Corona and the German Meat Industry: “Improved Protection is Critically Needed”

(c) Excerpt of the latest statistic from 2019 on employment numbers by industry, published by the Federal Employment Agency. “Employees subject to social insurance contributions – Slaughtering and meat processing – Germans, Foreigners”. (dimensiv, 2020)

Migrant workers make up the largest share of front line workers in the German meat industry. Well-known for poor working and safety conditions, substantial change has seemed unattainable. Then Corona arrived.

6 Minutes

In 2016, a Bulgarian man is hired by a Bulgarian company to work in a German meat processing factory. He barely speaks German, but needs work and ultimately signs the contract. On his third day, he injures himself on the saw he uses to dismember pork bodies. He doesn’t know enough German to call an ambulance and nobody does it for him. After seeking a hospital a few days later for surgery, the company removes his spot and gives the bed in his housing unit to a new worker. He instantly loses his job. And because of the sub-companies involved in his hiring process, he has no person to turn to.

This is one of numerous and diverse cases documented by German advice center Faire Mobilität advising migrant workers in Germany on Employment Law. There are many complex layers to this example, and they all repeat in many other cases.

The meat industry in Germany has been known for its exceptionally widespread use of sub-contracting for many decades. It’s no secret, cases and statistics are well-documented. At most, though, they’ve led to media flare-ups and the occasional legal change, often barely more than lip service.

After the Coronavirus hit Germany in the beginning of March, April saw an increased number of cases in abattoirs in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony and Baden-Württemberg. Until mid-March, over 260 employees had tested positive for Corona in just one single abattoir belonging to industry giant Westfleisch. Other branches quickly followed suit. The first state-wide Corona tests in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein commenced in the beginning of May.

According to accumulated research by German magazine Der Spiegel in the beginning of May, the nation-wide count of coronavirus cases in abattoirs alone has risen to over 600. The case count differs between single factories: some reported all negative tests as of recently in May, others many positive cases.

Media attention remains. Crowded work and housing spaces as well as the handling of fresh meat can easily foster contagiousness all the way to the general public, hence concerns are big.

Here’s what coronavirus means for migrant workers in the meat industry.

Sub-Contracting: A Powerful Force

A very quick look at some facts for context: There are about 1500 abattoirs and processing factories in Germany according to the Federal Statistical Office, dominated by few industry leaders, with a total of nearly 190.000 employees (via the last available statistic in 2019 by the Federal Employment Agency). About 30 percent are foreign workers, the share rises annually. Most front line workers directly involved in slaughter and processing are migrants.

The ten biggest meat companies have an accumulated turnover of about 20 billion Euros annually. Why? Because the German meat industry is internationally known for its low cost of meat slaughtering and processing, with a significant portion going to export. If a factory uses sub-contracting, it will cost up to 1,50 Euro on average per slaughtered pig.

Sub-contracting – “Werkvertrag” in German – is technically a perfectly legal form of non-employment contractual work. In general, this applies when a company needs to outsource expertise on specific labour that it doesn’t have internally, like expert’s report or custom-made parts for a machine. The hiring company doesn’t have to enter a binding work contract, or pay health, pension or accident insurance.

In the German meat industry, very often the opposite happens: Sub-contracting is used in place of regular employment contracts for basic and essential core labour, rather than for specific expertise.

So, many line workers aren’t employed directly by Westfleisch or any other big meat processing company, but instead are hired as contractors by sub-companies. In fact, the chain of sub-companies is so dense that they often beg the question who is responsible when the law gets violated. (As a result, Germany has even implemented the law of “Generalunternehmerhaftung”, or Main Contractor Liability.)

While on a service contract that indicates self-employment, many line workers nevertheless do employee-type work: they’re usually on time sheets, have to apply for vacation, receive an hourly salary and a paycheck rather than a set fee, and must follow instructions by supervisors. Most of these working conditions fall under Employment Law. In other words: a set of distinct rights and subject to insurance.

This way, core functions of line work in the meat industry have been outsourced. This directly goes against the definition of Werkvertrag discussed earlier. This type of sub-contracting has resulted in countless cases of undermining Employment Law.

An insight into the complex problem of subcontract-induced working conditions. (c) France 24 English

It’s not even clear how many sub-contracts there really are due to high fluctuation rates. But none of this is speculation or a grey area. The system of sub-contracting is well-known and has been well-documented for decades by the numerous advice centers working with migrant workers across the country. In 2013, the German Food Union NGG, estimated the number of sub-contracts to be around two thirds split between the four biggest companies. It is estimated that only about 20 percent of workers are actually employed directly at the various factories (see link above).

