A nationwide, multi-sector 24-hour strike has begun on February 13, bringing logistics and manufacturing activities across Belgium to a complete standstill and causing significant delays to air, ocean, and ground cargo. The one-day strike action has been initiated by several unions, including the CSC, FGTB, and CGSLB over a wage dispute. The government has proposed a 0.8 percent increase in wages, which unions have rejected, calling for a raise of at least 1.5 percent. The strike started at 22:00 (local time) on February 12 and is expected to last until 22:00 (local time) on February 13. Reports indicate that this may be the largest general strike in Belgium since December 2014. The estimated level of participation was not immediately specified; the three trade unions represent up to 3.5 million workers across aviation, public transportation, postal, medical, municipal, and retail sectors.
Airspace closure disrupts air freight movement
Due to air traffic controllers with Skeyes joining the strike, Belgian airspace will be closed for 24 hours, substantially impacting commercial operations, including passenger and cargo flights. Lufthansa-owned Brussels Airlines cancelled all of its 222 scheduled flights for February 13 at Brussels Airport, a pharmaceutical export hub in Europe. Other airlines have already switched dozens of flights to and from Brussels to other airports in France and the Netherlands, including Lille and Paris Orly. At Charleroi Airport and Liege Airport, a major European air freight hub, no passenger or cargo flights will arrive or depart during the strike action as the airports have shut down operations for the entire day.
Port operations to be delayed
Operational impacts are also anticipated at the Port of Antwerp, Europe’s second-busiest container gateway. Locks will not be operated and terminals have shut down gates for 24 hours. Port operators including DP World and PSA have advised customers to review schedules and berthing windows to avoid delays. It is likely that all terminals and depots will be impacted by the strike. While Flemish pilots are unlikely to take part in the action, vessel traffic on the Scheldt and in the Port of Antwerp is likely to be paralyzed during the strike. Some port workers have also blocked access roads to the Port of Ghent and nearby industrial zones in the morning of February 13.
Road blockades planned near industrial zones
Union sources indicated that road blockades would be set up near commercial areas, distribution centers and industrial zones, likely causing significant disruption to inbound and outbound truck movements. In the area of Liege, affected industrial zones include Hauts Sarts, Liege Logistique at Bierset, and Grâce-Hollogne. As far as rail services are concerned, Belgian rail operator SNCB will operate a minimum train service throughout the strike period, but most freight trains are likely to stand still for the 24-hour period.
Labor shortages to affect manufacturing activities
Logistics and industrial workers are also expected to join the strike, with some sources indicating that workers at more than 600 companies in the textile and metallurgic sectors plan to participate in the strike. In addition to road blockades in industrial areas, it is anticipated that large companies with union delegations will experience picketing, protests and other strike actions. According to a survey by Agoria, 40 percent of large companies have indicated forced production halts for the entire day. Car maker Audi has reportedly stopped production lines at its Forest plant in the south of Brussels. Media sources reported that the following companies may also experience disruption to production on February 13: ArcelorMittal, FN, Safran AeroBoosters, AB Inbev, Chaudfontaine, Emerson, Hexcel, Cablerie, Hydro, NMC, Heimbach, Mondelez, Ariston, and Stuv. As train services with the SNCB and public transportation services with STIB, TEC and De Lijn are expected to be substantially disrupted, labor shortages may be further exacerbated and impact factory operations.
While the strike action is not expected to extend beyond February 13, backlogs of air, ocean and road freight are likely to take several days to subside. Customers should therefore expect shipment delays to last throughout the week, in particular if cargo has been diverted to other ports or airports in anticipation of the strike. The strike may further destabilize the current minority government under Charles Michel, which has already suspended a fuel tax due to Yellow Vests protests in November and December 2018 that extended from France to Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking region in the South. In the event of a high turnout during the day-long strike, unions may be encouraged to call for further actions to support their demands in the coming weeks.