Volatile social relations are contributing to the perception of instability in Belgium. The widespread disruptions to public transportation, the protracted labor dispute with prison wardens and other sector-specific protests (judges, postal workers, et al.) come on top of the action plans drawn up by some unions that stretch into the autumn, including general strikes on June 24 and October 7. While these groups have disparate motives, and we shouldn’t dismiss their grievances offhand, they are pursuing their narrow self-interest at the expense of the country.
In the short term, these industrial actions are causing economic damage. During the most recent strike, the railway company was estimated to lose €1 million per day, to say nothing of the impediment to commuters and supply chains. In the long term, and more worryingly, these strikes are causing reputational damage to Belgium. Belgium is under intense international scrutiny; with the economic and security challenges already facing the country, social instability will only further erode investor confidence.
Wildcat strikes and street protests also risk undermining confidence in our system of social dialogue. Social consultations are underway, and negotiations are advancing, albeit slowly. The right to strike is meant to be a tool of last resort for workers, but it is used imprudently in Belgium and often for political ends. The current protests, it must be said, do not represent the majority of trade unions – and often only involve small groups within or even outside of the unions.
What these groups share is their resistance to change. Instead of preparing for the future, they want to protect the privileges of the past. But economic reform is inevitable if Belgium is to remain competitive, create employment and generate prosperity. Although deeply unpopular with the unions, the Michel Government’s early reforms have helped spur job creation, largely because of the positive signal sent to investors. Perception matters. We have to continue down the path of reform – without putting Belgium’s reputation on the line.