The German government has announced a series of reforms of the meat industry, including a ban on the use of subcontractors and fines of €30,000 (£26,000) for companies breaching labour regulations, as slaughterhouses have emerged as coronavirus hotspots.
A number of meat plants across the country have temporarily closed after hundreds of workers tested positive for Covid-19 in recent weeks.
This week more than 90 workers were reported to have fallen ill at a plant in Dissen, Lower Saxony. Following an outbreak at a plant in Coesfeld, where more than 270 of 1,200 workers tested positive, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia announced mass testing of industry employees.
An outbreak at a plant in Bavaria in the district of Straubing-Bogen coincides with numbers of infections reaching the “emergency break” level of 50 cases per 100,000 residents. States passing this point are allowed to reimpose lockdown restrictions.
“The corona outbreaks have not surprised us at all,” said Jonas Bohl, from the German Food, Beverages and Catering Union. “Rather the surprise was that they took a while to emerge.
The people not only work closely together but more importantly they live together, in very cramped conditions where there is no possibility to keep social distance.”
Hubertus Heil, Germany’s minister for work and social affairs, said the high number of infections showed that better health and safety was “urgently needed” in the industry. This week the government announced a series of new measures to increase health and safety protection for workers, and reform the system of subcontracted labour.
Of the roughly 90,000 staff employed by major meat plants in Germany, an estimated two-thirds are hired through subcontractors, according to Fair Mobility, a civil society organisation supporting eastern European migrant workers in Germany.
From 1 January 2021 the use of subcontractors will be banned and large meat processing companies will only be able to use workers they directly employ.
“[It is] quite a historic moment,” said Christine Chemnitz, head of agricultural policy at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. “The meat industry can no longer take advantage of exploitative labour conditions in the slaughterhouses. It is an important crack in the production model of cheap meat from Germany.”
The German Association of the Meat Industry announced its support for additional health and safety measures, but argued that the ban on subcontracted labour was “discriminatory” and questioned how far it could be implemented. It also rejected criticisms that the coronavirus outbreaks illustrate an industry-wide problem, and outlined its own five-point improvement plan.
Bohl, from the food and catering union, argues that although hygiene was tightened on many factory floors due to coronavirus, German meat plants didn’t do enough to address the transport and accommodation issues workers faced.
Two Romanian former employees of a Bavarian slaughterhouse told the Guardian they were “not at all” surprised at the outbreaks.
“There were houses where you could find even 20 people,” said *Alex. “It takes one asymptomatic person in one house to spread the virus to everyone else. You could not isolate alone in a packed house.”
Bohl said the subcontractors often made extra money by renting out cheap buildings – such as former army barracks or office spaces – to a large number of workers.
Former slaughterhouse worker *Lucas said that during his employment with a subcontractor there were sometimes as many as five people to a room and conditions were “terrible”. “In the first house we had cockroaches and mice and in the second house the room was full of mould and we had no heat – in November – until they brought an electric heater.”
According to Fair Mobility, shifts of 12–14 hours are not uncommon in the industry. Lucas said people were pressured by subcontractors to work beyond contracted hours or risk dismissal.
“We were like modern slaves,” he said. “You weren’t allowed to get sick, if you got sick there was a very good chance you’d lose your job.”
While German slaughterhouse employees also worked through the pandemic, migrant workers are frequently isolated from the German community and institutions around them, and often lack access to information in their own language, said Chemnitz.
The workers have become even more vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic, Bohl said. “They have a lot of fear about their health, but also about their futures and money. It’s often not clear who pays for this period when they can’t work.”
While it depended on the subcontractor, Bohl feared some would not be paid if they were unable to work during the pandemic.
“It is always that people are kicked out when they get sick but especially during corona,” said Guido Grüner, from ALSO in Oldenburg, a civil society organisation providing advice for many slaughterhouse workers. In recent weeks he had witnessed workers with a doctor’s note to stay off work being let go, especially if they were within their probation period.
“The conditions [of the job] make people sick and have done for a long time. Corona is just a magnifying glass, showing things that people already knew but had closed their eyes to,” said Bohl.
“This is an industry that is really living from weak working conditions and cheap salaries,” said Chemnitz, adding that a strong agricultural lobby and Germany’s role as a major meat producer have held the system in place.
* Names have been changed