Germany to tighten rules on meat industry workers

Hygiene measures and adequate employee accommodation will be the responsibility of the meat companies in the future. Thus far, the large companies have been able to leave this to subcontractors. [Shutterstock | El Nariz]

After the COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on working conditions in meat plants, Germany is moving to tighten rules in a bid to afford workers more job security, but this has been met with criticism by the meat industry.  EURACTIV Germany reports.

The Bundestag will vote on Wednesday (December 16) on a proposal to ban work contracts and temporary work in the meat industry.

With the exception of the liberal FDP and far-right AfD, all the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag’s Labour and Social Affairs Committee have already given their approval for the so-called “Occupational Health and Safety Monitoring Act.”

On Wednesday, the entire Bundestag will debate and then vote on the draft law, which is intended to ban work contracts [Werkverträge – employing workers who have a contract with subcontractors] and temporary employment in meatpacking plants.

Seasonal workers from southeastern Europe have been particularly affected by such precarious conditions for employees.

While the new legislation would ban contracts for work and services altogether, temporary employment would remain possible under certain conditions, such as to compensate for seasonal peaks in demand. However, temporary workers will be guaranteed a wage in accordance with a mandatory collective agreement.

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Working conditions became public due to the pandemic 

Following multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants, the working conditions and worker accommodation in the industry have repeatedly caused heated debate.

One of the issues was that meat companies had passed on responsibility for accommodation and hygiene measures for the subcontractors they hired. This will no longer be possible as the meat company commissioning the work will henceforth be liable. Companies with fewer than 50 employees are an exception to this new regulation.

After lengthy discussions involving all the parliamentary groups, there now appears to be agreement. In addition to the governing parties, the Left Party and the Green Party have also recommended a resolution in favour of the draft.

Before the Bundestag is expected to pass the new law, however, a number of opposition motions will be put forward. The Green parliamentary group is pushing for better health protection for temporary workers during the pandemic and is calling for regular COVID-19 tests for employees in the meat industry as well as seasonal agricultural workers.

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Die Linke: “Overdue step, but…”

Among other things, the leftist Die Linke motion is about tougher penalties and fines for violations of the new law so that it has a “deterrent” effect. The party, which also calls for a complete ban on temporary work, is not entirley enthusiastic about the new rules.

“The ban on contracts for work and services is an important and overdue step towards achieving better working conditions. Nevertheless, not all is well in the meat industry now,” MP Susanne Ferschl (Die Linke) told EURACTIV Germany.

The continued possibility of temporary work, she added, means that subcontractors still have a foot in the door. “Whether anything actually improves depends not least on effective, efficient and frequent controls,” she said.

The Food, Beverages and Catering Union (NGG) describes the draft as a milestone and is now calling on employers’ associations to negotiate uniform collective wages in the industry.

“We don’t want a patchwork of collective bargaining solutions and a collective agreement just for temporary work, but a level playing field for all,” said Freddy Adjan, NGG vice-chair. Such a solution ensures that both temporary workers and permanent employees receive equal pay for equal work.

The union is receiving support from the Fair Mobility advice centre. The project, funded from the federal budget, provides legal advice and support for contract workers in the meat industry. In the past, the organisation has repeatedly drawn attention to working conditions in factories and called for stricter controls.

“The Occupational Health and Safety Control Act finally offers the opportunity to clean up the meat industry. In the future, it is important that employers are willing to negotiate reasonable collective agreements with the relevant trade union NGG,” Fair Mobility said in response to EURACTIV’s inquiry.

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Tight timetable for implementation

One of these employers’ associations, the German Meat Industry Association (VDF), describes the proposed legislation as “irresponsible.”

Although the industry has prepared itself for a ban on work contracts, the restrictions on temporary employment “will lead to problems, especially in the production of seasonal meat products,” according to a letter from the VDF to the Chancellor’s Office. However, it does not specify which problems are involved.

The association is also concerned about the tight timetable because the ban on work contracts is to come into force as early as January 1, 2021. On April 1, the new regulation of temporary work is to follow – not much time for an agreement between employees and employers.

However, if the NGG has its way, collective bargaining should start as early as January.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic / Natasha Foote]

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