German slaughterhouses in spotlight after virus outbreak

Leaving Poland to work at a slaughterhouse in wealthy Germany, Eva imagined herself in white rooms sterilised like operating theatres, with sophisticated machinery and regulated work hours. Instead, she said she worked from 4am to 4pm shifts on slimy production lines, and ended up trapped in a coronavirus outbreak.

“They only cared about social distancing and temperature checks at the entrance. Once we were inside, no one cared about us,” said Eva, speaking by telephone from her apartment where she is quarantined with two sick housemates. She asked not to give her full name, fearing retaliation from her contractor. 

“I never saw a hygiene inspector. I never saw a surface disinfected.”

As workers began disappearing earlier this month, Eva suspected coronavirus. Now her plant, run by the Tönnies company, has been hit with the largest outbreak since Germany reopened from the pandemic. Some 1,500 are symptomatic, and 7,000 like her are in quarantine. The entire Gütersloh district of northwestern Germany, where the plant is located, was forced back into lockdown.

Tönnies did not respond to requests for comment, but its owner has publicly apologised for the outbreak.

Most workers in German slaughterhouses are forced to share cramped housing and transport © Ina Fassbender/AFP

While Germany has a generous welfare system, strong trade unions, and a general lack of labour strife, its meat industry is the glaring exception. German slaughterhouses exploit a loophole in the system: subcontractors, supply the bulk of workforces — mostly eastern Europeans.

Activists long struggled to focus public attention on an industry that delivers low prices at the cost of miserable conditions for tens of thousands of foreign workers. It took the pandemic to force a national reckoning.

“Everyone is finally shocked,” said Piotr Mazurek, of Fair Mobility, which counsels migrant workers. “Coronavirus helped increase the pressure.”

Food plants, particularly abattoirs, were quickly recognised by scientists as prime Covid-19 incubators. Cold, wet environments help preserve virus-infected droplets — and production lines are ideal spreaders.

“In these enclosed areas and on busy production lines, social distancing is more difficult,” said Professor Lawrence Young, of Warwick Medical School. “Speaking loudly or shouting across the noise of machinery can also result in the production of more infectious droplets and aerosols.”

Conditions are exacerbated because most workers are forced to share cramped housing and transport. At the Fair Mobility office in the northern German town of Oldenburg, Mr Mazurek fields calls from frustrated workers, some of whom send photographs of rooms with beds crammed together, head to foot, or mouldy, rusted shared bathrooms.

Andre, who worked for the subcontractor Meat Pros and asked not to be identified by his full name, sank into depression after discovering his pay was a third of what he believed it would be. He earned €1,100 a month for 11-hour shifts at a slaughterhouse, often working 6-7 days per week.

Inside the plant, he said, workers were constantly mixed into different teams, unable to even isolate by group. Hanging 16kg-20kg piles of sausages, they moved at such a frantic pace he never dared question health measures.

“We wanted to say something. But we were under pressure. The tempo of work was so stressful,” he recalled. “We were afraid.”

Meat Pros did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

James Wood, professor of veterinary medicine at Cambridge university, said large outbreaks raise questions over labourers going to work unwell. Several abattoir workers interviewed said they felt punished for looking after their health. Eva said her subcontractor docked €10 per sick day before the outbreak.

For decades, subcontracting offered such an advantage to the German meat industry that many producers in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium simply moved plants to Germany.

Abattoirs were quickly recognised by scientists as prime Covid-19 incubators because of their cold and wet environments © Ralph Orlowsk/Getty

“If Germany managed to regulate its meat industry it would be a good signal to Europe,” said Anke Hassel, professor of public policy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. A previous effort five years earlier, she said, was blocked by lobbyists.

Slaughterhouses hold subcontractors responsible for abuse, but subcontractors, paid for production, are themselves under huge pressure — Eva’s plant at Tönnies processed 20,000 pigs a day.

Consumers expecting low prices also bear some responsibility, according to agriculture minister Julia Klöckner. “Meat shouldn’t be a luxury product for rich people,” she told the German news agency, DPA. “But it also can’t be everyday cheap trash.”

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Hubertus Heil, Germany’s minister of labour, has vowed to place a law to end subcontracting in front of parliament, with a new system in place by 2021. Some foreign-owned plants already said they were behind the move.

“We fully back plans to end this subcontracting system,” says Jens Henke, a spokesman for Danish Crown, which moved some production to Germany to save up to 50 per cent on processes such as pig deboning. “It has been a challenge to the meat industry all over Europe, to have such low-cost workers for meat in Germany.”

PHW Group, whose poultry plant in Wildeshausen became the site of another outbreak this week, with 34 of 1,100 workers infected, recently announced it would end the use of subcontractors.

Inside her quarantined apartment, Eva is eager to leave Germany, and is unsure what conditions could ever tempt her back.

She is sure of one thing, though: she will never buy meat from her old employer. “I still buy from others — probably because I haven’t seen the conditions there myself.”