Thousands protest at threatened Belgian Opel plant

24th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

Thousands of car workers and supporters, including hundreds from Germany, protested at a threatened Opel factory in northern Belgium on Wednesday.

"If we don't fight today for the future of Antwerp, it will be the same thing at another plant tomorrow," said Peter Scherrer, German head of the European metalworkers federation (FEM).

Some 2,600 workers risk losing their jobs in the Flemish city.

A huge yellow banner, the colour of the German automaker, bearing the slogan "We are Opel" was hung on the side of the building for the protest, called by European metalworkers' unions.

Canadian auto parts maker Magna, which is buying the carmaker from struggling US giant General Motors, is poised to slash around 11,000 jobs across Europe, including 4,000 in Germany, according to a business plan leaked to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Tuesday.

GM chief executive Fritz Henderson said in an interview with a German autombile magazine that "the new Opel has to close at least one factory," stressing that "Antwerp is an option, but no definitive decision has been taken."

"Magna has not said that the Antwerp factory is going to close," Rudi Kennes of Belgium's FGTB trade union also told German HR-Info radio, adding that he has been in meetings with the company since Tuesday.

Magna is also threatening to cut jobs in Britain and Spain, where concerns have also been raised, but Belgian unions fear that their plant will be sacrificed amid heavy German state aid, although that is the subject of a European Commission probe.

"We will never accept the closure of a production centre, nor lay-offs without a social plan," Belgian trade union official Walter Cnop told the protesters.

"Production must be shared out fairly," he added, aware that none of the four plants in Germany face closure.

Hundreds of German workers were bussed in to the Belgian plant, which halted production at lunchtime for two hours for the "solidarity meeting."

Other delegations arrived from Poland, Spain and Hungary.

Andre Lambrechts, a 48-year-old worker at the Antwerp factory, said the show of solidarity was “very positively" received by the locals, adding "nothing has yet been decided."

Magna, and its Russian partners, were Germany's favoured choice to save the loss-making Opel.

Berlin backed the deal with EUR 4.5 billion (USD 6.6 billion) of incentives.

The European Commission underlined on Wednesday that any support for the restructuring plan of new Opel Europe "must fully comply with the EU's state aid and internal market rules."

The EU's executive arm has already stated that it will carefully examine whether the German authorities have attached non-commercial conditions to their aid for Opel "concerning the location of investments and/or the geographic distribution of restructuring measures.”

"State funding... is meant to tackle the financing problems due to the credit crunch, and cannot be used to impose political constraints concerning the location of production activities within the internal market," the commission said in a statement.


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