Gütersloh county in the pine-and-oak forested flatlands of northern Germany is an industrial hub with washing-machine and tractor factories and the head office of a giant media conglomerate. But it is the slaughterhouse that people talk about.
The complex on the edge of the small town of Rheda-Wiedenbrück is Europe’s largest meat plant, with a workforce of 6,500. Locals discuss the busses shuttling Romanian and Polish workers to the 25,000 pig-per-day facility run by the Tönnies Group, and the apartment blocks where workers sleep six to a bedroom. Recently, gossip has also turned to the plant floor, where thousands of eastern-Europeans are lined shoulder-to-shoulder along noisy conveyor belts. By late June, approximately a fifth of the staff had tested positive for coronavirus.
“Everyone knew [about conditions there] before. It was a constant topic of conversation,” said Ursula Mense-Petermann, a university professor living 13 miles from the plant. Now, she says, “the whole of German society” is aware of the plant.
The outbreak led to a quarantining of workers, provoked broader shelter-in-place restrictions in the region, and burst gossip about labor practices at the Tönnies plant into a national fascination. Germans asked: How could their modern egalitarian country — of all places — be host to such shocking conditions?
That question has ricocheted across wealthy, Western countries, where oronavirus outbreaks at factories and food production facilities have pulled back the curtain on labor practices more often associated with the developing world.
A thread running through food industries in Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. shows companies have sometimes navigated regulations to put in place something like industrial enclaves, often employing foreign workers under standards and practices associated with less wealthy nations. When COVID hit, these conditions seem to have left some of the facilities especially vulnerable to a disease that spread rapidly. They often employ low-paid workers in cramped conditions, frequently toiling for long hours in proximity to one another. The employees, desperate for work, are often unable to seek improvements to their working environments or to take adequate time off for sickness.
“I think you’re seeing it all over the world with these types of jobs. It starts with the workers: they’re a very vulnerable workforce,” said Kim Cordova, leader of the union local representing workers at the JBS USA meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado, site of one of America’s deadliest workplace outbreaks. “They build the plants that are in very political conservative communities, where the workers don’t have support with chambers of commerce, or county commissioners.”
In Germany, the meat processing industry has developed enclaves of low-cost Eastern European workers. In 2004, when Poland and Hungary joined the European Union, their citizens couldn’t be directly employed in Germany. But German businesses could hire Eastern European companies.
So German meatpackers set up separate conveyor belts for different stages of meat processing that could be staffed with teams from a specific ‘service provider,’ each with ties to Eastern European labor recruiters, said Mense-Petermann, who recently published a study on labor in the German meat industry. At first these crews were paid and managed under their home countries’ labor laws, earning three to five euros per hour, a fraction of German wages. Eventually, reforms meant all workers were paid a German minimum wage, and conveyor gangs had to register as German companies. But abuses persisted, Mense-Petermann said.
“It’s a system of organized lack of responsibility,” she said.
Teams have been paid by the amount of meat they produced in a given amount of time in giant, chilled-temperature factories tightly packed with workers, pig carcasses and shouting foremen, she said.
“One reason for the devastating working conditions, in my view, is that subcontractors do not own any plant, any machinery, any facilities. They just employ workers. Labor costs is the only screw they can turn to make profit themselves,” Ursula Mense-Peterman added. “The broader public has not been aware of the fact that, in the midst of the German society, there were such labor practices.”
More than 1,500 workers tested positive at the Gütersloh plant at the end of June, leading the government to put more than 500,000 people into self quarantine, according to German news reports. The outbreak was shocking, given that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government had been praised internationally for containment efforts.
News reports said some workers returned to their home countries after the outbreak, while others were resistant to the idea of sitting in quarantine without pay.
“I’m angry with the company, Tönnies. I’m angry with the system behind it,” Gütersloh Mayor Henning Schulz told public broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “I’m angry with the system of sub-sub-subcontractors which is totally intransparent.”
Merkel’s administration has proposed legislation making slaughterhouses offer jobs directly to workers, with her agriculture minister describing meat industry labor subcontracting an “untenable practice” involving “cascades of shadow companies.”
In July, Tönnies responded to criticism by announcing an “action plan for extended pandemic prevention” where it would directly employ about one-sixth of its workers, help with housing for some of the newly-hired workers, as well as provide masks, testing and social distancing.
The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In 2004, workers in Morecambe Bay in the northwest of England dredged up 21 bodies of Chinese cockle pickers who had been trapped by riding tides in their workshed and drowned. The criminal case that followed became a national whodunit, with detectives turning up a web of labor contractors called ‘gangmasters’ profiting off illegal Chinese immigrants. The story became a national fixation, focusing on the idea of “modern slavery.”
Critics of U.K. labor regulation say focus on this term hasn’t been helpful for combating the broader issues related to the exploitation of foreign workers in the food industries. Labor contractors still provide much of the labor in the food sector, and there remain plenty of abuses that don’t rise to the level of ‘slavery,’ critics say.
“They look at the cases that are most spectacular, with a focus on bigger cases that are more sensationalist and linked to organized crime,” said Johanna Katharina Schenner, a labor and employment research scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. “But not all labor law violations are linked to organized crime.”
