Spain town police on mass sick leave over unpaid wages

Spanish police. File photo
Image caption Spain's economic crisis has hit hard many public workers, including police

Almost the entire police force of a small town in southern Spain have gone on sick leave in a dispute over payments.

Fourteen policemen from Valverde del Camino say they are psychologically unfit for work after not receiving their salaries for four months.

They spent the day staging a sit-in protest at the town hall, instead of working.

However, they deny they are on strike, as that is illegal for police.

It is the latest manifestation of a major problem in Spain, where the economic crisis has left many town councils and local governments with debts they say they are unable to pay.

Plea for help

Finally, the the patience of policemen in Valverde del Camino has worn out: 14 out of a total force of 16 officers have signed off sick, producing doctors' notes saying they are in no psychological state to work.

Instead of catching criminals, they staged the sit-in on Tuesday.

"We're living on credit - getting help from our mothers, fathers, brothers... whoever," Jose Manuel Gonzalez, one of the protesters, told the BBC.

"But it's impossible to go on like this any longer. We have to ask for help now, because our families can't stand this anymore."

There are only 13,000 residents in the town, in far south-western Spain.

But successive mayors there have run up a staggering $74m (£47m) in debt: that's the most in the country per capita.

The true scale of the problem only emerged after local elections in spring, when power shifted to the opposition Popular Party for the first time in decades.

It is a pattern that is being repeated across the country, making investors fear that these hidden, regional debts, will mean Spain misses its target - of cutting the budget deficit to 6% of GDP by the end of the year.

'Sudden' illness

In Valverde, the new mayor has taken away staff cars and credit cards - even lunch vouchers - to cut costs.

But she says the town urgently needs more money from central government to start paying the back wages it owes. And not only to the police, but to 130 workers, who have not seen their salaries since May.

Until then, the sudden illness that's overtaken the town's police force, is unlikely to be cured.

The ratings agency Moody's has warned that Spain's regions - which account for half of all public spending - will not meet their deficit reduction targets for this year.

This could put the central government's own targets in doubt - and also worry investors, who fear Spain may follow Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing a bailout.

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