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Argentine unions, workers stage rainy pushback against austerity measures

Argentine unions, workers stage rainy pushback against austerity measures
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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine unions, small business owners and activists took to the rain-drenched streets of Buenos Aires on Thursday to protest against austerity measures under President Mauricio Macri, which they blame for amplifying worker hardships and sapping growth.

Thousands of protesters, shepherded by police, marched along roads near the city centre carrying colourful banners with slogans asking for "decent work" and "better salaries." One, alluding to the president's re-election bid in October, said "Bye Macri" in bold red letters.

Protesters, beating drums and blaring horns, marched to Congress as storm clouds and heavy rains swept across the city. Some stopped to block a major highway at one point though there were no reports of clashes or violence.

The march, amid a recent escalation in street protests, highlighted mounting discontent in the recession-hit country with Macri, whose approval rating has tumbled this year.

The centre-right leader has been pushing austerity measures to meet obligations under the $56.3 bailout agreement that Argentina reached with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year. Steep inflation has also hit purchasing power hard.

The IMF-backed reforms, including subsidy cuts that have triggered higher utility rates, have contributed to growing attacks on Macri's government from political rivals, including left-leaning former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and other prominent members of the Peronist opposition party.

Despite some signs of an upturn and an expected bumper grains harvest, Argentina's economy has been weighed down by sky-high interest rates, a weak peso and inflation running at an annual rate of more than 50 percent.

Macri's critics blame his IMF-backed austerity program, designed to balance the budget in part by capping public workforce salaries and cutting health and education programs. But the government and the IMF say government spending reductions and higher taxes are needed to rebalance the economy.

Ordinary Argentines are feeling the pinch in the form of higher utility bills and weak domestic demand. Around a third of the country is now living below the poverty line, while homelessness is rising.

(Reporting by Gabriel Burin and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Tom Brown)

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