German labour minister announces stricter standards in the meat industry

Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) announced stricter labour laws for the meat industry, following coronavirus outbreak in plants. [EPA-EFE | Felipe Trueba]

The German meat industry has been under fire for years over its low working standards and workers’ rights. The coronavirus clusters in slaughterhouses have now offered the government an opportunity to intervene. EURACTIV Germany reports.

At a press conference on Wednesday (29 July), Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) described the current conditions in the German meat industry as “organised irresponsibility,” as the government announced it had reached an agreement on new rules for the meat industry and on increased monitoring of working conditions across all sectors.

The sector has been the subject of criticism for years as it increasingly employs its staff through work contracts with subcontractors.

This saves costs for the employer but makes monitoring the situation challenging, given that contract and temporary workers usually face worse working conditions and have no workers unions.

In recent weeks, this criticism has intensified as several coronavirus clusters in slaughterhouses has thrown the poor working conditions and accommodation into sharp relief.

Heil hopes that the current focus on these issues will help transform the industry.

Working conditions in meat processing plants make them hotbed for COVID-19

Another major COVID-19 outbreak in the largest meat processing facility in Europe has prompted stakeholders to urge the EU Commission to take swift measures to protect workers  in the sector and stem the spread of the virus.

More monitoring and more space

As of January 2021, the German government will ban work contracts in the industry and, as of 1 April, temporary work will also be banned,  with the exception of companies registered as “craftsmen” (‘Handwerk’ in German) with fewer than 49 employees.

This should protect the small butchers in the country, because the problem lies with the “big meat factories,” said Heil.

“In the future, the slaughterhouse operator is responsible for all employees,” he said, adding that working hours must be recorded electronically so that the minimum wage can no longer be evaded so easily.

As well as the meat industry, new standards will also be rolled out for other German companies, with the introduction of new standards for employee accommodation as well as more labour law checks.

“Nobody should have to live in mouldy or overcrowded rooms,” said Heil. “This is not only unacceptable, but also a risk factor during a pandemic. These standards will also apply outside the company premises”.

By 2026, the inspections are to be extended to 5% of all German companies across all sectors.

Could Germany impose a tax on meat?

Shortly before Germany launches its “green week”, Lower Saxony’s conservative agriculture minister, Barbara Otte-Kinast (CDU), raised the issue of introducing a meat tax, again, which is something animal welfare activists have been demanding for years. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Concerns about price and location

Heil considers the fact that these regulations lead to higher meat prices to be an “old wives’ tale,” spread by lobbyists.

“Decent working conditions per se do not make meat more expensive,” Heil said, adding that the industry was making billions in profits.

Instead of passing on any additional costs to customers, he said, one should “talk about profit margins,” pointing out that someone has always earned money from the contracts with “sub-sub-sub-companies.”

But the Christian Democrat (CDU/CSU) Economic Council criticised Heil’s plans, fearing an “encroachment on entrepreneurial freedom,” according to a press release.

“Temporary employment and work contracts are a central element for entrepreneurs in Germany to maintain flexibility and cushion peaks through employment based on the division of labour,” emphasised General Secretary Wolfgang Steiger.

Instead, the Economic Council is calling for relief to secure Germany’s competitiveness.

Similarly, Alternative for Germany (AfD) agricultural spokesman Stephan Protschka argued in his press release that he expects “the impact of the law on domestic livestock farming and the meat industry will be so great that there will be a shift abroad.”

Heil dismissed this criticism, saying that he does not expect any emigration of business, and added that in principle “exploitation cannot be claimed as a locational advantage.”

Other EU countries had complained that their markets were being damaged by Germany’s cheap meat. Heil, therefore, sees the initiative as a “contribution to fair competition.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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