Ontex Plans Factory Closures, Job Reductions in Belgium

Sarhan Basem

Brussels (Brussels Morning) – Ontex plans to cut nearly half its Belgian workforce, impacting 489 jobs in Eeklo and Buggenhout. Production has halted, and unions are negotiating a social plan. Flemish Minister Jo Brouns seeks discussions with management and unions.

How Are Unions Responding to Ontex Layoff Plans?

The employees of the production site in Eeklo – approximately 350 people who work there in shifts – have been informed about the intention to close the factory. “There is no work going on at the moment,” says Christel Van Hamme of ACV. 

“The people from the early team have all gradually left for home. We are still in groups inside to discuss everything with the people. Because it is a tough one that we have to deal with. Families also work here, so it is very tough.” The trade unionist indicates that the staff will not return to work after subsequent shift changes. There will probably be no work here all day.”

ABVV member Jan Holtyzer was present at the Ontex branch in Buggenhout on Thursday morning. “The morning shift and the night shift have already been informed. The employer forwarded the communication to all employees during the special works council. We have also stated that we will negotiate a social plan until the end of August.”

What Is the Future for Ontex Employees in Belgium?

The Ontex management indicates that it has given room to process the announcement. Since the closure of the Eeklo factory is expected at the beginning of 2025 and the first layoffs at the Buggenhout factory are planned for 2025, work will (or will have to) be resumed in the coming period. If staff do not resume work voluntarily, the union would support certain actions, but the trade union organizations expressly indicate that they first want to initiate a social dialogue.

“In the event of a closure, you first negotiate a social plan. Only if the conditions of that social plan do not meet our needs will we call for action. It doesn’t make much sense for people to put down all the work now. We don’t want to blow up the social dialogue before we have started,” he said. The unions have planned a first mutual consultation on Monday to agree on a joint approach to social dialogue.

The management announced “the intention to restructure the Belgian production and distribution activities” during special works councils. According to the plans, the production site in Eeklo would close its doors – with the loss of all 349 production-related jobs – and the site in Buggenhout would be transformed into an “expertise center for research, development and production of products for medium and heavy incontinence care”. 

There, 140 of the 528 jobs are at risk, although 40 million euros in investments are also promised. If the intention is confirmed, 569 jobs would remain at Ontex in Belgium (in Buggenhout and Aalst).

How Will Ontex Restructuring Impact Local Communities?

According to Ontex, the announced restructuring “represents a key strategic initiative aimed at strengthening Ontex’s operational cost efficiency across Europe.” The production that will disappear from Eeklo and Buggenhout will be moved to other Ontex factories in Europe.

“We recognize that this is a difficult announcement for our employees in Eeklo and Buggenhout and their families,” Ontex human resources manager Jonas Deroo is quoted in a press release. “Throughout the process, we also strive for a constructive and respectful dialogue with our social partners and, if the intention of the restructuring were to be confirmed, we expect to be able to find appropriate accompanying measures in the interests of all employees involved.”

In recent years, the diaper manufacturer has been in the news several times due to social unrest. “It was restructuring after restructuring after restructuring,” says trade unionist Carl De Clercq of the Christian trade union ACV. “It never stops at Ontex. But this time it is a very serious operation. We see entire production lines disappearing. There will also be three completely new ones. But we remain with many questions. There is only communication from management.” De Clercq speaks of dismay among the staff, who will be informed about the plans from Thursday.

The announcement “hits home hard,” says outgoing Flemish Minister of Work Jo Brouns (CD&V). He calls on management and employee representation to conduct the social consultation that must now start “serenely and to give it every opportunity”. “The consultation will have to show in concrete terms what the impact of this decision is and whether there are other alternatives available.” The minister is following the consultation closely and will soon have a meeting with Ontex management and trade unions, he says.

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Sarhan Basem is Brussels Morning's Senior Correspondent to the European Parliament. With a Bachelor's degree in English Literature, Sarhan brings a unique blend of linguistic finesse and analytical prowess to his reporting. Specializing in foreign affairs, human rights, civil liberties, and security issues, he delves deep into the intricacies of global politics to provide insightful commentary and in-depth coverage. Beyond the world of journalism, Sarhan is an avid traveler, exploring new cultures and cuisines, and enjoys unwinding with a good book or indulging in outdoor adventures whenever possible.