Sea pilots in the port of Antwerp have embarked on a strike of indeterminate duration, they warned on Monday. The pilots are responsible for guiding ocean-going ships from the entrance to the Scheldt channel at Breskens-Vlissingen all the way to the port of Antwerp, which lies substantially inland.
Already on Tuesday, 32 large ships were blocked inside the port, unable to leave. Other ships are likely to find themselves stranded outside the port in the North Sea if the strike continues.
The strike also affects pilots working at Ghent and Zeebrugge, but the effect on Antwerp is likely to be by fact the most serious.
At issue is a plan by the Flemish government, in the name of minister for administrative affairs Liesbeth Homans, to reduce the benefits afforded to pilots in their capacity as public employees. That would affect, for example, holiday leave entitlement, as well as cuts to sick-pay for long-term absentees.
The sea pilots began their action on Monday, when a meeting with Homans produced no ground for compromise. On Tuesday, the action will spread to inland waterways, including the Brussels canals and the canal linking the port of Ghent to the Dutch port of Terneuzen – which can in any case only be reached using sea pilots.
On Friday, other civil servants working for the employment agency VDAB and family organisation Kind & Gezin, are expected to join the strike.
“What the unions are doing now is unprecedented, and demonstrates anything but a sense of responsibility,” Homans commented. “Anyone with any sense of responsibility will come to the table instead of crippling the Flemish economy and holding a huge number of businesses and their employees hostage,” she said.