On Wednesday, around 10,000 people gathered in and around the Place de la Monnaie in Brussels to demand more purchasing power as part of the third national strike this year against the cost of living crisis, jointly organised by Belgium's three trade unions.
The action was organised by the ACV, ABVV and ACLVB unions, as they all said they are increasingly getting signals from people struggling to pay their bills. The unions are asking the government to make energy more affordable, for instance through more government control or by taxing and redistributing energy companies' excess profits.
"We expected some 4,000 people, but around 10,000 showed up. That really shows that we have our finger on the pulse and that the cup is not just full, but overflowing," Stefaan Decock, ACV's Secretary-General, told The Brussels Times. "Currently, there is a lot of frustration and anger that has to be channelled in some way. With these actions and strikes, that is what the unions are trying to do."
"The energy bills are sky-high and the cost of everything else is also going up, but people's wages are not rising accordingly. While many people can no longer pay their bills, some companies are making huge profits," he said, adding that this is "the result of liberalism that has been allowed to go too far, at both the Belgian and European level."
Structural solution is needed
Last week, the Federal Government announced measures to temper the bills for middle-class households by several hundred euros, in addition to extending the social tariff. For the ABVV union, however, "measures must be proportionate to the seriousness of the situation. By purchasing power, we mean the ability to live with dignity, and not just to survive."
ACV's Decock added that while the recently announced government measures bring some relief, they are not a permanent solution to this crisis. "We are also still waiting for the Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia governments to announce measures."
From 11:00, the 10,000 demonstrators marched to the headquarters of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (FEB), disrupting public transport and throwing smoke bombs, eggs and rolls of toilet paper at the facade of the employers' association, causing a window of the building to break.
"Workers and trade unions gather en masse at Place de la Monnaie in Brussels against the far too expensive life," said Ward Coenegrachts of the leftwing PVDA party on Twitter. "For drastic reduction and blocking of energy prices. For higher wages to pay our bills."
In addition to demanding more purchasing power, the protestors are also demonstrating against the law on wage increases, which was introduced in Belgium in 1996 and determines the maximum amount by which private sector workers' wages can rise.
The trade unions, however, want a greater bargaining margin to allow higher wage increases in the private sector, considering that some companies are currently making large profits. The unions want the freedom to negotiate, especially now that purchasing power is under pressure.
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"Citizens are being strangled by rising prices," said ACV's Marc Leemans during a speech, adding that the current measures are not enough and calling on "all governments to act." Thierry Bodson of the ABVV also pointed to the precarious situation in which many citizens found themselves. "We are holding on by the skin of our teeth. It is not that we do not want to pay, it is that we can't."
"Putting on an extra sweater or turning the heating down a few degrees will not suffice. Many families are simply running out of savings options and are now backed against the wall," the unions said.
According to Decock, today's actions will not be enough to push the government into action to take sufficient measures, "but more actions will be organised in the coming weeks and months, until the government takes structural action."
Another general strike is planned on 9 November.