Published: 25/06/2020

New coronavirus hotspots have erupted in Germany’s meat processing plants, spotlighting again the massive abuse of subcontracted migrant labour on which the industry depends. More than 1,500 workers have been infected with COVID-19 at the giant Tönnies plant (over 6,500 workers) in Rheda-Wiedenbrück alone, where local authorities have re-imposed strict lockdowns just as economic activity was reviving.

In May, the federal cabinet introduced proposed legislation, effective January 1 2021, to ban the system of subcontracting slaughter and processing operations through which the companies rely on migrant workers from Eastern Europe for the bulk of their production. Subcontracting employment shields companies like Tönnies, Germany’s largest pork processor, from responsibility for the abusive and exploitative living and working conditions which blight the industry. The draft legislation would require the meat companies to directly employ their workforce, impose new oversight of working hours and payment and enforce strict liability for violations.

Companies initially responded by threatening to leave Germany. Following the latest outbreaks, on June 23, Tönnies joined with two other leading companies in a pledge to voluntarily renounce subcontracting. The NGG, which has been fighting for years to raise standards in the meat industry, denounced the companies’ declaration as a smokescreen to avoid strict legal regulation, emphasizing that ‘Voluntary solutions in the meat industry have never worked and will not work. Working and living conditions in the meat industry will only be improved through strong laws.’