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Small businesses buckle under weight of energy costs

06:44 14/10/2022

Small businesses in Belgium are beginning to buckle under the weight of the energy prices, including laundrettes and bakeries which tend to have higher-than-normal energy costs already.

Several laundromats have told RTL they have had to raise their prices by as much as 30% in recent months to cope with the skyrocketing price of energy.

“Our gas bill has risen from €2,800 to €14,000,” one owner said, pointing to the fact that washing machines and dryers tend to consume a lot of energy as far as appliances go.

The higher prices are passed on to consumers who are already more likely to be struggling financially, including students, homeless people and those whose homes are too small to accommodate laundry appliances.

“It's the small-budget families who live in small houses and can't afford to put in all the machines, or to extend the house, who are penalised even more,” one customer lamented.

But many laundromats have been struggling since before the energy crisis, not only as a result of the coronavirus pandemic but also due to rising costs for materials such as water, soap and packaging materials.

“A 7kg machine used to cost €2.80 and we've gone up to €3.80 because of the increase in energy prices, which is very high,” Stéphanie De Wilde, manager of several laundromats in Brussels, told RTL.

“We must pass on the price of electricity and the cost of waste water disposal, which have tripled. We have high-efficiency boilers, we have LED lighting everywhere, but we can't ask customers to wash in cold air, to dry their clothes with cold air, so we are very limited in what we can do.”

Bakeries are likewise suffering as a result of energy-intensive appliances like ovens and refrigerators. Some are warning of the need to raise prices in the near future as their profit margins grow slim.

Larger bakery chains do not expect to need to do so right away, as they can share revenue from more profitable branches in order to stay afloat, but smaller bakers are feeling the pressure and many are even tapping into the personal savings to remain in business.

Anton Van Assche of entrepreneurs' association Unizo said that measures are needed to help entrepreneurs survive both inflation and the energy crisis.

In the meantime, discontent with the government for a lack of decisive action so far - both for businesses and ordinary residents - has grown enough to prompt plans for protest.

Belgium United for Freedom plans to take to the streets against the "exorbitant" energy prices in a march not unlike the ones that the group staged during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nuclear power plants have been neglected under the guise of ecological transition,” said organiser and founder Sarkis Simonjan, who, like many others, argues that if nuclear power had not been scaled down then Belgium would not be suffering so much from the current crisis.

Other European countries are reopening coal-fired plants that they had previously shut down, and some in Belgium are calling for the country to abandon its plans for a total nuclear exit.

Brussels mayor Philippe Close (PS) has given the green light for a demonstration on Sunday at 14.00. The march will begin at Brussels-North station and proceed to the Atomium where several speakers will address crowds.

Previous marches against the government’s pandemic policies attracted as many as 10,000 participants.

Written by Helen Lyons