Unions led a massive demonstration Thursday in Brussels against cuts to public services, pensions and wages.
As many as 100,000 marched against the new coalition government and its plans to raise the retirement age, to 67 years by 2020, and the decision not increase wages under the indexation system that links pay to the cost of living.
According to the opposition socialists, workers earning 1,900 euros a month will lose 336 euros a year on average, part of a picture of ‘social regression’ being imposed on the Belgian people.
A number of socialist leaders, including former Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo headed the demonstration while the PTB (Workers’ Party of Belgium), social movement activists, civil society organisation joined the march too.
The right-wing government led by French-speaking liberal Charles Michel – the first to include ministers from the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) party – has vowed to make public spending cuts of 2.5 billion euros in its first year in office, with plans to reduce spending by 11.2 billion euro in the period 2015-2018.
Among the sectors affected by cuts are:
- iconic cultural institutions such as La Monnaie in Brussels, Bozar, Opera
- health care with a plan to merge hospitals
- the state railway company, SNCB,
Thursday’s action in the Belgian capital is only the beginning of a rolling campaign that will involve a series of rotating strikes every Monday in various parts of the country leading up to a general strike of 15 December.
The attacks on the railway system, which could lead to up to 5,000 jobs and and threaten working conditions, will see a series of strikes between 7 and 23 November. Industrial action has even hit the sports sector, with workers at the headquarters of the Belgian Football Association taking wildcat industrial action over plans to cut jobs.
As well as demanding the maintenance of purchasing power and creation of “quality jobs”, unions want the government to implement a fairer tax system.
The anger among ordinary Belgians that they are paying unfairly for a crisis they didn’t cause has been further inflamed by recently published figures that the richest have been grabbing an ever greater share of the national wealth.
De Standaard newspaper found that the wealthiest 1% now accounts for a 7.5% slice the total income pie, a significant rise compared to 25 years ago. The 10% richest account for a third of the national income. These figures are based on an analysis of tax returns and since the rich (helped by expensive accountants and lawyers) typically underestimate their incomes in order to dodge taxes inequality of income is likely to be much greater in the country.
Just over a fifth of Belgians are ‘at risk’ of poverty, the standard measure indicating low incomes and / or materially deprived persons.