Germany vows to clean up abattoirs after COVID-19 outbreaks among workers

Germany has proposed banning the use of temporary subcontractors at meatpacking plants following a surge in coronavirus infections.
calendar icon 21 May 2020
clock icon 5 minute read

According to reporting in Reuters and the BBC, Germany’s Labour Minister Hubertus Heil pledged to tighten labour rules for slaughterhouses, including banning the subcontracting of meatpacking work through agencies.

The COVID-19 cases among abattoir subcontractors have caused outrage in the home countries of the sector's predominately foreign workers.

The new rules were agreed on 20 May and prevent subcontractors from processing meat at plants from January 2021. German government sources said more than 600 cases of COVID-19 were reported among slaughterhouse workers, spurring the quick adoption of the rules.

Any violation of the new rules by abattoir owners could result in a fine of up to €30,000 (£26,800; $32,900).

The BBC reports that health experts are looking at possible reasons for the outbreaks, including overcrowded accommodation and cold conditions at processing facilities.

The epidemic has thrown a spotlight on the German food industry's reliance on migrant labour, particularly from Romania, where anger at the deaths of two harvest workers from the coronavirus and mass infections led the labour minister to travel to Berlin to demand better conditions.

Under the new rules, meatpackers in abattoirs must be employed by the company itself, ending the practice of hiring many of the sector's 200,000 workers through long chains of subcontracting agencies which pushes down final wages.

Heil said repeated attempts to improve conditions in the industry had failed but this time the government would persist.

Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said companies must take responsibility for their workers.

"There are conditions in the meat industry that are not acceptable," she said.

Some in the industry fear that having to hire workers as staff will drive up their costs.

The state of Lower Saxony ordered that 10,000 abattoir workers at plants that used subcontracted employment be tested for COVID-19 after 92 tested positive at a plant in the town of Dissen.

The law will also allow workplace inspections and give local inspectors new powers to check workers' accommodation.

Read more about this story on Reuters and on the BBC.

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