Strike over pension reform brings Belgium to standstill

22nd December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Angry public sector workers protesting pension reforms shut down Belgium's schools, post offices and almost its entire transport grid Thursday in the latest anti-austerity protest to grip Europe.

Called the day parliament prepares to debate the controversial reform, the 24-hour stoppage is the first political test faced by the fledging centre-left government that took office barely two weeks ago.

The strike severely disrupted travel across Belgium's borders, halting all international rail traffic including busy high-speed 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 cycled as protesters flagged down city-bound vehicles to hammer home their reasons for the stoppage.

"Workers aren't responsible for the crisis," said Andrea Della Vechia of the FGTB union. "If funds be needed, they should go to the financial markets or the banks for cash, not the workers."

In Antwerp, Europe's second busiest port, a score of ships were unable to leave and as many idled at sea when tug-boat pilots joined the stoppage. Only around one out of 10 buses was running.

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

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

In court houses across the country, judges and magistrates too turned out to protest at proposals that if adopted, as expected, will add years to their working lives.

Di Rupo's 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.

It has vowed to maintain pension payments and retirement at 65, but due to the increasingly elderly population is proposing to delay early retirement from 60 to 62 and make it harder to stop working earlier -- as is the case for some careers, such as magistrates.

In the longer term it aims to bring public service pensions in line with the private sector.

A 2008 report showed average monthly pensions in Belgium at 1,155 euros -- but at 2,400 euros for male public sector retirees and only 1,100 euros for male private sector retirees.

After an epic political crisis that left the eurozone nation without a government for a world record 541 days, the new government has pledged a wide range of structural reforms.

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

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

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.

© 2011 AFP

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