By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

LISBON (Reuters) – Thousands of workers gathered in cities and towns across Portugal on Saturday demanding higher wages and more government action to protect jobs threatened by the coronavirus pandemic.

During the peaceful protests, organised by Portugal’s biggest umbrella union, the CGTP, workers wearing masks and keeping a safe distance urged the country’s Socialist government to raise the national minimum wage to 850 euros from the current 635 euros, the lowest in western Europe.

“Workers’ rights are increasingly being stolen,” said Anabela Vogado, from trade union CESP, as she marched to Lisbon’s main square. “The fear of the pandemic cannot take our rights away.”

Unemployment in Portugal rose above 400,000 in August, according to the latest data, and is up more than a third on the same period last year.

In the southern Algarve region, which relies heavily on tourism, the number of people registered as unemployed soared 177% in August compared to a year ago.

“Why is there so much money to support (companies) with investments and moratoriums and then there is no political courage to stop the workers from being fired?,” said worker Luis Batista, who was visibly angry.

The government, led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa, has introduced several measures to help businesses weather the coronavirus pandemic, including state-backed loans and delaying some tax payments.

It has also introduced a furlough scheme, allowing firms to temporarily suspend jobs or reduce working hours instead of firing workers. But those at Saturday’s protests believe the measures were not enough.

“Our government mostly supports companies and forgets about the workers,” said glassmaker Pedro Milheiro, who had joined the protest in Lisbon to express his frustration. “More support is needed.”

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