How Migrant Workers Are Exposed

Migrant workers make up 30 percent of the meat industry, with an increase of 219 percent between 2008 and 2019. (You can also check the various statistics on industries published by the Federal Employment Agency.) The number rises annually.

A large part of workers come from Eastern European countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary. Also called mobile workers, they are usually hired in their home countries: Many German-based firms hire through a sub chain of foreign companies in home countries. For example, a Poland-based company hires Polish workers, signs contracts with them, organizes their visa and entire transport process, and provides housing in Germany. For many companies, this is a large-scale, systematic process.

Companies often hire entire housing units privately to move in migrant workers, while subtracting a significant portion of workers’ salaries towards rent. In many cases, these flats are overcrowded and unsanitary as a result. It’s therefore existential, too: If you lose your job, you may lose your housing.

And jobs are quickly lost, explaining the high fluctuation: Suffering work accidents, calling in sick or simply requesting pay from the month before has evidently led to terminations in many cases. Workers often work shifts up to 14 hours on 7 days per week, get no breaks, sometimes have to pay for protective gear, receive the wrong pay and no copies of signed documents, and are threatened by supervisors, occasionally even physically. Due to long work hours, many workers who barely speak German fail to improve their language skills while surrounded by other migrant workers all day long.

This type of fluctuation also underpins the difficulty of documenting numbers of sub-contracts. But, as mentioned, working conditions in the meat industry are no secret: Statistics and cases are well documented, have often been publicized and subjected to policy-making towards improving conditions. Publicly funded, multilingual advice centers in every state provide information and support for migrant workers.

Corona Hygiene Regulations: A Blessing in Disguise?

On a federal level, some regulations have been implemented, including an industry-wide minimum wage, the Protection of Meat Industry Workers Act, and the inclusion of the meat industry in the Posted Workers Act. Thousands of workers have been able to transition into German employment contracts rather than with a foreign firm. And publicity work has pressured companies into written commitments to improving working conditions – non-compulsive, notably.

But reality speaks against substantial change. The case load of advice centers remains high, the majority of conditions unresolved.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s Minister of Health, Karl-Josef Laumann (Christian Democratic Party, CDU) has been criticized for lacking rigor in preventing this complex set of undermined working conditions, and poor safety and health standards. He responded by pointing to the inability of regional law alone to break through this complex system.

He also hopes that coronavirus prevention measures might break apart some established structures. Take housing, he says: Often private, it’s been difficult to survey and control on a state-level without violating the constitutional right to private living space. Living conditions of workers often goes under the official radar.

“During this pandemic we have the chance to apply the Infection Protection Act and enter those flats with the Health Ministries. Before, we didn’t have that opportunity.

Karl-Josef Laumann, NRW Minister of Health

“Improved protection standards in the meat industry are critically needed”, says Hubertus Heil, the Federal Minister of Labour from Social Democratic Party SPD: Those infections endanger diseased workers. And they endanger local opening measures that we collectively achieved.”

He continues: It is particularly important to me to end organized irresponsibility in sub-contracting. Service-contracting in the field of abattoirs and meat processing will be prohibited.”

Most strikingly, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) published some key points in May detailing intended measures. Measures include increased funding for advise centers, stricter work time regulations and sanctions, and – most importantly – a sweeping prohibition on sub-contracting by January 2021.

It’s not a law, though, and it’s not even a white paper. At this point, it remains essential to closely follow its implementation. Meat prices will likely go up as a result of protective measures. How will consumer reactions sway these efforts in the long run? How can powerful lobbying influence the vague wording in the paper before the intended prohibition takes effect?

Market share power, lobbying and individual influence all at least somewhat contributed to the industry remaining a low-key blind spot. Big players have been allowed to act with impunity for years. The current pandemic has simply shone a new light on well-known structures. How effective new measures will be remains to be see.

As will how companies manage to creatively circumvent them.

Further Reading

The official Website of Faire Mobilität, the central provider of advice desks for migrant workers in Germany, including detailed reports. [Multilingual]

The Intercept Podcast #131 on the US meat industry during Corona (May 20th, 2020). [English]

Aktuelle Sozialpolitik: “Werkverträge soll es in der Fleischindustrie nicht mehr geben. Ab dem kommenden Jahr. Vorhang wieder runter vor der Schlachthausszenerie. Aber Fragezeichen bleiben” (May 21st, 2020) [German]

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