Eastern European guest workers employed in the huge meat plants of Germany are overexploited. Even though it is hard to decide who is responsible for the intolerable situation: the German owner or the Eastern European brokerage firms, it has been known for many years that workers are often crowded into inhumane accommodation and that occupational safety standards and working hour limits are mostly violated in the factories. Now, Hungarian workers revealed their personal experiences.
“At the end of the first day, I couldn’t raise my arm. Instead of eight hours, I had to work ten hours a day, in a freezing hole instead of a good work environment, surrounded by loud, smelly, drunken roommates. Those months were horrible. We were treated as slaves, gypsies. For the German bosses, we did not even exist,” commented 32-year-old Stephen, who was dropped from Transylvania into a pork processing plant in Northern Germany.
He and six other young men were recruited by a Hungarian businessman who said that he had previously also worked as a “butcher”. Each of them had to pay EUR 100 per person for the trip and an additional EUR 500 for the recruiter that was deducted from their first salary.
Guest workers were told that besides high salary, laws are obeyed and they would be taken care of.
However, this was far from reality. It turned out that on paper, Stephen was an employee of a Hungarian company that is now in liquidation. Even though he suspected that the papers signed at one of the highway restrooms were not in German, he did not want any trouble and signed the documents anyway.
Germany is home to cheap meat and is at the forefront of meat production, processing, and consumption in the EU.
The meat industry employs roughly 200,000 people, and the system is largely built on thousands of guest workers who go to the country and try to hold on, often without speaking the language.
Companies have been bringing in workers to German meat factories from Eastern European countries for several decades. It would be difficult for Germans to recruit directly in these countries, and job seekers do not have enough information about job opportunities abroad, they often do not speak the language either. Mediation is a legal activity; therefore, there are companies that bring manual workers to the plants – the typical solution is subcontracting: a German company contracts with an Eastern European company. This business model is tempting for large meat processors, as subcontracted workers are much cheaper than normal employment.
“Forty people came on a big bus. It was December, we lived in workers’ hostels, in a room for four, in harsh conditions. We lived in a panel block, bringing in 30-40 people every Friday. We had to move from one room to another every two weeks. This model still works so they can crowd as many people in as possible. Shortly after, the company was liquidated in December, but we did not even receive payment for that month. I was scared that they would do nothing. Then they managed to find some new solution, a new place; we often had to work 20 hours a day. We went back to the accommodation, took a shower, slept for two hours, and headed back to the plant. I also wanted to quit, but I took it as a temporary situation, and it wouldn’t be better at home either because I had debt.”
In the first two weeks, work was so strenuous that Andrew’s hands were injured. However, he did not go to the doctor because he was afraid of being fired. He sees that a lot of injuries, like unnecessary arthritis, are caused by bad knives, work tools, and a constant rush.
As he says, intermediaries have become millionaires in a few years, after companies that employ up to 200-300 people in one location receive money through several channels. According to him, subcontractors also do a huge deal with overpriced protective equipment, in addition to the payment for washing work clothes, accommodation, and travel fees, which vary from company to company. If someone is taken out and can only keep up the pace for a few days or weeks, these fees will still be deducted from your salary, and the amount pocketed by the meat plant operators can kick in a huge amount.
As Hungarian news portal 24 reports, these conditions are not unknown to the authorities either. Last year, serious cases of abuse were found in 85% of the meat factories in North Rhine-Westphalia. The most common problems were overwork and lack of protective equipment, but the destruction of manual workers was also a typical problem. In such cases, subcontractors take a significant toll on the wages of workers, also called butcher slaves, for collective accommodation, transport to work, and protective clothing.
In May, the German federal government decided to ban the use of a contractor contract from the beginning of 2021 for companies whose main businesses are livestock slaughter and meat processing.
One of the most severe hotbeds of the pandemic in Europe has developed in North Rhine-Westphalia, in Germany’s largest meat processor, the Tönnies plant. The huge meat factory employs 6,400 people, 1,500 of whom are known to be infected. Epidemiological restrictions have been reinstated in the district of Gütersloh and in the neighbouring Warendorf district, affecting 600,000 residents of the districts. In mid-July, Tönnies asked for state aid to pay for its quarantined workers.