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Tönnies and its contract workers - Exploitation in Germany

September 8, 2020

A Covid-19 outbreak at German meat-processing company Tönnies brought to light dubious conditions. The meat industry has become a hotbed of precarious employment, greedy businesses and impotent unions.


Tönnies Holding is Germany's largest meat company. Around 25,000 pigs are slaughtered and processed each day at the main plant in the town of Rheda-Wiedenbrück. Most of the plant’s employees are contract workers from eastern Europe. They’re often hired by subcontractors who coerce them into accepting exploitative working conditions. As well as the meat industry, contract work is common in the construction and logistics sectors, at cleaning companies and in the automotive industry - in other words, wherever employers want to avoid the high wage costs that come with a permanent workforce. Professor Marcel Fratzscher from the German Institute for Economic Research is strongly critical of the practice. Adjusted for inflation, corporate profits have risen by almost 80% over the past 30 years, while real wages have only risen by around 15%. That’s causing a dangerous shrinking of the middle class. Today, Germany has the largest low-wage sector in western Europe. Denmark shows that there is an alternative. Despite the country being one of Europe’s big pork producers, there are no comparable Coronavirus outbreaks in the Danish meat industry. According to Jim Jensen from the Danish Food Union, this is in part because "in Denmark, no employee has to fear that taking sick leave may lose them their job." There is no contract work through subcontractors; all workers are permanently employed and usually unionized. In Germany, Labor Minister Hubertus Heil now wants to improve working conditions in the meat industry. In July 2020, the German government approved a draft law banning contract work in the meat industry. From January 1, 2021, it will no longer be permitted to use outside workers in slaughtering, cutting or meat processing. The documentary examines the extent to which precarious and exploitative employment undermines the German welfare state, and how it is misused on a large scale in order to maximize corporate profits.