The German government is poised to approve better protections for workers in the meat industry. The squalid living quarters and unsafe working conditions aren't new, but COVID-19 has prompted politicians to finally act.
Following coronavirus outbreaks at several German meatpacking facilities, Germany's labor minister is leading the charge to give more protections to workers — in a plan that could radically change the way Germany's meat industry operates.
The German government's "Coronavirus Cabinet" is due to meet on Wednesday to decide on Labor Minister Hubertus Heil's proposals to improve oversight in the industry and protections for workers — including making companies directly responsible for their workers and raising fines for safety violations to €30,000 ($32,800).
Read more: Opinion: Germany's scandalous meat industry
Heil, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has particularly taken aim at what he termed the industry's "dubious contract structures with subcontractors" and is pushing for an outright ban on such types of labor arrangements.
"This type of sub-subcontracting is the root of evil — because responsibility is passed off, because worker's rights are violated, because wages are cut," Heil said last week in an address to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament.
Those plans have bumped up against resistance with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in the coalition government. A final decision on the plans was expected Monday but was pushed back several days for more talks.
Conditions for workers
The push for better protections for migrant workers in Germany's meat industry intensified after COVID-19 outbreaks erupted at four slaughterhouses across the country—with hundreds of workers from Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and other eastern European countries contracting the virus.
Germany's meat industry is one of its most profitable, with some 1,500 larger slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities across the country. According to data from the Federal Statistics Office, the branch employs around 128,000 workers.
Trade unions estimate up to 80% of the workers are migrants, mostly hailing from Eastern and Southern European countries.At Tönnies, Germany's largest meatpacking facility, around half of its 6,500 employees are hired by subcontractors.
Subcontractors are also legally obligated to provide workers with Germany's minimum wage of €9.35 ($10.22) per hour, although aid groups that assist the workers say the companies find ways to skirt around it by incorrectly calculating wages or charging fees for work-related expenses like sharpening knives.
Many of the migrant workers are also put up in dorms where they share rooms in squalid living conditions — which makes quarantining those who have tested positive with COVID-19 nearly impossible.
Poor working conditions 'not isolated cases'
The criticism of Germany's meat industry is not new, but lawmakers have been slow to react.
Last October, a report by the labor ministry in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) — Germany’s most populous state — found that good labor practices were the exception rather than the rule in slaughterhouses across the state.
The report logged numerous cases of workers putting in 12- or even 16-hour days—well over the legal limit of 10.
"Working hour violations, inadequate health and safety at work and disgraceful living accommodations are not isolated cases in the meat industry," Anja Piel, a board member with the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), told DW.
She said it was necessary for local health and safety authorities to carry out more random checks, but they would need more personnel to do so. The companies and their "jungle of subcontractors" further complicate the work of inspectors with untransparent structures.
"This amounts to organized irresponsibility and must come to an end."
Parallels to US outbreaks
Such outbreaks are not unique to Germany, with meat processing and packaging facilities particularly hard-hit in the United States.
Some 22 facilities were shut down due to rising COVID-19 cases among their workers, many of whom have recently immigrated to the US or are undocumented migrants. In both Germany and the US, workers at meatpacking plants are particularly vulnerable to the virus due to the cold temperatures and close quarters that they work in.
In April, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report that found that nearly 5,000 meatpacking plant workers from 19 states had contracted the coronavirus and that social distancing measures were particularly hard to implement at the plants.
"Factors potentially affecting risk for infection include difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions," the CDC report stated.
As well as prompting public health concerns for the workers and the communities surrounding the plants, the closures of the facilities also led to a backlog for livestock farmers, with US media reporting that farmers have been forced to shoot or gas thousands of pigs and other livestock that could not be sent to slaughterhouses.
Farmers and the meat industry in Germany worry that a similar fate might befall them if plants are made to close due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Meat industry says conditions 'not to blame' for outbreak
The German Association of the Meat Industry (VdF) has criticized calls for more regulation. "In our view, the working conditions are not primarily to blame for the coronavirus outbreaks," Heike Harstick, the head of the VdF told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. She suggested that the virus could simply have spread in meat processing plants because they were classified as critical infrastructure and thus required to stay open when many industries shut down.
Moreover, if such companies were held fully responsible for securing the room and board of their employees, "many businesses would no longer be competitive," and the industry might decide to move elsewhere, she told the paper.
Although the meat industry is one of Germany's most profitable sectors, the German Trade Union Confederation told DW that is not a reason to further ignore abuses of workers’ rights.
"Wanting to keep an industry in the country cannot be an argument for accepting working and living conditions that are hazardous to health and safety and accepting the exploitation of people," Piel emphasized.
Volker Witting contributed to this report.