Starvation wages, subcontractors and outsourcing have made conditions difficult for Eastern European workers in the German meat industry. Counseling centers want to help them.
A Bulgarian worker suffered a painful accident during his third day on the job at a cutting plant near the German city of Gütersloh. A saw sliced through his protective glove and injured his little finger. Yet no one called a doctor for the 50-year-old. Instead, he was expected to continue working despite the pain.
He ended up going to the hospital three days after the accident. He underwent surgery and stayed in the facilty for two days to be treated. He did not receive any help from his employer. Instead, his employer rented out the injured Bulgarian's bed in the workers' accommodation to a new employee. The Bulgarian lost his job and the roof over his head. He was on his trial period and did not even know the name of the subcontractor for whom he was working.
Counseling center for Eastern Europeans
Szabolcs Sepsi from the counseling center "Faire Mobilität" ("Fair Mobility") in the city of Dortmund described the incident involving the Bulgarian worker. "We have not succeeded in extending his contract but we were able to settle the discrepancies and at least secured the sick benefits," said Sepsi, who added: "There are many similar cases." Some of them go to court but mostly they involve the payment of outstanding salaries. Counseling centers like "Faire Mobilität" also help workers from eastern EU countries.
As in the past, many of the workers in the German meat industry come from Eastern Europe. In 2016, "Faire Mobilität" expanded its services to help these workers. In the German cities of Dortmund, Kiel, Oldenburg and Rheda-Widenbrück, six staff provide assistance in Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian. Many Eastern European workers seek advice here, and according to Sepsi, there are always problems in the meat industry.
"The entire production process from the slaughtering to the final meat product is the hands of foreign subcontractors," he said. "German companies are not responsible for their employees."
Goodwill on the part of corporations
The minimum wage, now 8.75 euros ($9.39) per hour, was implemented in the meat industry in 2014. Nonetheless, employers always try to skirt around it, says Sepsi. For example, "work hours are calculated incorrectly, fees are charged for sharpening knives or for work uniforms or penalties imposed for supposedly bad results." At the end of the month, workers may end up with 200 euros less than promised.
A voluntary commitment of companies agreed to in September 2015 was supposed to help improve conditions. A total of 18 companies in the meat industry, including giants like Tönnies, Westfleisch, Danish Crown, Vion and PHW vowed to reduce outsourcing and hire staff directly. Workers were supposed to be employed under German law.
Unions say voluntary commitment a failure
All the companies that signed this voluntary commitment gave the outsourced workers German work contracts, says Michael Andritzky, director of the German Food Industry Association (VdEW). Nevertheless, he added, there have been very few positive changes in the industry.
"Companies that have in the past had headquarters in Romania, Poland or Bulgaria have now registered in Germany with the same staff," said Sepsi. That, at least, allows workers to more easily exercise their rights.
However, Matthias Brümmer, director of the Food, Beverages and Catering Industry Trade Union (NGG), feels that the voluntary commitment has failed. Only some of the companies signed the document and, he points out, implementation has not been consistent. "As always, they still outsource workers," Brümmer said.
'System makes exploitation easy'
Outsourcing contracts is the biggest problem in the German meat industry, explains Brümmer - the companies offer very few permanent staff contracts. "The system makes exploitation easy," he said.
Brümmer added that such practices offer advantages for meat companies. One of them is a tariff charged under the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), from which businesses could be exempt if their energy costs reached 14 percent of gross value added. Personnel costs for contract staff members are part of gross value added, so anyone who outsources staff raises their chances of being exempt from the levy, thus saving money for overhead costs. Outsourced workers are calculated as material costs and not personnel costs.
This helps create cheap German meat that dominates foreign markets. The industry is booming; 1.9 million animals are slaughtered every day in Germany. The 10 largest corporations have a total revenue of 20 billion euros - with low production costs, notes the food union NGG. It only costs 1.5 euros to slaughter a pig if subcontractors are hired. "We import cheap workers and export cheap meat," explains the NGG.