Italian European affairs minister Rocco Buttiglione on Friday said the troubled car maker should change its financial rescue plan to win government approval, as Fiat employees throughout Italy went on strike, Reuters reported.

“We have to ask them if they can modify some aspects of the current plan, and we have to talk openly to the company to get these changes made,” Buttiglione told reporters after a cabinet meeting, Reuters said.

Reuters said Fiat Auto, once Europe’s largest car maker, made an operating loss of 1.2 billion euros in the first nine months of 2002, dragging the whole energy-to-tractors Fiat group into the red.

Fiat Auto now wants the Italian government to rubber-stamp its plans to cut 8,100 jobs and close factories, Reuters added.

The news agency said that blue-collar production workers would go on a temporary lay-off scheme that would be partly state-funded if the government agreed to grant Fiat “crisis status”.

“There’s a discussion about the industrial plan which must continue. The government has got to assume its responsibilities to the hilt, and be close to the workers,” Buttiglione said, according to Reuters.

The news agency said that Italy’s top three unions stormed out of a meeting with Fiat management on Thursday and rejected the plan, arguing that thousands would see their temporary lay-offs become permanent.

Reuters said in Turin, where Fiat has its headquarters, police estimated 10,000 workers had poured onto the streets to show their anger at the car maker’s plans.

“No to lay-offs. Zero layoffs,” read one banner, according to Reuters.

In Sicily, where the local Fiat factory is threatened with closure, unions told Reuters at least 20,000 turned out to protest including wives and children of employees.

Reuters said the Italian government is putting particular pressure on Fiat to promise a future for the Termini Imerese plant in Sicily, one of Italy’s poorest regions and the centre-right government’s strongest voter base.