German slaughterhouses in spotlight after virus outbreak

Migrant workers endure conditions scientists say are prime Covid-19 incubators


Erika Solomon in Oldenburg and Clive Cookson in London, Financial Times

Jun 26, 2020


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 shifts from 4am to 4pm 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 Clemens Tönnies, the co-founder of the company, has publicly apologised for the outbreak.


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...