Germany Bans Meat Sector Subcontracting in a Bid to Tackle Employee Exploitation

By Tyler, Global Vegans

On January 1st, a law banning the practice of subcontracting employees for slaughterhouse work came into force in Germany. In addition to criminalising subcontracting in the meat sector, the law also puts new restrictions on hiring temporary workers and sets a minimum standard for employee accommodation.

Companies in Germany’s lucrative meat sector will also face legal action if they neglect to pay their temporary and permanent employees equal wages or fail to record workers’ shift times digitally.

German Labour Minister Hubertus Heil has been pushing for the law since summer 2020, but disagreement between the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU), two of the three political parties supporting Germany’s coalition government, prolonged the drafting of the bill.

The new law will improve the rules and regulations of The Occupational Safety and Health Control Act and seeks to protect the thousands of EU migrant workers who operate Germany’s meat production and processing sector. The country is known for its cheap meat, with sausage types such as Bratwurst and Frankfurter Würstchen forming dietary staples for many.

It is not surprising that sausage meat is readily accessible in Germany. According to the European Commission, Germany, France and Spain are responsible for half of the EU’s total production of pork. Until now, Germany has been able to keep its meat prices low by paying workers inadequate wages, offering sub-standard workers’ accommodation and compromising on employee welfare.

Before 2014, Germany’s leading meat manufacturers kept labour costs low by employing posted workers, often from Eastern European countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and North Macedonia. This allowed abattoir bosses to pay workers what they would expect to receive from their home country - a fraction of what their German colleagues would be paid.

Criticism from trade unionists and labour rights activists pushed Germany to set a minimum wage in 2014, but subcontracting soon became a popular way to hire workers cheaply. By hiring subcontractors, meat manufacturers could feign ignorance to the low wages, long hours and poor conditions employees faced.

Incentivised by flat rates for agreed services (e.g. per number of animals slaughtered), subcontractors pushed workers to the extreme. This often included working longer than 10-hour shifts with limited breaks and came at the expense of both employee and animal welfare.

By putting an end to subcontracting within the meat industry, Germany’s new bill will force meat producers to hire employees directly to ensure equal pay and treatment. The bill was first proposed in May 2020, when Covid-19 outbreaks linked to abattoirs and meat-packing plants exposed the true horrors of abattoir employment.

Unsanitary working conditions, inefficient ventilation and overcrowded living accommodation allowed the virus to spread quickly. One of the most serious outbreaks drew widespread attention to Germany’s largest slaughterhouse, owned by the country’s market leader for pork products: Tönnies. By July, more than 7000 Tönnies workers were forced to quarantine in the north-west town of Rheda-Wiedenbrück.

Amongst these was Raya, who moved from Bulgaria to work for the slaughterhouse after being recruited by a Tönnies subcontractor. Raya told the Financial Times that her responsibilities included handling frozen meat and shifting boxes for up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

For this, Raya received less than €500 per month during her first two months of working for Tönnies. In stark contrast, Clemens Tönnies, owner of The Tönnies Group, has an estimated net worth of $2.3bn.

Trade unionists hope that Germany’s new bill banning subcontracting in the meat sector will protect workers like Raya. Inevitably, the legislation will push up meat prices as abattoirs with a monopoly on the market scramble to clean up their practices.

Germany isn’t the only country to have faced international criticism for its treatment of meat processing plant workers. Covid-19 outbreaks in the UK, America and Australia also shone a light on the conditions employees face around the world. Practising social distancing is almost impossible within abattoir environments which allows transmission rates to soar.

We are well aware of the horrors animals face between the four walls of slaughterhouses, but the human cost of mass-produced meat products is rarely considered. Tightening meat sector employment regulations will hopefully prevent thousands of workers from being exploited, but the real change will come from slowing down demand for cheap meat.

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