There has long been a deep divide between vegetarians and meat-eaters, originally based on the ethics of protecting animals from cruelty and promoting the welfare of livestock. In recent years the issue has become a crucial one in the climate change debate as the rearing of livestock to meet the demand of meat-eaters has been found to have serious implications for carbon emissions. However, too often those who work in the meat industry have had their well-being neglected.
A Guardian investigation has found meat companies across Europe have been hiring thousands of workers through subcontractors, agencies and bogus co-operatives on inferior pay and conditions. Europe’s £190bn meat industry has become a global hotspot for outsourced labour, with a floating cohort of workers, many of whom are migrants,
with some earning 40% to 50% less than directly employed staff in the same factories. The Guardian uncovered evidence of a two-tier employment system with workers subjected to sub-standard pay and conditions to fulfil the meat industry’s need for a replenishable source of low-paid, hyper-flexible workers with unions estimating that thousands of workers in some countries are precariously employed through subcontractors and agencies. These precarious workers often have undefined working hours, zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employed status and no sick pay. Workers describe living in an extremely precarious state in countries where they do not speak the language and therefore struggle to understand their agreements and legal rights.
“The system is sick everywhere across Europe. It’s based on cheap prices for meat, on the exploitation of labour,” said Enrico Somaglia, deputy secretary general of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions. “You have workers elbow to elbow doing the same work, but under different conditions.”
In the Netherlands – one of Europe’s largest meat exporters with sales worth €8.8bn (£7.5bn) last year – the labour inspectorate said migrants, primarily on precarious contracts, make up to 90% of the workforce.
“They can fire you instantly and you can lose everything,” said a Romanian worker in the Netherlands.
“Migrant workers in the meat industry are an invisible group,” says Martijn Huysmans, assistant professor at Utrecht University School of Economics. “In Dutch stores you can see what kind of life an animal has had – we have a star system for animal welfare. But ironically, you can’t see what conditions people in the slaughterhouse were working under.”