Tuesday, 3 January 2012
Protest over Ikea meatballs - welcome back to Absurdistan
After describing the impromptu general strike three days before Christmas which forced me to pay $500 to rebook my flight home, I moved on to describing to my friends the other union strikes I have witnessed since moving here. From the impromptu metro driver strike that was called after a driver claimed he was punched by a passenger (it turned out the driver had punched the passenger) to the October garbage strike in which the garbagemen went around town lighting the trash bags on fire and throwing them into the street, there’s plenty to describe. And let's not forget the time the taxi drivers blockaded Brussels Airport because an unlicensed taxi driver had been grazed by a bullet while he fled from police during a high-speed chase.
Today I learned about a whole new anecdote of insanity I could have described to my perplexed American friends. According to this story by Belgian news station RTL, the restaurant owners association in Belgium (Horeca) is busing homeless people to Ikea as a protest against their low meatball prices. When I first saw this story I assumed it had to be a joke. Clearly I’ve been in the US too long! Because I forgot that when you hear about something this absurd happening in Belgium, it’s probably true.
In a protest against Ikea’s low-priced meatballs, which they say are putting traditional restaurants out of business, Horeca bused 200 homeless people to a branch of Ikea for a Christmas dinner. It was an apparent effort to disrupt the chain’s business by scaring away customers. Horeca’s president accused the Swedish chain of selling meatballs at loss-leading prices in order to get people into the store, something that is illegal in Belgium. He told RTL, “After seeing meatballs at €2.50 in Ikea, consumers will treat us traditional restaurants like thieves."
So to anyone who didn’t understand why I was buying so many things to take back with me while home in the US, now you get a clearer picture! Consumer goods are much more expensive here in the 'land that capitalism forgot', because prices are so rigidly controlled (either by the government, by unions or by business cartels). We’re now in the January sales period, one of just two months per year when retailers are allowed to have sales (the other is July). But really, this sale period just reduces prices to what they would be in neighboring countries like the UK and Germany. So they’re of little interest to me, since I have a policy of never buying anything in Belgium that isn’t absolutely necessary. I save up my shopping for when I’m out of the country.
I made a new years resolution to try to be more positive about Belgium. Clearly, I'm off to a great start already. Oh well, my resolution to lose 10 kilos was probably much more realistic. Happy new year!