Steel operative at work on the blast furnaces of Sidmar, 1979 | Ghent, Amsab-ISG, Lieve Colruyt/rights SOFAM Belgium

Economy & Technology
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Steel in Flanders

Economic Growth in the Sixties

In 1967 the first steel sheets came off the rollers of the new Sidmar steel plant in Zelzate, the present ArcelorMittal. Steel had never before been produced in Flanders. The steel sheets were a symbol of renewed economic dynamism in the region.

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Sidmar illustrated the shift of the economic centre of gravity in Belgium from the south to the north. In 1966 for the first time the gross domestic productthe added value of the production in a particular country/region, in one year. per inhabitant was higher in Flanders than in Wallonia. That shift had deeper underlying causes. The Walloon mining sector was not doing well. Raw materials for heavy industry in Wallonia had increasingly to be shipped from overseas. With its harbours Flanders had a great advantage, also in being able to export the finished products again easily.

Not only steel production was doing well in Flanders. The (petro-)chemical industry around the port of Antwerp was flourishing, as were car manufacturers like Ford Genk and General Motors, and pharmaceutical companies like Janssen Pharmaceutica.

Industriezone Roeselare.

Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. kfa026642

Industrial zone in Roeselare in the 1960s.

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Economic Growth in the Sixties

In the 19th century Flanders had a limited industrial core. It consisted mainly of mechanised textile production in Ghent and some provincial towns. Around 1900 new branches of industry started to establish themselves in Antwerp and the Campine. They focused on new technologies, such as electricity, combustion engines or developments in chemistry, from the technology company Bell Telephone, to car builder Minerva, to Gevaert, the manufacturer of photographic paper.

However, it was especially after the Second World War that economic expansion in Flanders really gathered momentum. The setting up of the European Economic Community (EEC)predecessor of the European Union. made Flanders a central area in a gigantic market. In order to cope with the competition in that larger market, the Belgian government came up, at the end of the 1950s, with the so-called expansion laws. These contained a series of support measures for companies and regions to pump-start the economy and deal with structural unemployment, which was particularly high in Flanders.

The growth of the economy followed two spearheads. On the one hand large foreign multinationals found their way to Flanders. On the other hand, numerous dynamic small and medium-sized companies were set up. They found enough space in the new, well-equipped industrial estates that were built in almost every municipality.

Focal points

Ford Genk.

Belga Image, 1578870

The Ford car plant in Genk opened in 1964, and at its height it employed 14,000 people. In 2014 the plant was closed, after production was transferred to Spain. More than 4,000 employees lost their jobs.

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Foreign Capital and Foreign Workers

The setting up of the EEC in 1958 created many opportunities for large international companies. Such multinationals saw Flanders as an ideal base. The region was accessible by road, water and rail. The companies could enjoy support from the Belgian government, which deliberately attracted foreign investors. In addition, multinationals saw the relatively low wages as an advantage.

International investors not only brought foreign capital to Flanders, but also knowledge and expertise. The latter came in the shape of highly-trained management staff, who occupied key positions in the multinationals. Special tax schemes and special schools made the life of those expats and their families more attractive. But foreign investors felt less attached to the region and threatened to leave again earlier. Moreover, some companies did damage to the environment, which was only visible much later.

Because of the economic growth there was soon a serious shortage of unskilled labour. Lots of foreign workers had been previously active in the mines. In 1964 Belgium signed agreements with Morocco and Turkey to counter the shortage of labour in other sectors via organised labour migration. By the beginning of the 1970s there were already tens of thousands of Moroccan and Turkish labour migrants, at the time called ‘guest workers’, in the country. They went mainly to the important economic centres, outside the mining area.

In Flanders these were the larger cities, such as Antwerp and Ghent. The labour migrants did mostly heavy and dangerous work and were often victims of exploitation. Their living conditions were generally inadequate, as was the policy of looking after their welfare.

Flanders Technology.

Mechelen, BBC a b2b creative agency.

A robotic hand shaking a human one was the iconic logo of Flanders Technology International.


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Flanders Technology International

The wave of investment of the 1960s did not last. In the second half of the 1970s the world economic crisis hit Flanders hard. From 1981 the Flemish Region had its own government and that gave it a number of economic levers to remedy the poor situation.

In 1983 the Flemish government launched the Flanders Technology International project. It was an investment project with as its focus a large biennial technology fair in Ghent. The underlying aim was to get the ‘third industrial revolution’ of micro-electronics and biotechnology off the ground.

Flanders Technology International took advantage of everything that moved in the economic field in Flanders. Wages had risen sharply, which meant that traditional industry was having a harder time. That led to a shift towards high-tech production, which was partly made possible by a highly-trained population. Flanders became first in the world in, for example, pharmaceuticals, micro-electronics and biotechnology. Yet the transition was not a complete success story. For example, in the 1990s the speech technology company Lernout & Hauspie was all the rage. Its bankruptcy in 2001 gave everyone severe hangovers, investors, policy-makers and the public at large. Still, investment in new sectors remains necessary. They can offer an alternative to traditional branches of industry, which because of economic globalisation (threaten to) disappear to low-wage countries.

Dokter Paul.
Kilmer House

In 1953 the young doctor Paul Janssen (1926-2003) founded a company for pharmaceutical research in Beerse. Janssen Pharmaceutica grew incredibly fast and developed a large number of essential medicines, such as Motilium and Imodium. Today the company is part of the American group Johnson and Johnson.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, collectie Turkije aan de Leie, fo033267

The worldwide economic crisis in the 1970s had a great impact on employment in the old sectors of industry. Many workers had to opt for a different career, some chose a life as a freelancer. This is Abilkadir Tapmaz in his café in the Fratersplein in Ghent, 1970s.

André Leysen.
Belga Image, 10886

André Leysen (1927-2015) from Antwerp was one of the prominent Flemish entrepreneurs in the decades after the Second World War. He headed, for example, the Ahlers shipping company and Agfa-Gevaert and set up the media group Mediahuis.

Leuven, imec

Imec started in 1984 in Leuven as a research centre for micro-electronics, as part of the Flanders Technology International project. Today imec is the world’s largest independent research centre for nano-electronics and digital technology, with thousands of staff and offices as far away as Asia and the United States of America.


The American chemical group 3M established itself in Belgium in 1963 with a production unit in Zwijndrecht. Only later did the environmental damage caused by this and other chemical companies become apparent. In 2021 it came to light that land around Zwijndrecht had become seriously polluted by the poisonous substance Pfos.

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Bron: VRT archief – 5 okt 2021

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Bron: VRT archief – 31 aug 2021


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