By Marzia De Giuli
ROME, Jan. 28 (Xinhua) -- Thousands of entrepreneurs mounted coordinated protests across Italy on Monday to call on more growth-oriented policies to stimulate the stagnant economy.
The breadth of the demonstrations, which affected 80 cities nationwide, reflected widespread unhappiness with record-high taxes, credit crunch and oppressive bureaucracy in a country whose gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract one percent in 2013 after posting a negative growth of more than two percent last year, according to the most recent estimates of the Italian central bank.
Reduction of tax burden, more flexible labor laws, new infrastructure and energy investments were among the urgencies that Italy needs to restart growing, according to the Rete Imprese Italia business association that organized the protest.
"The desperation of the small businesses that we represent today comes from domestic demand that is at a desolate standstill," said Carlo Maria Sangalli, the president of the association, which counts some 2.5 million companies with around 14 million workers.
"The future of Italy is inextricably linked to the small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) that are the backbone of our real economy," Sangalli added as he presented an agenda of the association's recommendations in Rome.
Massimiliano De Toma, a 47-year-old entrepreneur in the clothing sector and a father of two children, runs one of the typical family businesses that make around 95 percent of the Italian industrial system.
"Like thousands of colleagues, I have the big problem of access to credit. We have no means to provide the guarantees that the banks ask us, and collapse is just around the corner," he told Xinhua while protesting in the Italian capital.
According to a study of Rete Imprese Italia released last week, Italy's recession forced at least 100,000 companies to close between 2011 and 2012 without being replaced by new ones.
"Doing business in Italy is indeed a venture, where even hiring employees is a very difficult work due to bureaucracy and rigidity of the labor market," De Toma said.
The consumer-confidence index in the country dropped to 84.6 points this month from 85.7 in December, taking it to the lowest level since the index's launch in 1996, according to figures released by national statistics institute Istat on Monday.
Meanwhile, hourly wages for employees were on average 1.5 percent higher in 2012 than the previous year, the lowest annual rise in salaries since 1983.
However, Italy's leading industrial group Confindustria said that recession may finally be seeing an end. The national economy "is touching the bottom of a hard recession, the second in five years. Conditions for bouncing back have been reached, which can initiate recovery," it said in a report.
Confindustria also estimated that lost consumer confidence had compressed domestic consumption of durable goods more than would be justified by real disposable income of households and businesses.
In an effort to tackle Italy's debt crisis, the 13-month government of caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti has introduced various austerity and structural measures that have helped the country regain international investors' confidence but to the detriment of small businesses, according to local analysts.
"The Monti government did right in securing the public finances ... but it did at the very high price of overall tax hikes and heavy recessionary effects," Sangalli pointed out.
The government that will come out from next month's election will be entrusted with the fundamental task to focus on economic policies at the service of the crisis-battered entrepreneurial system, he said.