The leader of a party in Belgium’s governing coalition has sparked a debate after proposing that the country abolish internet shopping to let its high streets thrive and reduce night warehouse work.
Paul Magnette, the leader of the Socialist party and mayor of Charleroi, Belgium’s third-biggest city, said he feared the current trends were hollowing out urban centres and driving down working conditions.
“Let Belgium become a country without e-commerce,” Magnette told the Francophone newspaper Humo. “I don’t think e-commerce is progress, but social and ecological degradation. Why do we have to let workers work in those warehouses at night? Because people want to buy around the clock and have their parcels at home within 24 hours. Can we really not wait two days for a book?”
According to Eurostat, 75% of Belgians aged 16 to 74 made a purchase online in 2021, just above the average among the 27 EU member states. Denmark had the highest proportion of internet shoppers (91%) and Bulgaria the lowest (33%).
The Covid pandemic has sped up the transition. In March 2020, about 40% of UK shoppers said they had been shopping more online than before the pandemic. By February 2021, this proportion had grown to approximately 75%, according to Statista.
Magnette’s comments had been made before a decision of the federal government on possible changes to the regulations on night work, a reform deemed necessary by some in order for Belgium to keep up with neighbouring countries such as the Netherlands.
Companies in Belgium must pay a night rate for work carried out after 8pm. A new system is under consideration where a daily rate is applicable for 20 of the 24 hours of a day, if a union representing staff in the company is in agreement.
Magnette argued that night work should instead be limited to where it was strictly necessary, including within the emergency services, as he claimed that the biggest risk facing Belgium was “not unemployment, but the long-term sick”.
A spokesman for the Socialist party later clarified that Magnette was not opposed to the digital sector but that he wanted there to be a debate about the consequences of internet shopping.
The comments nevertheless drew scornful responses from his political foes.
Egbert Lachaert, the chairman of the Open VLD, a Flemish conservative-liberal party, tweeted: “Going back to the economy of 100 years ago will not help us. E-commerce can now provide jobs for thousands of people. We’re not going to let that go, are we?”
Georges-Louis Bouchez, a senator in the liberal Francophone Reformist Movement party said: “The 19th century cannot be a model of society. Progress is an opportunity. We need an open mind and adaptability in our society for greater wellbeing. We should not just leave e-commerce to other countries. We would lose hundreds of millions.”
Asked to comment on the debate, Vincent Van Peteghem, the federal finance minister and a member of the Christian Democratic and Flemish party, said he recognised the need to strike the right balance.
“I do not think it should be one or the other, but rather one and the other,” he said, adding that it was important to have “an e-commerce sector which is sustainable and which functions with adequate working conditions”.