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Germany's informal workers deserve better

Volos 2019 | Grzegorz Szymanowski
Grzegorz Szymanowski
December 17, 2020

Conditions are set to improve in Germany’s abattoirs after several COVID-19 outbreaks shone a spotlight on the exploitation of mostly eastern European workers. Other sectors need change too, says Grzegorz Szymanowski.

Meat processing plant Tönnies
Germany's meat industry isn't the only one which exploits its workers, says DW's Grzegorz Szymanowski Image: ZDF

It sounds banal: In the future, major German meat companies will be obliged to give employment contracts to the people who slaughter animals and cut up and process meat. But this banality is a breakthrough. The new Occupational Health and Safety Monitoring Act will ban the employment of workers without contracts in Germany's big meat and sausage factories. The aim is to put an end to the precarious conditions that led to massive outbreaks of the coronavirus in slaughterhouses this summer.

This is actually a disgrace. The conditions that the largely eastern European workforce was subjected to in German slaughterhouses and their reprehensible housing situation were already known. However, it is only when the coronavirus outbreaks became a risk for local residents that politicians finally found the will to introduce measures to improve conditions for workers in the meat industry.

But the slaughterhouses are not an exception. Conditions on construction sites are similar, as they are in asparagus and strawberry fields and in senior care homes and logistic centers. Often, it is workers from eastern Europe with little protection and worse labor conditions than Germans in similar jobs who slog away in these sectors. 

Exploited workers in Germany

Better pay, worse conditions

People have been coming to Germany to work from Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria ever since the EU's eastern enlargement, because the wage gap makes it worthwhile. Often these "mobile workers” spend a few months in Germany and a few months at home. A whole system has come into place to lure "mobile workers," who do not enjoy the same rights as other employees in Germany. Whole sectors have become dependent on mobile workers. When the borders were forced to close because of the pandemic earlier this year, there was an outcry from German agricultural companies because there were not enough seasonal workers to harvest the crops. Some 80,000 Romanian workers were flown in to pick asparagus.

Volos 2019 | Grzegorz Szymanowski
DW's Grzegorz Szymanowski

Some 300,000 German seniors receive round-the-clock care at home. Most of their care workers are women from eastern Europe, with contracts that are supposed to be limited to 40 hours per week. Without these underpaid workers, Germany's elderly care system would probably collapse.

These workers all face the same problem: German companies do not employ them directly and thus save on costs and eschew responsibility. The major beneficiaries of the system are the agencies, which exploit the loopholes in the EU's employment legislation. Workers do not have much leverage with them and are usually taken advantage of. They pay high fees to agencies that find them work and end up earning less than the minimum wage. Moreover, they often find out about certain conditions, such as not being covered by health insurance at home, when they are already at the place of employment. Mobile workers, regardless of the sector, often say the same thing: They would never have imagined that there were such conditions in Germany, a state of law.

Tönnies and its contract workers - Exploitation in Germany

Politicians turn blind eye

Governments have turned a blind eye for years. Academics have accused German politicians of knowingly accepting the situation so long as the system worked. Politicians in eastern Europe were also willing to go along with the process, as it meant that unemployment figures in their countries fell and money came in. There is less complacency from the courts. A court ruling recently awarded a Bulgarian carer for the elderly the minimum wage for her round-the-clock service. One of the judges expressed surprise that there had not been more lawsuits of that type.

Generally, however, people who only come to Germany for a few months, who do not know anybody and do not speak the language, will tolerate almost intolerable conditions until they go home. They are not likely to organize or fight for better conditions. That's why more legislation is needed. The construction industry should also ban temporary work contracts and people working in the elderly care sector should receive higher wages.

Furthermore, mobile workers should have access to better advice with regard to their rights. At the EU level, there should be a register that people can use in real time to ensure that workers are covered by social security.

The coronavirus pandemic served to shake up the meat industry and triggered long-term changes. Let's hope that another pandemic will not be needed to improve conditions for workers from eastern Europe in other sectors.

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