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Old grievances haunt Portugal’s vote: low wages, stagnation

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Old grievances haunt Portugal’s vote: low wages, stagnation

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LISBON, Portugal — Filipe Orfao, a 37-year-old emergency room nurse in Lisbon, is voicing grievances that have long been heard in Portugal.

Politicians “often talk about us”, says Orfao in front of Santa Maria Hospital in Lisbon, the largest hospital in Portugal. “But in practice, nothing comes of it.”

For voters like Orfao, perhaps a bigger change in the political landscape would be welcome, as the same issues have plagued Portugal for the past century.

Portugal’s economy has lagged behind the rest of the EU27 since 2000, when its annual real GDP per capita was 16,230 euros ($18,300) compared to an EU average of 22,460 ($25,330).

In 2020, Portugal had risen slightly to 17,070 euros ($19,250) while the bloc’s average jumped to 26,380 euros ($29,750).

Low wages, meanwhile, have spurred emigration since the 1960s. Orfao earns about 1,300 euros ($1,466) a month, which the national statistics agency says is roughly the average wage in Portugal.

Some Orfao colleagues earn the same salary as 15 years ago. Another point of contention is short-term contracts that strip workers, including many nurses, of job security.

Over the past 10 years – a period that includes governments led by both socialists and social democrats – some 20,000 Portuguese nurses have left to work abroad, in an unprecedented flight of medical talent.

The socialist government won the 2019 general election promising better pay and conditions for nurses, but apart from some changes to occupational categories, it has done little to improve nursing jobs. That minority government collapsed last November, halfway through its four-year term, when parliament rejected its state budget for 2022.

The spending plan is essential. Portugal, a country of 10.3 million people, is set to start deploying 45 billion euros ($50.8 billion) from the EU to help revive the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19. The new funds are seen as another chance for Portugal to make up for lost ground.

But the snap election, meant to clarify the country’s direction, could backfire and leave Portugal where it started two months ago – with a vulnerable minority government.

An apparent increase in support for smaller parties means the two main parties will likely have to strike a deal with one or more of them, with a long period of political haggling expected.

“Forming a government has become more difficult because the parliament will be more fragmented,” explains António Costa Pinto, professor at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon.

For Orfao, the nurse from Lisbon, being hailed in speeches by politicians and applauded by the public during the pandemic has been heartwarming. He believes, however, that he and his colleagues deserve better.

He paid for his own specialized emergency training, done in his spare time for two years, to work at the public hospital in Santa Maria. But under the Public Health Service’s restrictive rules on promotions, “I would have to live to be 120 to reach the pinnacle of my career,” he says.

After the pandemic hit, Orfao started changing clothes twice after leaving his ER shift, fearing he would bring the virus home and infect his wife, or infant son, or son. father who was battling cancer.

Sunday’s poll comes amid a spike in new cases blamed on the highly contagious variant of omicron, with hundreds of thousands of infected people confined to their homes. The authorities allow infected people to go to polling stations, recommending that they go there during a less busy time slot in the evening.

Orfao is not very comfortable with this. Last week, he was still wondering if he should vote, even though he thinks he should.

“It makes me uncomfortable. I can’t deny it,” he says. “They should have made decisions well in advance to (hold the election) safely.”

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