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Global Economy

Working conditions in the meat industry: What happened after the Tönnies scandal?

After the Corona outbreaks, the Tönnies slaughterhouse has become synonymous with poor working conditions in the meat industry. What has happened almost two years later? Temporary work and contract work are now prohibited, and working days with more than 10 working hours have also been put under a ban. Unions still see a need for improvement in many areas.

    After the Corona outbreaks, the Tönnies slaughterhouse has become synonymous with poor working conditions in the meat industry. What has happened almost two years later? Agency work and contract work are now prohibited, and even working days with more than 10 working hours have been put under a ban. Unions still see a need for improvement in many areas.

The massive corona outbreak among the slaughterhouse employees of the Tönnies workforce in 2020 had brought them into focus: The fact that the company based in Rheda-Wiedenbrück became one of the largest sources of infection in Germany also had to do with the poor working conditions of the and contract workers from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria – even if a court now sees the transmission of the virus via aerosols via the ventilation system as the main factor.

Pastor Peter Kossen from Lengerich in North Rhine-Westphalia, who has been fighting for better working conditions for a long time, described the situation on "Deutschlandfunk" in mid-2020 as follows: "The employees are employed and accommodated on terms that cannot be justified." Consume people and treat them like interchangeable machines to maximize profits. Kossen speaks of "modern slavery" and he describes the subcontractors as "mafia".

Ban on temporary work since 2021

Almost two years after the corona outbreaks in several slaughterhouses, the question now arises: have working conditions in the meat industry improved? Since April 2021, the Occupational Health and Safety Control Act has banned agency work and contract work in the meat industry, which is why large factories with more than 50 employees have had to hire more workers as permanent staff.

According to the company, several thousand contract workers were taken on at the Tönnies headquarters alone. The “Federal Employment Agency” speaks of a total of around 16,000 people who, compared to the figures from the end of 2020 to mid-2021, are counted more in the slaughtering and meat processing industry.

loopholes in the law

But there are exceptions: Temporary work is still allowed during production peaks – such as the barbecue season. In addition, the Occupational Health and Safety Control Act only refers to the core area of slaughtering and cutting – temporary work in cleaning or packaging is therefore still used.

However, the law puts a stop to working days with up to 16 working hours. The new permanent employees are only allowed to work a maximum of ten hours a day. On Deutschlandfunk, however, a worker complained that little had changed – now more work had to be done in less working time. "If the women can't lift heavy pallets, say the foremen, it doesn't matter," said the worker about the pressure at work.

Obligation to record working hours

Thomas Bernhard from the "Food-Genuss-Gaststätten" (NGG) trade union said at the request of our editors: "The situation in the meat industry has actually improved for employees in parts since January 1st, 2021, the start of the Occupational Health and Safety Control Act". Due to the obligation to record working hours electronically, employees only reported to a very limited extent that working hours were not paid.

A minimum wage of 11 euros has been in force for the meat industry since the beginning of the year. From December 2022 it will rise to EUR 11.50, and one year later to EUR 12.30. This means that the industry-specific wage is above the statutory minimum wage (currently EUR 9.82). "Even exorbitant daily working hours of more than 10 hours were significantly restricted by the mandatory electronic time recording," says Bernhard.

Accidents not reported

Nevertheless, the trade unionist says: "There are still clear indications that people who have had an accident or are unable to work are given notice without notice and their accommodation is immediately withdrawn." It is also reported that reportable accidents are not reported at all. "We are also reported to have significant difficulties with continued payment of wages in the event of quarantine, i.e. without illness," says Bernhard.

In connection with the Corona outbreak at Tönnies, the precarious living situation of temporary workers in the meat industry had also become public. A large part of the employees are housed in collective accommodation, sometimes paying 200 euros per person and bed.

accommodation situation improved

Four to five people live in 50 square meters. At the time, Minister of Labor Hubertus Heil spoke of a "system of organized irresponsibility". The new workplace ordinance will therefore determine in future how the communal accommodation for accommodating employees must be equipped, including off the company premises. The fines for violations are to be increased to 30,000 euros.

Tönnies claims to have created thousands of new homes for the workers who previously lived in subcontractor apartments. Hundreds of apartments and houses have been bought or rented. In NRW, State Labor Minister Karl Josef Laumann (CDU) found 1,900 deficiencies in 650 accommodations across NRW in the summer.

Union sees pent-up demand

From the point of view of trade unionist Bernhard, there has actually been some movement on the subject of accommodation. The quality of accommodation has improved significantly in some cases. "We are told of renovation and refurbishment work, some of which is not insignificant, of improvements in the quality of the equipment and more frequent checks of the quality of the accommodations," he says. Excessive rents have been partially reduced.

The "NGG" still sees a massive need for improvement. The legal conditions in the meat industry are not adequately controlled – especially in the areas of financial control, undeclared work and occupational safety.

Stricter controls needed

"It would be very desirable if the responsibility of the districts and urban districts for the occupational safety authorities were transferred to a higher political level," demands Bernhard. In recent years, many cases have revealed that the dependency on economic interests is too high to effectively punish and stop breaches of existing rules that have been discovered.

There is also a need to catch up in terms of changing room, travel, set-up and washing times. "Although the Occupational Health and Safety Control Act stipulates that these are working times, the recording of these times in companies known to us leaves a lot to be desired," Bernhard knows.

Dealing with the law very differently

Anna Szot, industry coordinator in the meat industry at the "German Trade Union Confederation" (DGB) can also confirm the positive effects of the Occupational Health and Safety Control Act: "At last, employees of former subcontractors have access to very elementary employee rights," she says.

The entitlement to continued payment of wages in the event of illness is now being paid out. "So the procedure from before, that you had to give notice if you got sick and then get hired again after you've recovered, is no longer practiced," explains Szot. Overall, however, the way companies deal with the Occupational Health and Safety Control Act differs.

Workers: Fear of going on strike

Meanwhile, the "DGB" criticizes the integration of former subcontractors into new positions and a lack of protection against forced evictions without notice after termination of employment in the accommodations.

Szot therefore believes: "The industry can only secure its own future if good working conditions are anchored. This is only possible through co-determination and collective agreements." The problem, however, is that many Eastern European workers are still very afraid of taking part in strikes.

Sources used:

"Deutschlandfunk": Working conditions in the meat industry: "One consumes people". June 23, 2020, Bundesregierung.de: Occupational Health and Safety Control Act came into force. More protection for employees, IG Zeitarbeit: New minimum wage in the meat industry. January 4th, 2022, Deutschlandfunk: Working conditions at Tönnies & Co. Meat workers dissatisfied despite the new law. January 14th, 2021, inquiry at the NGG, inquiry at the DGB

    "Deutschlandfunk": Working conditions in the meat industry: "One consumes people". 06/23/2020Bundesregierung.de: Occupational Health and Safety Control Act in force. More protection for employeesIG temporary work: New minimum wage in the meat industry. 01/04/2022Deutschlandfunk: Working conditions at Tönnies & Co. Butchers dissatisfied despite the new law.01/14/2021Request to the NGGRequest to the DGB
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