Following news of a massive COVID-19 outbreak in a meat-packing plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, state leader Armin Laschet (CDU) defended the state’s easing of coronavirus restrictions, claiming they had not been responsible for the incident. Instead, he pointed the finger at the factory’s Romanian and Bulgarian workers, as well as working conditions and accommodation.
In response, the Romanian embassy in Berlin asked the state leader to clarify his position. Moreover, Romania’s foreign ministry contacted the German embassy in Bucharest to point out how these “unclear” statements had been perceived.
Following a meeting of state leaders on Wednesday (17 June), Laschet told reporters that “because Romanians and Bulgarians entered the country, that’s where the virus came from.”
“This is going to happen everywhere. […] This has nothing to do with loosening up, but with the placement of people in accommodation and working conditions in factories,” he added.
Laschet’s remarks prompted a swift backlash.
Green parliamentary leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt tweeted that “instead of stirring up resentment, I expect Laschet to take responsibility and protect people!”, and the leader of the state’s Social Democrats demanded an apology for the factory’s workers.
Other politicians highlighted the fact that these workers had been subject to exploitative labour practices. Green MEP Sven Giegold called upon the Christian Democrats to stop delaying the implementation of worker safety reforms.
And following Romania’s calls for clarification, the German embassy in Romania responded, saying that it had not been Laschet’s intention to blame Romanian and Bulgarian workers for spreading the virus.
“There are many risks of spreading the virus, including travel conditions and means in Europe. However, we want open borders and a European labour market. I pointed out that this virus does not take borders into account,” Laschet stated, according to the diplomatic mission.
The state leader also clarified that working and accommodation conditions most probably contributed to the outbreak.
“Inhumane working conditions are not acceptable in the meat industry or in other sectors,” Laschet said, adding that the state’s government has been in contact with officials of origin countries to improve working conditions.
On 2 April, Germany lifted its ban on seasonal farm workers entering the country, announcing that farms can bring in 80,000 people in April and May to harvest their crops.
Seasonal workers from Romania who flew to Germany for work then have raised concerns about the conditions they are working and living in, saying that hygiene and social distancing rules are not being respected.