German slaughterhouses become a source of COVID-19 infections

The closed slaughterhouse in North Rhine-Westphalia, where every sixth employee was ill with COVID-19. [EPA-EFE | Friedemann Vogel]

Many employees in slaughterhouses are ill with COVID-19 because they work and live close together. The abuses in the industry have been known for years, but little has changed. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The coronavirus running rampant in German slaughterhouses has sparked a fierce debate about the working conditions in these plants. On Monday (11 May), the Greens requested a debate in the Bundestag on the topic which will be held on Thursday.

“Exploitation in the meat industry must finally come to an end,” said Green MP Bitta Haßelmann.

The debate stems from a plant in Coesfeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, which closed after more than 200 of the 1,200 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

“Due to obviously insufficient precautions,” the factory had become a “considerable epidemiological source of danger,” the Münster administrative court announced. As a result, the district’s coronavirus restrictions were extended, and all 20,000 people employed in meat factories in the state will be tested.

Slaughterhouses in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria also reported high infection rates, and a plant in Schleswig-Holstein was closed after 128 employees also tested positive.

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Since these revelations, the working conditions in the meat industry, which are considered notoriously miserable, have been a source of heated debate.

“We are now seeing what was already clear before. The conditions in the meat industry are miserable,” Green Party chairman Anton Hofreiter told the newspaper Nordwest Zeitung.

The industry’s cramped living and working conditions and insufficient sanitation measures are also subject to criticism. This has likely helped the virus to spread so quickly. The pandemic is holding up a mirror to society, SPD MP Helge Lindt tweeted.

The Working Group for Rural Agriculture (AbL), on the other hand, complains that this political outrage is opportunistic. “We farmers have an interest in keeping farm animals in a manner appropriate to livestock and at fair prices to secure our livelihoods,” writes the AbL.

In response, Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner called on meat industry associations to develop a plan to comply with health and safety regulations in a telephone conference on Tuesday (12 May).

For years, the German meat industry has been criticised for its employment of low-wage workers from Eastern Europe, particularly Romania and Bulgaria. Many are employed as temporary workers, subjecting them to lower standards than permanent employees.

Exact figures on the number of employees and their working conditions are not available, as many employees are undeclared. According to an evaluation of data from the German government, the number of checks on illegal employment in the industry has declined by 60 percent over the past decade.

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There are also no clear figures on average income. However, a study by the European Federation of Agricultural, Food and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT) from 2011 gives an impression of how Germany benefits from the work of Eastern European temporary workers.

Back then, employees in slaughterhouses in Denmark earned an average of €25 an hour, in France €9 to 12, and in Germany around €7. The hourly wages from Romania and Bulgaria were unknown, but EFFAT assumes that they were lower than the Polish hourly wages of €3 to 6.

No quick fix

The law safeguarding employee rights in the meat industry has been in force in Germany since 2017. It is supposed to guarantee fair labour rights for temporary workers from abroad and prohibits requiring workers to pay for their own equipment, such as knives and protective clothing, as was often the case before.

However, in March, the German government claimed it is impossible to know the extent of improvements.

Some changes seem to have taken place. Figures from the Federal Employment Agency show the number of employees in the meat industry subject to social insurance contributions rose by 8% between 2015 and 2019. The number of accident insurance policies has also improved significantly.

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The German Meat Industry Association believes working conditions are not the only reason for the coronavirus outbreaks.

As critical infrastructure, production continued to secure the food supply. Therefore, if quickly introduced, stricter regulations would not be effective, said Managing Director Heike Harstick. There will be no “quick and easy solution.”

[Edited by Sarah Lawton]

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