No More Beer: Belgium Brewery Workers Block Beverages

Striking brewery workers in Belgium have stopped the production of several popular beers at brewing giant InBev. Good news for InBev's competitors but bad news for drinkers who prefer Stella Artois, Hoegaarden or Leffe beers.

The wall made of beer crates is more than five meters high and it's clear that nobody's going to get through it. Angry workers have erected this bulwark around a brewery in Jupille, Belgium, to stop trucks from leaving the factory with cases of one of Belgium's most popular beers, Jupiler.

The brewery, owned by the Brazilian-Belgian group InBev, has been brought to a standstill. InBev employees are protesting because the company wants to cut around 260 jobs from its Belgian operations -- that's almost 10 percent of its 2,700 workers there. Jobs will also be lost in other European countries where beer brands owned by the company are produced, including Germany.

Photo Gallery

7  Photos
Photo Gallery: Belgium Without Beer
In Germany, the unions are still negotiating. But the Belgians are frothing at the mouth and unions there have called on the public to stop buying Inbev beer. Worker representatives have been blocking three of the company's four Belgian plants. This includes the brewery in Hoegaarden, the plant in Leuven where Stella Artois is made and in Jupille, near the city of Liège.

Not an Official Strike But There is No Beer

Officially this is not really a strike, InBev spokeswoman Karen Crouck told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But there are no raw materials going in and there is no beer coming out," she added. Production stopped at Hoegaarden and in Jupille several days ago and it seems Liège will be next.

"The warehouses at some of our larger customers are already empty," Crouck said. Supermarkets are also running out. According to Belgian daily Gazet van Antwerpen, almost half of the stores run by discount supermarket chain Colruyt no longer have any InBev beer. At the more expensive supermarket chain Delhaize, many of the InBev brands have sold out and at the Carrefour supermarket chain, stocks are running low. In order to keep up supplies to the beer-thirsty Belgian customers, the giant chain has taken the precaution of increasing orders from InBev's competitors. "We have looked into alternatives. There will be enough beer," a Carrefour spokeswoman said.

Belgian Politicians Get Involved in Beer Fight

In the meantime, politicians have also gotten involved. Socialists from both the Dutch-speaking Flemish and francophone Walloon parts of Belgium have expressed their dismay at the company's plans to cut jobs. Tax benefits for InBev should be assessed, Belgian newsweekly Knack suggests on its Web site. Even the country's labor minister, a conservative with the Christian Democrats, is opposed to the cuts.

Over the past week, mediation between the two parties failed. On Tuesday, a second attempt at reconciliation was scheduled, and this time politicians were also to take part. InBev has responded to the inflamed public sentiment by pledging to negotiate a settlement. As of Monday there was no more talk of legal moves against workers blocking the breweries. "We would like to see a social dialogue," Crouck said.

The unions are standing firm. "Our demands remain the same: InBev must withdraw these plans -- and not just for Belgium but for all of Europe," Marc Sparmont of SETCa, the Belgian Union of White-Collar Staff, Technicians and Managers, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The Big Winner So Far: InBev's Competition

At the moment, the biggest winner in the situation is clear: InBev's competition, some of whom are selling a lot more. At the Colruyt chain, brands like Primus or Maes are selling far better than they were before the crisis, according to weekly magazine, De Tijd.

One of Belgium's other large breweries, Haacht, is also reporting bigger orders. The brewer of Primus lager obviously hopes to take some of InBev's estimated 60 percent market share. Since the weekend the firm has been offering itself to InBev customers as the "Belgian alternative."

Meanwhile those protesting against the InBev plans are preparing for a long fight. They will be showing a movie at the Leuven plant on Friday: "Capitalism: A Love Story" by American film maker Michael Moore.

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