Belgium's public workers strike over pension reform

22nd December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Belgium's public sector workers went on strike Thursday to protest a pension reform plan as the latest anti-austerity movement to grip Europe shut down transport links across the kingdom.

The strike halted rail traffic, including Thalys services to France, Germany and the Netherlands, and the Eurostar link to Britain.

In Brussels, where the entire bus, tram and underground rail network ground to a halt, people walked to work or used bicycles as commuters faced huge traffic jams driving into the city.

In the port city of Antwerp, only around one out of 10 buses was running.

"It's a great success," said Francis Wegimont, secretary general of the CGSP union in the French-speaking region of Wallonia. "Our members are determined and furious."

Postal workers, teachers, public broadcasters and prison guards joined the 24-hour strike against a pension overhaul plan by the new government of Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who took office on December 6.

The coalition government has pledged to cut 11 billion euros ($14 billion) off the budget to trim the country's debt and deficit -- respectively at 96.2 percent and 4.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2010.

Di Rupo has vowed to maintain pension payments and retirement at 65, but due to the increasingly aging population is proposing to delay early retirement from 60 to 62 and make it harder to stop working earlier, except in some cases.

Unions are angry both over the substance of the reform and the new government's failure to negotiate its terms with the trade unions.

Parliament is to debate the reforms on Thursday.

Di Rupo's coalition took power after an epic political crisis that left the eurozone nation without a government for a world record 541 days.

Political parties finally put their differences aside and agreed to drastic budget cuts after the country's credit rating was downgraded and the European Commission warned of potential penalties.

Workers in Greece, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus and Britain held strikes or protests in recent weeks to denounce cuts in their countries as governments scramble to resolve a two-year-old debt crisis threatening the euro.

While Belgium's public transport system was down, the airport at Brussels was open and the Belgian carrier Brussels Airlines expected to operate normally.

© 2011 AFP

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