Belgian Opel closure: 'Like giving my bread to another man'

26th January 2010, Comments 0 comments

"It's a disaster" was 47-year-old auto worker Ronny Dupon's reaction General Motors announced the closure of its Opel plant in Antwerp, voicing the feelings of anger and despair sweeping the city.

ANTWERP - Thursday's closure announcement sent shockwaves through the 2,600 factory workers and their families, with the insult compounded by the news that production would be switched to South Korea.

"That's taking my bread and giving it to another man," Opel worker and trade unionist Erkan Taspinar told AFP outside the factory in northern Belgium where the gates will shut for good later this year in the biggest auto plant closure in Europe since the start of the economic crisis.

It's not only the Opel workers who are upset at the decision to close the factory gates, 80 years after they first opened.

Bob Maesen, a 56-year-old maintenance worker was repairing a cooling machine for the plant's kitchen.

"It affects us too. GM is one client among others, but a big one," he explained.

Maesen said Thursday threw up "all the emotions you could name... The overall emotion was 'we are fucked'," he said graphically in English.

He was one of few workers to be found there on Friday, due to pre-planned production downtime.

With just a small huddle of trade unionists turning up, the place took on a premature air of the phantom factory it will become before the year is out.

"I can feel the tension growing," warned Joke Dehaere, a young artist and bookseller in Antwerp city.

"The decision has shown that everybody is vulnerable, even in Flanders," the richer northern part of Belgium, she added.

Provincial governor Cathy Berx described the closure as "a tsunami for Antwerp."

Carine Cervetti, who has worked at a Texaco gas station near the auto plant for four years, knows she'll be caught by the waves.

"Many clients who deliver at Opel come here for fuel and come in to have a sandwich, cigarettes and everything," she said. "People are angry, some of them are sad."

Meanwhile EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso met with Kris Peeters, minister-president of the devolved Flanders government, to discuss the situation.

"Barroso understands our situation very well," Peeters said afterwards, adding that the commission chief promised to ensure that any state aid for Opel wouldn't break European rules.

An hour north in Antwerp, the concern was about the tools and machinery which will be silenced.

At its height in the 1980s, the factory employed 12,500 workers -- five times today's total.

The final straw came with the announcement that a new type of small sports utility vehicle (SUV) which was to have been built in Antwerp would instead be made in South Korea.

It's not the first time Flanders has been hard hit by such a closure.

In 1997 French automaker Renault shut down a major site at Vilvoorde, a suburb of Brussels.

After that the prevailing feeling was that the era of car construction in Belgium was reaching the end of the road.

According to the FGTB trade union association, 30,000 jobs are at risk, in all sectors, as a result of the Opel closure during a period of already high unemployment.


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