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Mass protests against Australian work laws

AUSTRALIA: Tens of thousands of workers attended mass rallies across Australia on Thursday in protest against new workplace laws, promising to punish the government at next year's elections if it did not withdraw the laws.

Chanting anti-government slogans and waving union banners, workers marched through the nation's major cities, blocking traffic and demanding the conservative government scrap the laws, which came into force in March.

But the government said the numbers of workers taking part in the rallies ware lower than similar protests in June and well below the predictions, signalling the union campaign was failing as the government presided over strong jobs growth.

"This outrageous, ridiculous scare campaign is losing traction with the Australian people," Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews told parliament.

The new laws are designed to improve productivity and weaken union influence in the workplace by encouraging workers to sign individual contracts and abandon union-based award conditions.

But the union movement and opposition Labour Party say the laws cut wages and work conditions and make it easier for employers to sack workers, weakening job security.

The introduction of the laws have re-energised the union movement, which is suffering a long-term decline in membership at a time when the country's tight labour market has led to the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years.

Centre-left Labour Party leader Kim Beazley, under leadership pressure within his own party, has also seized upon the union anger and has promised to scrap the workplace laws if he wins power at elections due in the second half of 2007.

Beazley attended the largest protest involving about 60,000 people in Australia's second-largest city of Melbourne, where workers filed into a football stadium to listen to rock bands and hear speakers condemn the laws.

In Sydney, a crowd estimated by police at about 40,000 brought the city's centre to a standstill before marching down towards Sydney Harbour.

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