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AB InBev To Freeze Layoffs Amid Dispute

World's biggest brewer has agreed to freeze planned job cuts in Belgium to get workers to drop a two-week brewery blockade causing beer shortages.

BRUSSELS (AP) -- The world's biggest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev SA, said Thursday it has agreed to freeze planned job cuts in Belgium to get workers to drop a two-week brewery blockade causing beer shortages at supermarkets and bars.

The company and Belgian trade unions said they struck a deal that postpones the brewer's plans to reduce 303 jobs in Belgium -- some 10 percent of its work force there. It says it will also create 40 call center sales positions, bringing net job losses to 263.

"We have found agreement," said LBC union spokeswoman Annemie Plessers. She said that would lift the blockade and allow such beers as Stella Artois, Leffe and Jupiler to be distributed again from Friday.

Instead of imposing the job reductions, AB InBev said in a statement that there would be "an analysis of the problems and a coordinated search for solutions with the different parties involved."

The beer drought saw the Belgian government drafted in to help mediate the crisis.

Supplies of Stella Artois and Jupiler ran out at the central depot of the Delhaize supermarket, one of the biggest in Belgium. Other supermarkets shelves where the suds would be stacked high were increasingly empty.

It was no better in bars across the country, where owners increasingly had to turn to other beers to keep taps running.

"The distribution of Jupiler, Hoegaarden and Stella Artois on tap has totally stopped," said Luc De Bauw, the head of the HoReCa organization of bar and restaurant owners.

The unions now need to call for meetings with their rank and file early Friday, and expect the blockades to be lifted later that day.

Union activists have set up walls of beer crates at the company's three main plants in Belgium since Jan. 7, preventing the company from bringing beer out or taking raw materials, empty bottles and packaging goods in.

Unions say AB InBev's worldwide operations yield hefty profits which made layoffs unnecessary. Overall though, Belgium is a shrinking market where consumers drink less and less mass market beers.

Last November, AB InBev reported $1.55 billion net profit in the third quarter saying cost savings from the 2008 merger of St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch and InBev ran ahead of plan.

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