Belgium paralysed by 24-hour strike over pension reform

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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 debated the controversial reform, the 24-hour stoppage was the first political test faced by the fledging centre-left government in just barely two weeks in office.

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, as well as Eurostar links to Britain.

In Brussels, where the entire bus, tram and underground rail network was halted, people walked or cycled and protesters flagged down city-bound vehicles to hammer home the 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."

Postal workers, teachers, public broadcasters and prison guards all joined the protest, which also snagged activity in Antwerp, Europe's second busiest port.

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

Socialist Prime Minister Elio 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 is proposing to extend the country's popular early retirement option from 60 to 62 and make it harder to stop working earlier.

Addressing parliament, Di Rupo, whose government took office December 6, called for dialogue with the trade unions but said reforms were long overdue.

"The reforms are inescapable," he said. "They are key to overcoming inter-generational conflict and absolutely necessary to the re-establishment of healthy public finances."

After an epic political crisis left the eurozone nation without a government for a world record 541 days, the new coalition has embarked on structural reforms and drastic budget cuts after Belgium'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 them.

The government in the longer term aims to bring public service pensions into 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 those in the private.

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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