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Germany Takes Action Against Meat Industry

Ben Dolbear reviews the news that Germany will reform its meat industry in light of multiple coronavirus outbreaks directly linked to the sector.

Photo by David Edkins

In the last week of May, over ninety employees at a meat plant in Dissen, Lower Saxony, fell ill with COVID-19. That came after a similar plant in Coesfield found that over one fifth of its staff tested positive for the virus. An infectious problem that has become synonymous with the meat industry in recent months has now prompted the German federal government to take action.

One of the reasons being given for such high rates of infection among meat plant employees is because of the poor conditions in which the often young men who come from abroad are forced to work. Approximately 90,000 people are employed to work in Germany's biggest meat plants, and many of them work and live in very cramped conditions, an impossible environment to practice any form of social distancing measures.

Exploitative Migrant Labour

One plant heavily affected by the virus is Westfleisch, located in North Rhine-Westphalia, where three quarters of tested staff members tested positive, the majority of whom were on low pay and originating from Eastern European nations such as Romania and Bulgaria.

According to Szabolcs Sepsi, who works as a counsellor at DGB Fair Mobility, which 'assists in the enforcement of fair wages and working conditions for migrant workers from Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries on the German labour market', commented:

"Workers in the German meat industry work very often through subcontractors, not for the slaughterhouses themselves, and the working conditions at these subcontractors are often very, very bad."

Squalid Working Conditions

The typical conditions for a migrant worker who is employed by a meat plant's subcontractor are likely to include sharing a bedroom with three others, Sepsi continued.

As a result of the shocking revelations, Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal government has announced that as of 2021, slaughterhouses must employ their staff directly, rather than use subcontractors.

It was employment minister Hubertus Heil who led the presentation of the reforms, which also include increased fines for firms in breach of working time directives. Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner backed the draft legislation which must soon be presented to the German Parliament, saying that, 'The delegation of responsibility to subcontractors comes at the expense of many workers. There's an obvious need for adjustment here'.

As recently as December last year, DW, a German public broadcasting service, conducted an investigation into slaughterhouse conditions in Germany for both animals and employees, entitled 'The high cost of cheap meat' with the accompanying hashtag #AnimalRights. It found that unpaid overtime and shifts exceeding sixteen hours were commonplace in the industry.


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