Monday

21st Jan 2019

Opinion

Brussels on strike: Rich city, poor citizens

  • Royal palace in central Brussels (Photo: Marianne Janssens)

Brussels is the second richest region in Europe. It has been in the top three for decades now. But right now 34 percent of its population is living in poverty. The unemployment figure is around 20 percent, 30 percent for youth and even up to 50 percent in some areas.

This is exacerbated by the fact that Brussels has the most imbalanced labour market in Europe.

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There are jobs for those with university degrees, but a great majority of Brussels natives do not hold such degrees.

At least a quarter of Brussels' youth leaves secondary education without a degree. There are a staggering 112 candidates per vacancy for low-skill positions, while our politicians tell us that there are plenty of jobs but people are lazy.

Another alarming figure is the fact that at this very moment thousands of children in Brussels are not receiving an education because there is a shortage of schools and teachers.

This is a violation of basic international and constitutional rights, yet Belgian politics is blind to it. Perhaps simply because the huge majority of these kids have a migrant background.

For immigrants, Belgium is the worst country in Europe in terms of equal opportunities. According to recent research from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), no other country has less immigrants active on the labour market.

There are two reasons for this OSCE says: racism and discrimination on the one hand, and inequality within education system on the other.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says Belgium has the highest inequality in the education system in the Western world. The victims of this system are migrant youth and those coming from lower classes.

Although these are dramatic figures, it is necessary to look beyond the numbers and realise that these are human beings who are in a terrible situation and have an even worse future ahead of them.

Protests against austerity

Belgium right wing government, in place for two months, has introduced enormous austerity measures - billions of euros of cuts to the health system, education, assistance for the unemployed. A serious attack on the welfare state. The government has asked people to work harder and longer while there are no jobs.

We have seen similar policies all over Europe and by now we know they have one thing in common: they all have failed, from Greece to the UK.

In Greece, the country that faced the harshest austerity measures in Europe, according figures from the Greek government, such measures have left the average Greek 40 percent poorer.

At the same time the top rich got 20 percent richer. Yes, austerity works, but only for the rich.

Belgian politicians are defending the austerity measures arguing "there is no alternative". However unions and civil organisations have come with viable alternatives.

First, instead of austerity they ask for investments. David Stuckler (Oxford University) and Sanjay Basu (Stanford University) have shown that an investment of 1 dollar in health services has an economic return of 3 dollars. The same figures, but in euros, are presented on investments in culture in Belgium.

Secondly, Belgium is internationally known as a fiscal paradise.

Multinationals pay few or no taxes while making billions of euros of profit. Unions and left-wing political parties are asking for a tax on capital, which does not exist in Belgium. The revenues of this tax would be around €8 billion. A survey this week showed that 85 percent of Belgians support a tax on capital.

General strike

Given these circumstances, Belgians are not ready to accept austerity measures - last month was a month of protests.

On 6 November more than 120,000 took to the streets in Brussels. It was one of the biggest protests in decades. On Monday (15 December) the unions have called for a general strike. This is the first general strike since 1993 and is expected to be one of the biggest general strikes in Belgian history.

The unions are supported by a growing group of civil society organisations which oppose the austerity measures through grassroots democratic actions.

Moreover students and even pupils from schools joined the protests last month and will strike again on 15 December

The widespread protests, the public support for tax on capital and the solidarity among unions, civil society, students and citizens show that Belgium is refusing to follow the failed example of austerity and is setting an example of resistance for the rest of Europe.

Bleri Lleshi is a political philosopher and author living in Belgium

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