Labour unrest sweeping across France and Belgium

Striking workers are using burning barricades to block access to the harbour of Saint-Nazaire in western France.
Striking workers are using burning barricades to block access to the harbour of Saint-Nazaire in western France.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Striking workers are using burning barricades to block access to the harbour of Saint-Nazaire in western France.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls

Governments of both countries face fierce opposition to planned workplace reforms

BRUSSELS • Belgium and France were gripped by labour unrest yesterday. Police in Brussels fired water cannon during clashes with protesters at a huge demonstration against the centre-right government's austerity measures, while the French •government stepped up efforts to break blockades and strikes at refineries that are threatening to paralyse the country.

French police used tear gas and water cannon to clear a blockade at one major refinery in the south where activists from the CGT union were protesting against the Socialist government's planned labour reforms.

The government wants to change labour laws to reduce overtime pay and make it easier to fire staff. It says the reforms will free up France's rigid labour market, but opponents say the moves will do little to reduce unemployment, which is stuck at around 10 per cent.

By yesterday, six of France's eight refineries had either stopped operating or reduced output due to strikes and blockades. One-fifth of service stations had either run out of fuel or were running low.

Some local authorities in the north and north-west have already imposed petrol rationing. Motorists in the Paris region resorted to tracking down fuel tankers and following them to petrol stations. In the north-east, motorists were driving over the border to stock up at Belgian stations.

ECONOMY HELD HOSTAGE

To take consumers, our economy, our industry hostage in this way - to continue actions aimed at getting the draft law withdrawn - is not democratic.

FRENCH PRIME MINISTER MANUEL VALLS

Adding to the pressure on the government, hundreds of thousands of football fans are expected to travel to France for the month-long European football championships, which begin on June 10.

President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have vowed not to let the activists hold France hostage. Mr Valls has appealed to the workers to lift their blockades, part of a three-month campaign of action against the labour reforms.

To add to the government's problems, rail unions are due to strike from today for two days. And unions have planned another nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations tomorrow.

In Belgium, yesterday's rally by 60,000 people in Brussels was supposed to kick off months of demonstrations and national strikes led by trade unions against the policies of Prime Minister Charles Michel's government.

Three major unions oppose proposed reforms by Employment Minister Kris Peeters allowing employers to impose a more flexible work week of up to 45 hours if needed, followed by shorter weeks to retain the principle of the 38-hour work week.

Security was tight in the Belgian capital amid fears of a repeat of the violence that marred a mass rally against reforms announced by Mr Michel just after he came to power in 2014. Brussels also remains under a security alert following the March 22 suicide bombings at the airport and in the metro system, claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2016, with the headline 'Labour unrest sweeping across France and Belgium'. Print Edition | Subscribe