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Gütersloh mayor slams slaughterhouse after outbreak

Darko Janjevic
June 24, 2020

The mayor of a town plunged back into coronavirus lockdown has said residents are angry and exhausted. He slammed the operator of a local slaughterhouse for the working conditions that led to the outbreak.

Police enfoce a lockdown in Gütersloh
Image: Amien Essif

City under lockdown: Henning Schulz, Mayor of Gütersloh, speaks to DW

The mayor of the German city of Gütersloh, Henning Schulz, slammed Germany's biggest meat producer Tönnies on Wednesday for its poor working conditions that led to a massive coronavirus outbreak.

"My feelings are somewhere between anger, sadness and exhaustion. At the moment we are giving the most human power we can put in to solve the situation," he told DW.

"I'm angry with the company, Tönnies. I'm angry with the system, behind it," Schulz said. "I'm angry with the system of sub-sub-subcontractors which is totally intransparent."

His remarks come after over 1,500 workers tested positive for the coronavirus in a Gütersloh meat processing plant, prompting the authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to put Gütersloh and the neighboring Warendorf district under lockdown. 

Together, the two districts are home to around 628,000 people.

Speaking to DW, Gütersloh Mayor Schulz warned of the companies supplying cheap labor, emphasizing that the issue went above and beyond Germany's meat industry.

"We have the system of sub-sub-subcontractors all over Europe, with picking flowers and fruits, whatever — tulips.. lorry drivers and we have to change this," he said.

Read more: German labor minister demands meat company pay coronavirus compensation

In lockdown again

The authorities have now once again closed schools, kindergartens, theaters, gyms swimming pools, bars, clubs, and other public venues. Only two people can meet in public in they are not members of a single household. Officials said the measures will stay in place for at least one week.

Hundreds of thousands of people are now restricted again.

On Wednesday, NRW Premier Armin Laschet described the outbreak at the plant run by Germany's biggest meat producer Tönnies as an "enormous pandemic risk."

However, mass testing outside the factory has yet to discover new cases among the general population, officials said. With 230 people tested so far, one result was unclear and all others negative, Gütersloh Sven-Georg Adenauer told DPA news agency on Wednesday.

Some German states have already imposed restrictions on visitors from high-risk areas such as Gütersloh. Bavaria and Lower Saxony demand a negative coronavirus test before welcoming their compatriots from the two northwestern towns. Austria took it a step further and imposed a travel warning on the whole of state of North-Rhine Westphalia. 

The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein said that people coming from high-risk areas would need to spend two weeks in quarantine unless they can prove they are coronavirus-free.

Read more: Opinion: Putting the foxes at Tönnies in charge of the hen house?

No 'future' for meat industry's ways

German meat producer rely heavily on cheap migrant labor from eastern Europe, with workers living in cramped and unsanitary conditions. The companies now face an ever-growing anger from officials and the public due to recent series of outbreaks. On Wednesday, NRW Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann said that such business model had no future.

"This system is bad and has nothing to do with a humane working world," Laumann said, calling for reforming federal laws.

Separately, Romanian ambassador in Berlin Emil Hurezeanu said that working and living conditions in such facilities needed to "improve urgently." Around one half of Tönnies' labor pool in Gütersloh are Romanian citizens, according to the envoy.

Hurezeanu urged "hopefully more transparency and manageabilty" as well as more accountability for the companies in question. 

Romania expects the German government to regulate the branch better and "intensify controls," he told the Funke Mediengruppe.

Read more: How does Germany's meat industry work?

Meat consumption in spotlight