I have been talking with Brussels transport workers and trade unionists in the aftermath of the 22 March Daesh bombings which killed 32 people and injured hundreds more. Amidst the news reporting and political demagogy, it is important that their voices are heard.
Two workers died in the Brussels airport bombing - one working on check-in, the other in baggage handling. Others were injured, and still more were traumatised by what they experienced: helping the injured and dying, seeing body parts among the baggage. At least 14 passengers also perished.
I was told that once the airport had been attacked, the decision was taken to close the Metro, but the chaotic and fragmented administration of Brussels’ public transport did not get the message out. Half an hour later, the second wave of explosions hit Maelbeek Metro station, killing a further 16 people. This need not have happened.
The Metro station that was bombed was unstaffed, and the driver of the Metro train survived. The absence of staff must surely have delayed raising the alarm and helping the casualties. Maelbeek is not the largest or the busiest station on the Brussels Metro, but it is the nearest to the US embassy.
Two weeks on from the attacks, the Metro was running only until 19:00 and some stations, such as the Bourse (pictured), closed altogether.
Transport employers are providing counselling, but not enough for everyone who needs it.
Workers are scared to return to work - because of the trauma, but also because they have little confidence in the security measures provided by their employers. Security equipment is inadequate and outdated. There are a lot of access points to the airport, and trade unionists demonstrated to the employers that people could get in to secure areas with invalid passes.
So when management wanted to open the airport after the attacks, the airport police went on strike. The press and politicians complained about the action, blaming the unions, but the strike won a deal, with security measures including more staff deployed at the airport entrances, and luggage scanned there rather than only at departure.
Three weeks on from the attacks, air traffic controllers stayed away from work, phoning in sick because they are not confident in their safety at work. This is ‘wildcat’ action, encouraged but not officially organised by their union. Over 50 flights were cancelled on the morning of Wednesday 12 April. The action was portrayed in the media as a dispute about a rise in the pre-retirement age from 55 to 58, but it was as much to do with safety fears. The Belgian Prime Minister condemned the action as damaging to the country’s image. He is cynically using the actions of terrorists to pressure workers into putting themselves at risk and delaying their well-earned retirement.
One Brussels airport worker asked me, “When does it become normal again?” I was not as close as others were to the London transport bombings on 7 July 2005, but I am not sure that it ever does become normal to go to work under the shadow of terror attacks. I think I’d worry if it did.
I do know that without our trade unions, transport employers would expect workers to clean up and turn up, even with corners cut and inadequate safety. And that for working people in areas of the world where violent Islamists are strong, where there are other terror groups or despotic regimes, or where war is raging, the fear of attack is ever-present.