COVID-19 outbreaks in meat plants prompts calls for industry reform

With more than 1,500 employees testing positive for COVID-19, the recent outbreak at the Tönnies meat plant in North Rhine-Westphalia has prompted further calls for reforms in the industry, which was already receiving intense criticism for widespread outbreaks in May.

Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has said “It’s time to clean up this sector.” He has set his sights on abolishing ‘work contracts’ (Werkverträge). 

Most of the employees in the slaughterhouses are employed as subcontractors on these types of contracts, and critics claim this permits employers to shirk their responsibility to maintain adequate working conditions and allows for other forms of exploitation.

Critics also condemn the German meat industry’s widespread use of cheap labour from Eastern Europe.

In his package of reforms for the industry, Heil has said that he wants to ban these types of contracts beginning on 1 January 2021, which the German cabinet agreed to in May. At the time, many executives in the meat industry decried the reforms as unfair.

Recently, the issue has appeared to pick up more steam. On Tuesday (23 June), the supermarket chains Lidl and Kaufland said that they want their meat and poultry suppliers to waive these types of contracts by January 2021 at the latest. 

After years of warning that the abolition of these types of contracts would mean “structural-negative changes for the agricultural industry,” Clemens Tönnies, the owner of the impacted plant, has also gotten on board, saying he intends to end all of these contracts by the end of 2020 and rehire workers through the Tönnies group of companies.

These reforms could also spell the end for Germany’s notoriously low meat prices, which has been condemned across the board, but particularly by environmental  and animal rights activists.

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