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COVID-19 outbreaks in German slaughterhouses expose grim working conditions in meat industry

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The Westfleisch slaughterhouse is seen in Coesfeld, Germany, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Hundreds of the workers were tested positive on the coronavirus and were put on quarantine.
The Westfleisch slaughterhouse is seen in Coesfeld, Germany, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Hundreds of the workers were tested positive on the coronavirus and were put on quarantine.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Michael Probst
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Working conditions for migrants in German slaughterhouses are under the spotlight after more than 200 workers tested positive for COVID-19 at a factory in Coesfeld, in the west of the country.

Coronavirus outbreaks have also been identified in at least two other meat processing plants in Germany. The majority of those infected were from Romania and Bulgaria.

Officials say the virus most likely spread through shared staff housing, and the outbreaks are drawing attention to the industry’s difficult working conditions.

"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," said Szabolcs Sepsi, a counsellor at DGB Fair Mobility, which defends migrant workers’ rights in Germany.

These workers contend with "extremely long working hours" insecure jobs and often squalid housing, Sepsi told Euronews in a live interview, adding that they typically share their bedroom with two or three other people and are shuttled to work together.

"Their living conditions simply do not allow social distancing measures," he said.

'Modern slavery'

German broadcaster Deutsche Welle spoke to meat workers crammed in decrepit homes, writing that the outbreaks exposed "modern slavery" in the industry.

There have been outbreaks of COVID-19 at slaughterhouses in a number of countries in recent weeks, mostly in the United States but also in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Spain.

The trend is starting to expose an uncomfortable reality: much of the cheap meat on Western supermarket shelves is slaughtered by migrant workers who earn low wages, often live together in dorms and operate in crowded working conditions even in the midst of a pandemic.

"It’s mostly the workers in the meat industry and other food industries who are actually paying the price for this cheap meat and for the cheap food," Sepsi said.

After years of debate and controversy, Germany introduced a minimum wage in 2015. It stands at around €1,500 per month gross for full-time workers.

But Sepsi says the various laws introduced over the past decade to improve the lives of migrant workers in the German meatpacking industry only address the symptoms and not the root of the problem: the fact that most slaughterhouse workers are hired by subcontractors that try to undercut each other.

"We believe the slaughtering companies have to hire people directly and give them direct jobs," he said, adding this would help workers afford their own apartments instead of having to live together in dormitories during a pandemic.

You can watch the interview in the video player above.