Monday, August 10, 2020

The Human Meat Trade

The Netherlands is a food powerhouse and the second largest exporter of agricultural products after the US, despite being less than 0.5% its size. It is the largest exporter of meat in the EU, and home to Europe’s largest meat-processing company. Meat industry officials say finding enough staff is a growing challenge across the sector.

Trapped in jobs that make them feel worthless, meat plant workers have spoken out about working life in an industry accused of using temporary agencies to avoid employment responsibilities.

 Romanian and Polish workers described intimidation and gruelling conditions on the factory floor, inconsistent coronavirus measures and feeling afraid to report sickness. All are employed by agencies and most are currently working at, or have recently left, the Dutch company Van Rooi Meat.

“We feel like animals,” said "Joe". “All the workers are unhappy with these conditions … but people are afraid to talk...They don’t care about the people,” said "Joe", adding that many felt powerless to challenge the conditions.

80% of the industry’s workers are from central and eastern Europe and employed by temporary agencies rather than directly by meat companies. According to John Klijn from the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV), they are treated as “second-class workers...They [meat companies] don’t really care if the migrant workers have a good life or a bad life – they just look at the money,” said Klijn.

Temporary contracts and a lack of regulation have left workers hostage to the contentious conditions imposed upon them by agencies, while enabling meat companies to escape liability. People working at Van Rooi’s Helmond and Someren sites reported feeling pressured to “work beyond their physical limits”, verbal abuse and intimidation.

“One week we had to push like horses … until we literally dropped down,” said Anna, adding that the conditions had taken a heavy mental and physical toll. “Even if you work 12 hours a day, they don’t take you into account: they don’t think you are worth anything,” said Max. “When it comes to the way people are treated, this is a tragedy.” He described workers being humiliated and called names by managers. “I’ve had enough with the stress.”

Slaughterhouses have emerged as a hotspot for coronavirus in many countries, notably Ireland, GermanyBrazil and the US. In the Netherlands outbreaks have occurred at other plants as well as at Van Rooi’s Helmond site.

Workers claim that precautions were lacking with little information and that even when the first people became sick no measures were taken. Workers reported seeing ill people continue to work with little social distancing. Workers reported that most people were too afraid to fill the forms out truthfully, for fear of going into quarantine and not being paid, or being fired. Many temporary agency contracts in the industry include the ability to fire with little notice, including if an employee is sick. Some workers reported being told to lie on forms.

The role played by temporary agencies, which have flourished in the Netherlands since regulations were relaxed in the 1990s, underpinned many of the workers’ complaints. Agencies provide the majority of labour for Dutch meat companies – recruiting mostly from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. They typically organise accommodation, transport and health insurance, deducting costs from pay.

Jan Cremers, labour law researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, argues that this puts workers in “complete 100% dependency” on agencies.  The extensive use of temporary agencies enables meat companies to avoid liability for employment and work conditions. “They have finally found an easy way to throw all the responsibility over the fence,” said Cremers.

Enrico Somaglia, deputy secretary general of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (Effat), argues these problems are systemic and that companies find “tricks” to avoid responsibilities. The use of temporary agencies and subcontractors, he said, “are made basically to escape employer liability and cut costs at the expense of the workers”. An Effat report last month linked poor working, employment and housing conditions to Covid-19 outbreaks in the industry.

Despite the union highlighting problems for years, Klijn said, meat companies, farmers and “big money” have offered powerful resistance to reforming the labour structure. The union argues workers should be directly employed by meat companies. In neighbouring Germany, the government has announced it will phase out the heavy dependency of the industry on subcontractors.

Joe said that while work was limited back in Romania, anyone who arrived in the Netherlands looked on the meat industry as a last resort: “I will never work in meat processing  – I am sick of it.”

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