* Protests set to escalate against Monti deregulation
* Pharmacists, gas stations, lawyers, public transport plan strikes
* Govt meets unions to discuss labour market reforms
By Hanna Rantala
ROME, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Truckers blocked roads throughout Italy and taxi drivers resumed a strike on Monday as opposition mounted to fuel tax rises and economic reforms aimed at opening up competition in protected sectors including transport and pharmacies.
Roads and highways from Gioia Tauro in southern Calabria to Turin in the north were hit as truckers extended a protest against rises in fuel prices that caused severe disruption in Sicily last week.
The protests are set to escalate, as numerous labour categories affected by the measures, including railway workers, petrol station owners, pharmacists and lawyers have announced strikes over the next few weeks.
Carmaker Fiat, Italy’s largest manufacturer, said it would halt production for four days from Tuesday in four plants in the central and southern parts of the country because the truckers strike prevented the arrival of necessary components.
Speaking on RAI state radio, Interior Minister Annamaria Cancellieri said authorities were following the protests closely.
“We cannot rule out this discontent leading to protests of a different kind,” she said, in an apparent concern that the situation could get out of control.
The protests underline the growing opposition to Prime Minister Mario Monti’s plans, approved by the cabinet on Friday, to deregulate protected sectors of Italy’s economy to boost competition and create more jobs.
The measures come on top of tough spending cuts and tax rises passed by parliament in December, including a fuel tax increase that pushed the price of petrol up 8.2 cents a litre to about 1.76 euros and that of diesel up 11.2 cents to 1.71 euros.
The reforms, which may be modified and must still be approved in parliament, have been bitterly opposed by many of the groups affected and are arousing opposition from political parties on whom Monti depends for support.
The truckers’ demands include easier rules on claiming reimbursement of excise duty on fuel, caps on insurance costs and a crackdown on unlicensed transport operators.
Taxi drivers stepped up recent wildcate protests against plans to increase the number of operators’ licences, holding a nationwide strike on Monday which caused problems at Rome’s Fiumicino airport and the main Termini railway station.
“Our taxi ranks are already full of taxis, if we get more drivers where will they go?” said Ennio, one of scores of drivers blocking the area around Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman chariot ring, under a banner reading: “Help stop the madman Mario Monti and his clique”.
In another leg of the reform programme, ministers met unions on Monday to continue discussions on reforming labour rules which are blamed for discouraging companies from offering new workers full time contracts.
The issue is among the most sensitive facing Monti, who has pledged to overhaul a system accused of giving iron-clad guarantees to some categories of workers while condemning a growing army of mainly young people to precarious short-term contracts with little protection.