Germany moves to 'clean up' meat industry after virus outbreaks
BERLIN, Germany – The German government on Wednesday, May 20, banned the use of subcontractors in the meat industry after a string of coronavirus infections among mainly foreign slaughterhouse workers sparked alarm.
"It's time to clean up the sector," Labor Minister Hubertus Heil told reporters after Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet agreed on stricter regulations.
From January 1, 2021, abattoirs and meat processing plants will have to directly employ their workers, putting an end to the controversial practice of relying on chains of subcontractors to supply laborers from abroad, often from Bulgaria and Romania.
Critics have long argued that imported workers are paid less and are more vulnerable to abuses, and Heil himself has described the system as "dodgy."
Concern mounted after several German slaughterhouses were hit with coronavirus outbreaks, prompting fresh scrutiny over hygiene and working conditions.
At one slaughterhouse in the northwestern district of Coesfeld, more than 260 workers tested positive for the virus. Many come from eastern Europe and live in shared housing, a common practice among subcontracted workers.
Two other abattoirs, one in the state of Schleswig-Holstein and another in Lower Saxony, have reported around 100 cases each.
"The meat industry is important in our country," Heil said. "But there can be no tolerance for a business model that willingly accepts exploitation and the spread of pandemics."
Although Germany has weathered the coronavirus storm better than many of its European neighbors, the slaughterhouse outbreaks have dealt a blow to its efforts to gradually restart Europe's top economy.
In some districts, the virus clusters have pushed infection rates back above an agreed threshold, forcing regional governments to rethink loosening lockdown restrictions.
"It's unacceptable...that whole districts have to pay the price and suffer economic harm," Heil said in Berlin.
'Jobs will move abroad'
Germany's meat industry employs some 200,000 people, and Heil estimated that in some plants 50% to 80% of workers were hired through subcontracting agencies.
As part of its package of measures, the government agreed to "massively" ramp up health and safety inspections at slaughter and processing sites.
Employers will also have to share information with local authorities about where foreign workers are staying, to make it easier to trace people who have come into contact with an infected person.
Authorities will also make a greater effort to educate foreign workers about their rights under German law, Heil said.
Employers falling foul of the tougher rules are to face fines of up to 30,000 euros ($33,000), double the previous amount.
There was immediate blowback from the industry lobby, with the German Meat Industry Association (VDF) warning that subcontractors were needed to find foreign workers for jobs that were hard to fill in Germany.
"A lot of meat processing activities might now move abroad," VDF head Heike Harstick told newspaper group Funke Mediengruppe.
But unions welcomed the crackdown, with the DGB trade union describing the subcontracting system as "organized irresponsibility."
The NGG food union said it was time to finally end the "inhumane and criminal" conditions in the industry.
Germany is not the only country where meat factories have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots.
Slaughterhouses across the United States have shut down after at least 5,000 meat and poultry workers contracted the virus.
France, Australia, Spain, and Brazil have also reported outbreaks at meat plants, where people tend to work in close proximity. – Rappler.com