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VRT staff to strike after chief executive fired in budget-cut fallout

14:38 20/01/2020
From Flanders Today

Staff at Flemish public broadcaster VRT have called a 24-hour strike next Monday in protest at the "unacceptable" dismissal of chief executive Paul Lembrechts.

Some television programmes on 27 January will be replaced and radio stations are likely to play just music, Acod trade union rep Wies Descheemaeker said.

He said Lembrechts had "made an unequivocal commitment to protect the VRT from massive cost-savings that the Flemish government wants to impose on us. The reaction of the Flemish government was to fire him. That is unacceptable to us."

Lembrechts was dismissed by the government on Monday ahead of negotiations over restructuring due to budget cuts. The dismissal follows months of internal conflict regarding the direction the broadcaster must take following a total loss of €40 million over the next five years.

“The managing director has not been able to re-establish trust and is no longer credible in his role as leader of the public broadcaster,” Flemish media minister Benjamin Dalle announced today. “His labour contract has come to an end.”

The government announced last autumn that VRT must cut €12 million from its budget over the next five years. But “because of the subsidies no longer being indexed and the extra costs now involved in seniority benefits and pension funds, the total loss to us is more than €40 million,” explained the public broadcaster in a statement at the time.

The previous legislature also saw VRT forced to save more than €33 million, with the loss of 220 jobs. This time, the announcement of budget cuts also came with a number of directives regarding how the VRT must operate in the future.

Management and staff expressed grave concerns over the consequences of both the budget cuts and the directives. Some 600 staff protested in December.

Disagreements formed between VRT production director Peter Claes, a member of the board of directors, and Lembrechts, as well as the rest of the board. While Claes wants to concentrate on how the broadcaster could restructure based on the cuts, Lembrechts wants to fight them outright.

Claes requested that he lead the talks with the government of Flanders, but Lembrechts assigned two other negotiators and asked the rest of the board to consider Claes’s dismissal. That did not happen, but Lambrechts put Claes on “non-active” status.

A long history of disparities among the two executives and the chair of the board came to a head, and the government of Flanders finally decided to intervene. Board member Leo Hellemans has been named as a temporary CEO while decisions are made as to who will remain on the board of directors. The government will launch procedures to hire a new CEO, said Dalle.

“I’m extremely disappointed that efforts at mediation failed,” Hellemans said. “To be perfectly clear: I am not a ‘crisis manager’, the VRT is not in crisis, and everyone can be proud of the work they are doing here. It’s strictly a problem at the top, which must be solved.”

Photo, from left: VRT board chair Luc Van den Brande, minister Benjamin Dalle and interim CEO Leo Hellemans
©Jasper Jacobs/BELGA

Written by Flanders Today

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