Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Real Jungle

Three large food factories have closed in England and Wales after about 250 workers tested positive for coronavirus, as the Unite union said it was aware of suspected outbreaks at five other sites across the UK.

The confined working conditions and long periods spent by workers in close proximity – often 10 to 12 hours a shift – mean meat factories are at substantially heightened risk of spreading the coronavirus through human-to-human transmission, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.

Unions have said the living conditions of many low-paid workers in the factories is another contributing factor, as is time spent by colleagues in communal spaces such as in locker rooms and on shuttle buses.

Bev Clarkson, a national officer at Unite, said there were “major issues” with the health and safety of workers in the meat processing industry and urged employers to implement proper physical distancing and provide adequate protective equipment “to stop further spikes within the sector”.

“Unite has warned time and again that coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories throughout the UK were likely,” she said. “The union has been in touch with the management of all three closed factories to insist that staff only return to work when it is safe to do so and when further outbreaks can be prevented.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union said recently that at least 44 slaughterhouse workers in the US had died from the virus and another 3,000 had tested positive.

Public health officials in Germany are grappling with an outbreak among hundreds of workers at a meatpacking plant in Rheda-Wiedenbrück. At least 730 workers have tested positive at the Tönnies Group plant, it emerged. Germany’s agriculture minister called for an official investigation into the outbreak. Labor adviser Elena Strato says meatpacker Tönnies is cynically trying to pin blame for a coronavirus outbreak on foreign workers. Rather, the problem stems from a network of major companies and their subcontractors, who run a well-oiled system designed to let them shirk their own responsibilities as to the dangerous work and living environments they subject their employees to.

 What adjective best describes a person who will risk someone else's life just to get richer? Ruthless? Unscrupulous? Hungry for money? Willing to disregard human rights, even? The management of Tönnies, Germany's and Europe's largest meat-processing company, could certainly be labeled as such. Why? Because it has known for months how vulnerable its workers, like so many others in the meat-processing industry, are to a potential coronavirus outbreak. Yet, it did nothing to reduce the risk. Workers in this industry, who tend to hail from eastern and southern Europe and are employed by sub-contractors, often endure dismal working and living conditions. It's common for laborers butchering dead animals to work side by side, standing close to each other all day, and to share cramped living quarters, where social distancing is impossible.

Unlike their German colleagues, meat-processing workers from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria earn a pittance — albeit a little more than they would make in most jobs back home. Nevertheless, the dire working and living conditions they have to put up with in Germany effectively make them modern-day slaves.  Tönnies is exploiting these desperate people to turn a profit. More than half the 6,000 workers at its main headquarters are employed by sub-contractors. This allows Tönnies to save labor costs, maximize profits, and enhance its competitiveness. The company has outpriced many global competitors and even exports meat to countries like Romania and China. In the past, the company has exerted considerable influence on regional and local lawmakers, who turned a blind eye to the mistreatment of foreign workers.

 20,000 pigs are slaughtered and cut up each day at Tönnies and when measured by the number of animals slaughtered  a 30.3% market share. The number of animals per farm is increasing, which indicates a growth in factory farming in Germany. Farms with 100,000 hens laying eggs are not rare. EU regulations stipulate that a pig weighing 50 kilograms (110 pounds) to 110 kilograms (242 pounds) needs just 0.75 square meters (8 square feet) of space.

"The purely economic view and the associated intensive farming systems in animal farming are ethically questionable and no longer tolerable," said Thomas Schröder, president of the German Animal Welfare Association.

Meat processing is an important economic sector in Germany. According to the Federal Statistic Office, the turnover for the meat processing industry in 2019 was €42.5 billion ($47.5 billion). Tönnies had by far the highest turnover — with around €6.9 billion ($7.7 billion) — from slaughtering 17 million pigs. In 2019, 59.7 million pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and horses were slaughtered in Germany. Including poultry, companies produced almost 8 million tons of meat. Much more meat is produced in Germany than is eaten. Almost half of it is exported. German pork, offal and poultry are particularly sought after. The biggest buyer of German pork is Italy at 17%, followed by the Netherlands, China and Poland with 9% each.

There have been a number of outbreaks among employees of German meat companies in recent months.  Virologist Isabella Eckerle gives several reasons why. First, working conditions in slaughterhouses are not compatible with the hygiene measures necessary to prevent a virus from being transmitted to others. People work in closed rooms, with no possibility of maintaining social distancing guidelines. Second, the accommodation for foreign laborers is often in cramped apartments, with multiple people sleeping in the same room, meaning the virus can easily spread there as well. Another factor could be the physical strain of the work. Damp hands, gloves, aprons and clothing could promote transmission through smear infections. Many of the workers in German slaughterhouses come from outside the country. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but according to the German government, answering a question from The Left Party, in 2018 almost 50% of workers in slaughterhouses did not hold German passports. Trade unions estimate the migrant workforce currently stands at around 80%. Workers are rarely hired by the meat processing companies themselves, but instead by subcontractors, which mostly hire people in Romania and Hungary before bringing them to work in Germany. Workers received time-limited, labor-specific contracts, which means they receive fewer employment rights than long-term employees. According to the 2018 government figures, they were much likely to work evenings, nights and weekends than employees in other industries.
Officially they are paid the minimum wage, which was introduced to the meat industry in 2014 and is currently set at €8.75 ($9.81) per hour — but unions and campaign groups say workers rarely receive that much. Instead, costs are deducted from their pay for multiple reasons.
"Opaque recording of working hours, unclear costs for accommodation, transport and material leave the impression of being cheated," summarizes Armin Wiese, an executive at Germany's Food, Beverages and Catering Union (NGG).  "They realize they are defenseless against the arbitrariness of their employers."

No comments: