The e-commerce sector in Belgium withholds the country’s progress, both socially and environmentally, said Paul Magnette. He is the mayor of Charleroi and the leader of the Sociality party. Because of this, he calls for an end to online shopping in the country.
According to him, the increase in online shopping in Belgium is a threat to the city’s urban centers. At the same time, this preference is detrimental to the working environment of employees. Priority should be given to the development of the current high streets in the country, where physical stores and other businesses abound.
The schedule of warehouse work should also not be extended any longer than what it currently is. Specifically, night shifts should not be allowed.
He said that “Let Belgium be a country without e-commerce. I don’t think that 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?”
Only jobs that are necessary to operate even at night, such as services for emergencies, should be allowed to do so. Employees working at jobs that are not involved in matters of life and death should not have any night shifts.
He does not have any problems with companies relocating their warehouses from Belgium to the Netherlands. This proposal is intended to improve the working conditions in Belgium because working for long hours can predispose citizens to illnesses in the years to come. Unemployment is not a big risk for Belgium, but sick citizens are. As such, the health of the citizens should come before anything else.
Later on, a spokesperson for the Socialist party said that the statement made by Magnette did not mean that he was completely against the e-commerce sector in Belgium. Rather, he intended to start a discussion about how online shopping in the country can have negative effects on society.
Labor Market Regulations are Under Review
This statement comes before the discussion by the Federal Government regarding the working hours of employees in the e-commerce sector in Belgium. They are considering allowing companies in this sector to continue with warehouse work from 20:00 until midnight. By extending their allowable work hours, companies can fulfill the workload within the appropriate timeframe and, thereby, meet the demand of their consumers.
This is being considered to encourage companies to keep their operations within the country. Currently, many businesses obtain logistics services from the Netherlands because they are limited by the regulations on working hours in Belgium. Outsourcing becomes more optimal for their operations since the restrictions are not as strict as they are in the country.
Response of Other Authorities to the Call to End Online Shopping in Belgium
Nevertheless, many opposed what Magnette had already said about online shopping in Belgium.
As a response, Egbert Lachaert said in a tweet, “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?” He is the chairman of the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats, better known as the Open VLD, which is a Flemish conservative-liberal political party in Belgium.
Similarly, Georges-Louis Bouchez, a Senator and leader of the Mouvement reformateur, said that online shopping in Belgium will be beneficial for the country and that they should not be stuck on old ways, lest they get left behind. “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.”
Comeos, the Federation of the Trade Sector, also disagreed with what Magnette said. “More than 80 percent of Belgians are already shopping online. If we need to get all those products from abroad, we will lose out on 9 billion euros in sales and ten thousands of jobs.” E-commerce has arrived and it is here to stay. Many businesses have already incorporated digital aspects into their plans because retail will occur in both digital and physical spaces. There were 49,000 online stores registered in Belgium when the lockdown started in 2020. This is twice as much as it was before the pandemic happened.
If Magnette really was worried about the possibility of poor working conditions, he should participate in efforts to improve digital trade within the country. Giving these opportunities to other countries will do no good for Belgium. On the other hand, if the e-commerce sector in Belgium were properly developed, Belgian citizens would reap the benefits of it. Local suppliers will have more demand for their products, employees will have sufficient wages and healthy working conditions, and local logistical hubs can sufficiently cater to the needs of citizens.
Carl Devos, a political scientist, said that the promotion of the e-commerce sector in Belgium is a great opportunity for the labor market in the country as this can result in an 80% employment rate. Extending work hours beyond 20:00 can contribute to this favorable situation.
Vincent Van Peteghem, the Minister of Finance in Belgium, believes that e-commerce in Belgium is not an either/or situation. There is no need to choose between the progress of the sector and the promotion of healthy working conditions. Both should be prioritized at the same time.
More Belgian Consumers are Shopping Online
In 2021, eight million consumers in Belgium spent 11 billion euros on purchases made through online platforms. This is a bit higher than what it was in the year before, when only 10.6 billion euros were spent by consumers. However, consumer spending on online shopping was still higher before the COVID-19 pandemic happened. In 2019, 11.46 billion euros were spent in total.
It would seem unusual for spending on online shopping in Belgium to decrease when citizens should have been stuck at home and restricted from going to physical establishments. The number of consumers using online platforms to make their purchases did increase, but they spent less on these purchases. As a result, businesses did not profit as much.
The lockdowns implemented as a result of the transmission of the COVID-19 virus greatly affected the service sector. Consumers did not buy tickets for travel, attractions, and events. The travel sector, on its own, lost one billion euros because of the restrictions on the mobility of citizens in the country and across the world. More often than not, purchases made for travel cost more compared to other sectors. Because of this, the e-commerce sector in Belgium as a whole suffered at that time.
Despite this, more and more citizens are turning to online shopping in Belgium. According to Sofie Geeroms, the general manager of BeCommerce, “200,000 people found their way to an online store for the first time” in 2020.
Foreign Online Platforms Benefit from the Spending of Belgian Citizens
The billions of purchases made by Belgian consumers do not happen on Belgian online selling platforms. Rather, this goes to businesses based abroad. Dominique Michel, the managing director of Comeos, said, “This means that there are at least 15,000 jobs that have crossed the border, or have been created outside our borders.”
Because of this, he urges politicians to create a more suitable environment for the e-commerce sector in Belgium to flourish. This includes making work hours for employees in the industry more flexible. He assures government officials that working conditions will not be like they are in Amazon, where many of its employees get injured and are at high risk for infection with the COVID-19 virus. Businesses will provide better working conditions for employees in Belgium. Having this political support can enable the Belgian e-commerce sector to compete against Amazon, but never at the expense of the social protection that citizens are entitled to.
The E-Commerce Sector in Belgium is Making Progress
Even if the e-commerce sector in Belgium is not yet mature, this does not mean that there hasn’t been any improvement. Belgian sites are still taking their share of consumers who make purchases on online platforms. Geeroms said that “every year we make progress, there are more and more Belgians in this top 100 online stores.” This was said in relation to the list of the top 100 online stores, which the company releases each year. Less than half, or around 40 websites, from Belgium are included in the list. The remaining ranks belong to international platforms.
E-commerce in Belgium has been beneficial for many business owners, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Nathalie Ceter, owner of a children’s shoe store located in Ixelles, said that her website has enabled her to survive this pandemic. She experienced a decrease in the number of sales from her physical store, but she still had the opportunity to sell her products through online means. Because of this, her business grew and she was even able to hire two employees.
She shares that a physical and a digital store go hand in hand. The presence of two different platforms provides more opportunities for businesses to reach a wider audience. At the same time, it helps turn potential customers obtained from the website into actual purchasers in the physical store and vice versa. Customers are also given more options so that they can shop through the most convenient means for them.
However, not all entrepreneurs have been able to cope with these changes. Ariane Fonteyne, who owns a clothes and jewelry shop in Uccle, said that it had been difficult to manage both the physical and digital stores. She believes that e-commerce in Belgium won’t do any good for the city. She says that “the more people buy on the internet, the less they come to the store. I have 60 to 80% fewer customers in my store. So I think that promoting internet commerce is not a good thing for the future of cities. It’s going to kill the heart of cities and businesses.”
Given this, much more needs to be done to boost the e-commerce sector in Belgium until it reaches maturity. This will, however, require a lot of effort and support from all the stakeholders. Coming together and working towards the sustainable development of the sector can be achieved by doing so. This ensures that no one is left behind in the face of a multitude of changes and that neither progress nor quality of life is sacrificed.