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Labor minister demands meat firm pay coronavirus damages

June 22, 2020

More than 1,300 people have tested positive at a Tönnies slaughterhouse, causing Germany's transmission rate to rocket. Germany's labor minister says the firm should pay compensation.

Protester outside Tönnies' Rheda-Wiedenbrück slaughterhouse
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

German Labor Minister Minister Hubertus Heil demanded the meat processing company behind a massive coronavirus outbreak should pay damages, in comments on Sunday evening.

More than 1,300 people have tested positive for the virus after an outbreak at the Rheda-Wiedenbrück meat processing plant, in the district of Gütersloh near Bielefeld, operated by German meat giant Tönnies.

"There must be a civil liability of the company," Heil told a Bild online broadcast, adding that the company had "taken an entire region hostage" by violating the coronavirus rules. 

Heil said that his trust in the Tönnies company was "equal to zero." He said that the company not only endangered its own employees, but also "public health."

Read more: Coronavirus: German slaughterhouse outbreak crosses 1,000

Reproduction rate surges

Regional officials said the virus had largely been contained to the factory's mostly Romanian and Bulgarian workers, but the outbreak has prompted fears of wider community transmission and a return to large scale lockdowns.

The plant's 6,500 workers, who live in cramped company-provided accommodation, have been forced into quarantine. However, authorities have been hampered by poor documentation by the company.

Schools and daycare centers in the area have been ordered to shut and the plant has been closed.

Following the outbreak, Germany's coronavirus all-important reproduction rate surged to 2.88 — almost three times what it needs to be to contain the outbreak. The reproduction rate, or 'R' value, estimates how many people an infected person passes the virus to. Experts say a rate of less than 1 is needed to eliminate the disease.

The 7-day 'r' value, which tends to fluctuate less dramatically, increased from 1.55 on Saturday to 2.03 on Sunday. 

Read more: NRW's Laschet walks back 'Romanians and Bulgarians' coronavirus comment

Tönnies blames its workers

Company boss Clemens Tönnies, who initially blamed his Eastern European workers for the outbreak, publicly apologized on Saturday saying he was "fully responsible," but refused to step down. 

Green faction leader Anton Hofreiter appealed to the billionaire to cover the costs incurred by the virus outbreak from his own coffers.

If Tönnies meant his apology seriously, "he would pay the costs out of his private assets — not out of the company's assets," Hofreiter told the same show.

Calls for change

Heil told the broadcast: "The exploitation of people from Central and Eastern Europe, which has obviously taken place there, is now becoming a general health risk in the pandemic with considerable damage." Therefore, "there has to be a fundamental change in this industry."

Heil's colleague and SPD leader Norbert Walter-Borjans called for higher meat prices and a debate on distributive justice in Germany.

"Meat is a product that is produced with a high input of energy and other raw materials. Its value and price are often in stark disproportion," Walter-Borjans told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland newspaper group.

He said the Tönnies case showed "how little attention is paid to the question of how food — our most important basis of life — is produced." Everything is "subordinated to the pursuit of profit and efficiency."

Read more: Germany's meat industry under fire after COVID-19 outbreaks

aw/msh (AFP, dpa, epd)