Protest at 
welfare state cuts

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One of Belgium’s biggest post-war labour demonstrations brought some 100,000 workers to the capital, Brussels, yesterday to protest against government free-market reforms and austerity measures that they claim undermine the welfare state.

For two hours, the demonstrators marched peacefully down the main thoroughfares to protest against government policies that will raise the pension age, contain wages and cut into public services.

Violence marred the end of the march, with police firing tear gas and water cannon. No casualties were immediately reported.

“They are hitting the workers, the unemployed. They are not looking for money where it is, I mean people with a lot of money,” said Philippe Dubois, who came from the industrial rust belt of Liege.

The unexpectedly massive march opens a month-long campaign by the trade unions against the business-friendly governing coalition and is to be capped with a nationwide strike on December 15.

Despite the opening of government-led talks with employers and unions later yesterday, socialist trade union leader Rudy De Leeuw vowed to continue the protests for weeks on end.

Belgium has a long post-war tradition of collective bargaining between employers and workers and successive coalition governments representing a full scale of public opinion often have been able to contain social disagreements.

But the current coalition, made up of three pro-business parties and the centrist Christian Democrats, is the first in decades that has been able to set such a clear free-market agenda.

The government says it has been forced to push through stringent austerity measures to keep the budget deficit within European Union constraints.