The major coronavirus outbreak at a Tönnies meat processing plant has opened many people's eyes to abysmal working conditions at the site. The time is ripe for a fundamental reform of the industry, says Miodrag Soric.
Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. There are things we just don't want to know. Like how our aging neighbor pays her Polish caregiver. Or from which dubious websites your teenage nephew downloads movies that aren't even playing in cinemas yet. Or what kind of people sexually abuse children, and how. Or what our sausages are actually made of. And what it's like to work in a German slaughterhouse.
These are topics where society prefers to look away. And that makes it all the more painful when a sudden event forces us to confront these realities.
The coronavirus pandemic is one such unexpected event. And, more specifically, the major outbreak at the Tönnies meat-processing plant in northwestern Germany. Over 1,500 laborers have tested positive for the virus so far. Some have needed intensive medial care.
The outbreak has forced politicians and locals to acknowledge that foreign laborers working at the Tönnies site have seen their wages squeezed and their living conditions drop. That week after week, thousands of Romanians, Poles and Bulgarians are exploited, worn out and then sent home when they fall ill. Discarded, like broken consumer electronics goods. The Tönnies laborers have been treated like disposable humans, as a Catholic priest once described the situation.
An opportunity for radical change
In an attempt to contain the outbreak, lawmakers imposed a lockdown on the two worst-affected districts. All schools, kindergardens, museums, pools, cinemas and the slaughterhouse were shut down. Only one of the districts has since lifted restrictions.
It would be a tragedy if locals were to resume their lives as if nothing had happened. It would represent a missed opportunity: One that may not arise again any time soon. It's an opportunity to reform a powerful industry in the region; to end the exploitation of thousands of people; to repair Germany's image the scandal has tarnished internationally. And, finally, an opportunity to put an end to the rampant brutalization of society.
Stricter laws on the way
At the moment, they are still just government plans, but the German Parliament is set to soon pass stricter laws. These will limit — or even ban — the use of contracts for work (which pay a one-off fee for a specific task, as opposed to a permanent labor contract). Berlin also wants to better regulate animal transports, and ensure livestock are reared in appropriate conditions. The meat of a living creature should not be reduced to a budget product.
Now, amid the scandal, company boss Clemens Tönnies suddenly wants to change the way his runs his business. He and his management team, who personify unethical business practices, have caved in. They now profess to welcome change in the meat industry. But we should not be sucked in by empty promises.
The cutlet kings have made many such promises in the past. Ultimately, though, their own wallet has provided the moral compass. It is an anachronism that a highly industrialized nation like Germany should export pigs' trotters all the way to China. And it is an utter disgrace that this form of modern slavery exists in the heart of Germany.
Show some compassion
Not everyone in Germany wants to the meat industry to be more strictly regulated. Because this will lead to higher consumer prices. Suddenly, some people seem to lose all compassion, arguing that "nobody is forced to come and work in Germany." But it contradicts the constitution, which stipulates that "Human dignity shall be inviolable." This basic right applies to each and every individual in Germany, regardless of their nationality, faith, age or bank account.
Many laborers from eastern and southeastern Europe who come to Germany for work do so out of abject poverty, or to earn money to care for a sick loved one. But few of them who carry out back breaking work even earn the minimum wage. Employers force them into endless hours of unpaid overtime.
The Gütersloh lockdown will end soon. We now need radical reforms to the meat industry, ideally across Europe. It was made for man, not vice-versa.