Public sector workers across Belgium have gone on strike to protest against the new coalition government's austerity measures aimed at reducing budget deficit.
The 24-hour stoppage, scheduled on the day Belgian parliament debated the measures, shut down the country's schools, post offices and almost its entire transport grid on Thursday.
“Workers aren't responsible for the crisis," said Andrea Della Vechia of the General Federation of Belgian Labour (FGTB union). "If funds be needed, they should go to the financial markets or the banks for cash, not the workers.”
Belgium's new socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo is trying to raise the early retirement age from 60 to 62, thus making it harder for workers in some professions to stop working and get retirement benefits at the age of 60.
The official retirement age is 65 years.
The pension reform is part of the government's 2012 budget plan aimed at bringing the country's budget deficit in line with European Union (EU) rules and keeping the government out of the eurozone debt crisis.
Ratings agencies Standard & Poor's and Moody's have both cut their ratings for Belgium in the past month, citing its high debt level, slow economic growth, lingering political crisis and the cost ofrescuing its financial sector, notably banking group Dexia.
The strike is the second show of opposition to the two-week-old government's spending cuts after some 50,000 Belgians took to the streets at the start of December.
Workers in Greece, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus and Britain have held strikes or protests in recent weeks to denounce expenditure reductions.