The 2019-2020 end of year performance report of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority identifies 15,186 potential victims of labor exploitation or licensing breaches. But it only reports eight enforcement case convictions for the period.
Darryl Dixon, the agency’s director of strategy, says that his colleagues do focus on day-to-day exploitation, and that these numbers don’t account for other ways to handle violations, such as referring cases to other agencies, or pressing employers to improve conditions.
The U.K. has a relatively small number of work safety inspectors compared with Europe, said Schenner. The food business system of depending on contractors, of chartered flights of eastern Europeans flying in to pick a crop, and the reticence among workers of reporting violations, makes it difficult to enforce developed world standards in U.K. food factories and farms.
“You have overcrowded housing; people living in trailers, five together. They can’t afford to rent in the U.K.,” Schenner said. “And then you have labor intensification. When you work at a higher speed you can’t be as careful about the virus’ spread.”
Food processing plants, along with elder-care facilities, prisons and schools, have been key sites of coronavirus outbreaks in the U.K., according to a study by researchers at Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
In June, meat plants in West Yorkshire and Anglesey closed temporarily after 208 workers tested positive for coronavirus. And in July, seasonal pickers on a bean-and-broccoli farm in Herefordshire had to isolate after 73 tested positive for the infection. An English worker on the farm described isolated, communal living quarters with mostly Bulgarian and Romanian workers, living and working “so close together that it’s not surprising that if anyone gets COVID,” according to a Guardian report.
An aerial photograph of the farm shows 18 trailer houses parked 20 feet apart from each other in a field alongside warehouses. Health authorities said 200 workers had been quarantined in trailers and that the government would provide them translators and other services.
Unite, the U.K. labor union, denounced what it said were cramped, unsafe working conditions in British agriculture generally, and a frequent failure to comply with requirements for distancing, protective wear and safety checks.
“We said at the start of this pandemic that this is something that is likely to happen, and in particular on the farms because workers are put in caravans or dormitories where they have to share,” Bev Clarkson, Unite’s national officer for agriculture, said in a statement.
On the northeast edge of the high plains town of Greeley, Colorado, is an underground tunnel connecting 1,500 employee parking spaces to a gigantic, 5,400-head-per day cattle slaughterhouse surrounded by barbed-wire topped fencing and a security guard hut.
The JBS USA plant is an enclave in other ways, too, something the public discovered when plant workers, many of them immigrants, began dying of coronavirus this spring.
Until the 1980s, meatpacking was one of America’s highest paying blue-collar jobs. But then labor unions lost a series of strikes resulting in pay cuts. New plants opened as nonunion operations, hiring undocumented workers until a series of crackdowns drove companies to seek other laborers for the grisly, injury-prone, exhausting type of jobs few American citizens wanted. Factory owners turned to refugee relocation programs run by the U.S. State Department, and by charitable organizations.
“These were jobs that were — compared to jobs in Somalia, Myanmar, and Bhutan — high paying,” said David Michaels, who lead America’s top workplace regulator, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between 2009 and 2017.
But that agency “has been weakened,” he added, and “right now is doing very little to protect meat workers.”
With the coronavirus pandemic, protecting workers’ health fell to a Balkanized system of independent county regulation. Colorado alone has 53 local health agencies, ultimately overseen by elected county commissioners with their own ideas about the best ways to regulate business.
Pushing the JBS plant in Greeley to comply with measures to fight the pandemic fell to top county health official Mark Wallace, who stepped down in May, after county commissioners ordered him to work toward “opening” county businesses against his own better judgment, as reported by MarketWatch.
Since then, eight more county medical officers have stepped down in Colorado, said Theresa Anselmo, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Health Officials. They were joined by officials quitting in at least 23 other states, according to a review by Kaiser Health news Service and the Associated Press, which counted 49 health officers quitting nationwide as of August 10.
In Colorado “they continue to be threatened personally, their property is vandalized. They are being put under pressure to agree with measures that aren’t science or public-health based just for the expediency to open. Their orders are being defied openly,” said Anselmo.
Six plant workers and one manager have died of coronavirus, with at least 300 infected at the Greeley beef plant, according to state reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported July 10 that in April and May, 86 meatpacking workers nationwide had died of coronavirus.
“Western countries rely on immigrants from poorer countries to do the hard low-paying jobs,” said Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University School of Public Health. “But these workers are often unprotected, have little ability to protect themselves, and the governments are often unwilling or unable to step in and protect them.”
Cordova said that testing for coronavirus at the JBS plant remains incomplete. Workers aren’t given adequate filtration masks, and line-speeds have been quickened, meaning workers aren’t able to take care to stay separate from each other, increasing risk of infection, she said.
“There is still not enough testing available,” she said. “And there is still work-while-sick culture.”
In a statement responding to MarketWatch questions, JBS USA said the plant doesn’t have a work-while-sick culture, workers showing coronavirus symptoms are tested, and that the plant provides safety measures that include handing out thousands of masks each day.
“Continued claims that the plant is not safe or is not providing adequate protective equipment are inconsistent with the views of numerous health professionals” visiting the plant, said the statement.
Matt Smith reports for MarketWatch and Barron’s Group from San Francisco.