DHL expansion controversy leads to strike

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Autumn 2004 has seen a political controversy in Belgium over plans by the DHL express delivery company to expand its operations at Brussels airport, with a consequent increase in night-time flight movements. As debate has raged at all levels of government about the environmental impact, trade unions organised a strike at the airport in October to support their call for jobs to be a major factor in the decision on the plan.

At the end of 2003, the express courier company DHL Europe announced plans to develop its air transport centre, or hub, at Brussels airport at Zaventem (Bruxelles National/Brussel Nationaal), with a view to setting up its European headquarters in the Belgian capital, with the group’s global decision-making centre remaining in Germany. According to estimates provided at the time, these activities could promote the creation of 5,400 new jobs between 2007 and 2012. The project forms part of a plan for restructuring the logistics division of DHL's parent company's, Germany's semi-public Deutsche Post. The division comprises DHL, Danzas and Deutsche Post Express, with a combined workforce of about 10,000. This extension of activities is likely to be accompanied by an increase in night operations, with the company's investment plan envisaging 34,000 movements a year by 2012. The legal ceiling on authorised flights from the airport is set at 25,000 movements. The issue of night flights over Brussels has been highly sensitive for many years.

In January 2004, a special cabinet meeting given over to the economic situation and employment took over responsibility for the issue, but without taking a firm decision. The government assured DHL that it would make up its mind on the latter’s plans for Brussels airport no later than September. Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister made it clear that if the Brussels option proved to be impossible because of a veto by the regional government in Flanders or Brussels on environmental grounds, there would be a proposal to move the DHL operation to a regional airport in Wallonia.

When parliament opened for the autumn session, the federal government was faced with a minor political crisis over the DHL issues. The Brussels extension plan has stirred up considerable controversy in political circles, to the point that the liberal-socialist federal coalition is threatening to implode.

DHL has continued to press its demands on night flights, and has threatened to relocate its activities if its expansion plans are not quickly ratified: 'the number of flights has been studied on the basis of the number of tons of goods to be processed, which in turn has been calculated in relation to costs … The 34,000 flights testify to this,' stated the DHL commercial director, Xavier de Buck. The DHL group employs 6,000 workers in Belgium, of whom 3,000 work at its sorting office on the Brussels airport site. Several thousand other jobs rely directly or indirectly on the DHL presence there.

The issue also has a language-community dimension, with the community governments disagreeing on the distribution of the noise pollution linked to the increase in night flights. Furthermore, the Flemish government is threatening to call for airport policy to be regionalised if DHL relocates to Wallonia.

Negotiations initiated at federal level in early September 2004 only just managed to reach an agreement on the DHL affair among the various parties in the government led by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt - the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten, VLD), the (French-speaking) Reform Party (Movement Réformateur, MR), the (French-speaking) Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste, PS) and the (Flemish-speaking) Progressive Social Alternative (Sociaal Progressief Alternatief, SP.A). The federal agreement gave permission for the annual ceiling for night flights at Brussels to be increased to 28,000 (excluding humanitarian and military flights), and proposed that night-time operations carried out by other companies be transferred to regional airports. The government also demanded that DHL make clear commitments on replacing its fleet with quieter planes, particularly in respect of additional intercontinental flights that use the noisiest aircraft, from 2011 onwards.

In order to meet the deadline he had fixed, the Prime Minister held a series of discussions in September, trying to convince the various actors concerned to sign up to the federal agreement, but he did not meet with success. The executives of the Flanders and Brussels regions were unable to agree on a plan to disperse flights, and it was not possible to find any majority in regional parliaments in favour of the plan. The charter companies operating out of Brussels airport rejected any notion of transferring some of their night operations, and DHL renewed its demands with regard to keeping its current planes and maintaining the number of flights.

Industrial relations aspects

Trade unions have mounted several actions and issued a number of calls, in an attempt to ensure that their demands for job levels to be maintained are acknowledged by negotiators. In a joint statement issued on 22 September, the two main trade union confederations, the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV), demanded the speedy conclusion of an agreement based on a scenario of increasing DHL's activities, which at the same time respects a balance between employment and the sleep needs of local inhabitants.

On 1 October, staff at DHL organised a work stoppage, which was also supported by about 1,000 workers employed by all enterprises at Brussels airport. Trade union representatives stated that they were somewhat disenchanted with the climate in which the political negotiations over the DHL plan were taking place. Roberto Parrillo, the senior CSC/ACV official for the sector, said that he 'could not really make much sense of it any more… because everybody knew back on 16 January that an answer was needed for September'. The unions argue that there is an element of political responsibility for the current situation.

In a statement to the press, the Prime Minister stressed that, in the debate on the DHL affair, 'it is not simply a matter of the future of a single express courier company, and of the difficulty in reconciling the economy and ecology … What is also at stake is the way foreign investors perceive our country'. The Prime Minister believes that the DHL trade unions were quite right to express their anxieties: 'To what extent will foreign companies be prepared to invest in Belgium, and create thousands of jobs, if the taking of a single decision generates so many difficulties?'

The problem has reached an impasse in October, and a more in-depth study particularly examining technical matters is taking place at various levels of government. No date has been fixed for the resumption of negotiations. Deutsche Post was not due to take a decision on the establishment of the new DHL sorting centre until November.

For DHL, this episode follows in the wake of a number of more or less successful initiatives. In 1996, the company negotiated the opening of an operation at Strasbourg Entzheim airport, but the plan was dropped following a negative reaction from people living in the area. Elsewhere in Europe, restrictions on night-time movements are regulated airport by airport. Not all European airports are, like that of Brussels, situated 10 kilometres from a city with a million inhabitants.

Commentary

Many observers take the view that the impasse in which the government finds itself over the DHL issue is an illustration of the limitations of the Belgian institutional system. The existence of different coalition governments at federal level and at lower levels is not the problem. Asymmetry of this type exists in all other federal states, such as Germany, but the Belgian political system is marked by an absence of federal parties, and this finds expression in growing separatist tendencies, which in turn favour regional, and even sub-regional interest groups, making any search for solutions 'in the name of the common good' difficult. (Enrique Moro, IST)

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