is more like 25 percent. The government attributes high unemployment to the restructuring of major industries, most of which has taken place in the last two years.

A failure to provide social safety nets as part of long-delayed welfare reforms has left more than one third of Bulgarians living near the breadline, according to World Bank figures.

Original article