"Where has the idea of saving money brought us? - Austerity" - ABVV regional president Rohnny Champagne

"Where has the idea of saving money brought us? - Austerity" - ABVV regional president Rohnny Champagne

Belgian union leaders are expressing fears unemployment in Genk will soar following Ford's imminent closure of its plant in two weeks and against the background of concerted industrial unrest in the country boiling to the top of the political agenda.

The US automaker is about to make 4,500 direct staff redundant as it shifts capacity to the Spanish site of Valencia, but an academic estimate has put this number spiralling to around 11,000 once supply chain and indirect jobs are taken into account.

Genk recently stopped Mondeo output as Valencia increases production with the redesigned version and by the end of this year, the Spanish site will start the replacement for the S-Max.

The dramatic cut will see the automaker axe European capacity by around 18% - the equivalent to removing 350,000 units of installed assembly capability - with Ford Europe COO Barb Samardzich recently insisting the automaker had been "working so well with our union colleagues and appreciate the efforts they have been making."

Despite that optimism however, Belgium overall is standing on the precipice of concerted and nationwide industrial action as unrest with government grows.

There is widespread organised labour anger surrounding what many believe is the newly-elected right-of-centre coalition government's drive to austerity measures, with a crippling transport strike yesterday (1 December), to be followed by a huge national walkout on 15 December.

"The mines closed [20 years ago] and we were lucky to attract Ford at that time," ABVV union provincial president, Rohnny Champagne, told just-auto in the labour body's metalworking headquarters in Brussels.

"There were some 35,000 employed people before, so there will be some 45,000-47,000 people on unemployment [imminently in the Genk region]. "Everything that is lost is lost for ever. Agoria [Belgian employer and technology body] is crying out for engineers - they don't find any.

"Genk is finished. They start demolition of the plant on 5 January - everything in it will be taken apart. A few presses good enough to be sold will be sold. The new ones are already transferred to Valencia."

Reliable sources however, stongly refute that union claim, insisting stamping sets still remain at the site and nothing had been resolved as any new ownership possibilities had not yet finalised.

Reports from Belgium indicate the massive public transport stoppage yesterday paralysed international rail and bus services, while also severely affecting international trains from Germany and Luxembourg, but the ABVV regional chief remains defiant against austerity ahead of the much larger strike looming on the radar.

"Where has the idea of saving money brought us?" said Champagne. "Austerity. As government, you are expected to save some money for a rainy day.

"Today it is raining and you should have built up some reserves to invest to keep the economy growing or at least to keep it going.

"Why is there money to save a bank on the edge of collapse? The same excesses are still existing in the banking sector today. Why should there not be money today to invest in employment? I am saying this for the last 20 years."

The reliable source also indicated any incentives from the European Union would not be made available as such aid is only available for new businesses and not existing operations. 

"You can't get regional assistance for a business someone is selling," said the source. "It would be considered State aid."

Ford says it will pay US$750m for its Genk hourly-paid employees as part of the collective bargaining agreement or social plan.