Italian protesters challenge Renzi job reforms

ROME (AFP) - Protesters from across Italy descended on Rome Saturday for a vast rally against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's plans to overhaul the job market, in a sign of growing resistance to an ambitious reform drive.

Hundreds of thousands of Italians snaked through the capital calling for Mr Renzi to do more to boost employment and protect the rights of new entries to the job market.

Organisers put the number of protesters at one million and called on the premier to take note.

"We want work for everyone, and work with rights. This is a demonstration for those without work, without rights, those who suffer, who have no certainties for the future," Ms Susanna Camusso, head of the CGIL union which called for the demonstration, told the crowds.

"We are here and we're not going away. We will strike, and use all our strength to fight to change this government's policies," she said, announcing the unions would hold another protest on November 8.

Mr Renzi's measures "are not sufficient to change the path Italy is on," she added.

Thousands of young people from all over the country waved the red flags of the CGIL, singing the national anthem and letting off flares in front of the Colosseum to oppose to Renzi's "Jobs Act".

"He said he wanted to see us and count us. Here we are Renzi, count us!" a protester in Rome's San Giovanni Square yelled into a megaphone.

Youth unemployment in the eurozone's third largest economy stands at a record 44.2 percent.

Those who do manage to find work are often hired on temporary contracts which offer little in the way of security or benefits.

"We want investments in the future," one young person shouted.

Another held up a banner with a sarcastic "thanks for the 'solution' to our problems Renzi", and a picture of someone vomiting.

"We have no intention of giving up. Renzi must know that to change the country, he needs us, those here in the streets of Rome today," said Mr Maurizio Landini, head of the FIOM union, which joined the CGIL protest.

Mr Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is split over the proposed measures, with the deepest division caused by a debate over the future of Article 18, a law which currently protects those who are unfairly dismissed.

In his bid to reboot Italy's economy and lure in foreign investors, the premier wants to make it easier for companies to fire people and introduce a system by which job protection and benefits are earned by workers over time.

But unions and many on the left are furious over the mooted changes and he has been accused of being a "Thatcherite" - a term referring to Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who broke unions and did away with job protections in a single-minded push to liberalise her country's economy.

While Italians are quick to take to the streets to protest, Saturday's rally was the first large demonstration against the PD by the unions, a sign of a fraying of historic ties that bind the two groups.

The 39-year-old prime minister was in Florence on Saturday when the demonstration - which included some rebels from the PD - took place.

He was addressing the "Leopolda", an annual meeting he founded in 2009 to bring leaders and the public together to talk about the future of Italy.

Mr Renzi sought to minimise any impact the rally might have on policy. "I have great respect for the protest, but the era in which protests can block the government and the country are over," he said.

Italy narrowly escaped its third recession in the last six years this month thanks mainly to a change in the was economic data was calculated across the European Union.

But the country still has forecast a debt-to-GDP ratio of 133.4 percent in 2015 - more than twice the EU ceiling.

"The CGIL is protesting against a reform which aims to create work. It is protesting to defend the past, but we want to build a future for our young people," deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano said.