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Exploited workers in Europe’s slaughterhouses
Meat factories in Europe have been exposed as one of the most infections hotspots for COVID-19. Researchers, journalists, and activists are concerned that this is related to exploitative working conditions, which were made worse by the pandemic. Inadequate housing and low wages in the leading European meat producing countries, such as Germany, are the likeliest explanation for the outbreaks.
“Deplorable” working, housing and employment conditions lead to outbreaks
According to the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT), the meat production industry in Europe paints a bleak picture:
“Exploitative working conditions, overcrowded accommodation, up to 16 hour-working days, low pay, illegal wage deductions and job insecurity are just some of the injustices facing meat workers in Europe. The sector has also long depended to a large extent on migrant and cross-border workers – from inside the EU and from third countries – who are often the subject of unequal treatment and abuse.”
In the perspective of EFFAT, the pandemic has simply exposed to the wider public many issues they have been highlighting for years, exacerbating human rights abuses into a health crisis:
“Inevitably, Covid-19 has exacerbated many of these issues, leading over the last few weeks to numerous meat processing plants becoming vectors for the spread of the virus. Overall, whether employed through abusive subcontracting practices, as temporary agency workers, posted workers or forced to accept (bogus) self-employed status, the working, housing and employment conditions for the vast proportion of meat workers are simply deplorable. This is both a cause and symptom of exploitation, social dumping and unfair competition across Europe.”
There were several outbreaks in countries such as France, Spain, Ireland and The Netherlands. However, the one that attracted more attention – and scrutiny – happened in Germany, at the largest meat-packing plant in the country. The factory, located in the Gütersloh area, led to over 2,000 people contracting COVID-19. Of these cases, 1,500 were factory workers.
According to EFFAT about 80% of workers in Germany’s meat production factories are migrants from Eastern Europe.
A Romanian former worker at the Tönnies factory shared his experience in German slaughterhouses with Deustche Welle:
“It was very cold and damp, and the conveyor belts moved very fast. I heard colleagues crying at night in our accommodation because they were in such pain; their hands were completely swollen. (…) Several places I lived in were very clean, but there were also exceptions. It was always very crowded; there were sometimes 10, 12, occasionally even 14 people in one apartment. The monthly rent was 200 euros each.”
Considering how the living conditions allowed for little social distancing, how workers are pushed to work overtime and how, apparently, health guidelines were not enforced in the factory, it was no wonder it led to such a massive outbreak.
Modern slavery in the meat industry
Testimonies and research focusing on meat-packing plants as hotspots of modern slavery are not recent. Since at least 2005, ILO has known about forced work cases in Germany. With increased labor mobilization across Europe and subcontracting practices to avoid regulations, EU nationals from lower-wage countries look for better opportunities but are often exploited.
However, the meat industry in Europe was not the only one exposed as predatory during the pandemic. Similar scandals surfaced in Brazil, the United States and Australia. All these cases had in common the prevalence of migrants (seasonal or not), unhygienic and overcrowded working conditions, and negligence by factory management to enforce health guidelines.
As global supply chains demand more and more meat, leading to increases in pollution, factories require more and more workers to meet that demand. However, wages are often so low that nationals of these countries prefer to work elsewhere – and companies, instead of increasing wages, look for foreign workers.
These workers are often hired through subcontracted temporary agencies. As the links between factory owners and workers become more convoluted, with increasing numbers of intermediaries, adequate work status is often denied, as well as respective labor rights, as explained by a news report based on the testimony of a worker from a German factory:
“Most seasonal workers are hired by subcontractors; workers are employed by an external company — and not the meat producers, which are are not directly responsible for the laborers. Alex, too, was hired by a subcontractor that oversees parts of the meat production. But he also had to accept the subcontractor's terms.
Most subcontracted laborers do piecework — which is when workers are paid according to items processed, rather than the actual time spent working. Alex says the tasks expected were simply impossible to fulfill during a regular 8-hour workday. This, he says, constitutes systematic exploitation, adding that anyone who protests is fired. German labor standards have gone absent.”
Because many of these foreign workers in EU countries are also EU nationals themselves – such as Romanians – they are not subjected to the same fear of deportations as non-EU nationals. However, these workers are often unaware of their rights and will subject to applying working conditions for a slightly higher pay.
An opportunity to change?
The scandal in Germany was so big that political leaders mobilized to enforce labor regulations in the meat packing industry. The European Union has also started to invest in a more sustainable food chain, through the Farm to Fork Strategy aligned with the European Green Deal.
Meat production and consumption has long been linked to labor exploitation, violation of indigenous people’s rights, devastated ecosystems, and pollution. Perhaps the pandemic will finally force Europe to take a hard look at its food supply chain and start implementing some changes.
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This campaign is a part of the project "Prevention and Combating Human Trafficking in Serbia" conducted within the joint program of the European Union and the Council of Europe "Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey II" which is implemented by the Council of Europe. The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of either party.