“I will never return to Germany, even for a vacation,” Mariana Costea, a seasonal worker from Romania, told DW. He spent two months working hard on a Bavarian farm until he decided that was all he could take. Mariana was forced to work overtime without pay, had to sleep in a dirty dormitory, and risked contracting the corona virus – because no safety precautions were taken.
“I can’t accept that eight of us have to share a bedroom and bathroom,” he recalled. Even worse, 30 seasonal workers are expected to share a single bathroom.
Every morning 14 or 15 of them will pile up into minivans with only eight chairs to be driven out to work in the fields. In the evening, Eastern Europeans will return to their crowded accommodations. Costea said those responsible did not make efforts to enforce social distance and other preventive measures to prevent them from contracting the corona virus.
We can no longer close our eyes
Mariana Costea is one of the many Eastern European seasonal workers who recently spoke about work disasters and the living conditions they experienced in Germany. They have related horrific experiences as meat processing factory workers, shipping men and women, caregivers, construction workers and seasonal farm workers. But much of this has been known for years, as German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil acknowledged publicly at a recent press conference in Berlin. But the difference is that the pandemic makes it impossible to ignore this situation.
Alex, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, told DW about his experience of spending two years working for Tönnies, the largest meat producer in Germany. He worried that he would face serious consequences if someone found out his identity. “They make us work between 10 and 13 hours a day, instead of 8 hours with a 45-minute break,” he told DW. “It’s tiring, and psychologically draining.”
Most seasonal workers are employed by subcontractors; workers are employed by external companies – and not meat producers, who are not directly responsible for the workers. Alex is also employed by a subcontractor who oversees the meat production department. But he also has to accept subcontractor requirements.
Most subcontracted workers cooperate – that is, when workers are paid according to the goods processed, not the actual time spent working. Alex said the expected assignment could not be fulfilled during 8 regular work hours. This, he said, was a systematic exploitation, adding that whoever protested was fired. German labor standards do not exist.
According to many workers’ reports, little or no preventive action is taken to protect workers in the Tönnies meat processing factory. When, in early June, around 1,500 workers out of 7,000 tested positive for the corona virus, its development was hardly surprising. As a result, the Gütersloh region, where the site is located, is placed on lockdown.
Federal prosecutors are now taking legal action against companies and many subcontractors who are accused of violating German law regarding the prevention and control of infectious diseases.
Subcontractors are difficult to monitor
There are many subcontractors and recruitment agencies that supply labor to German companies. Watching how they treat workers and placing them at home, however, is difficult.
Marius Hanganu advises Eastern European workers hired by subcontractors on behalf of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). Hanganu, who was born in Romania, said the German customs and health department was responsible for ensuring that labor and housing standards were met. But, he said, the check was not as complete as it should be.
Hanganu recalls how Bavarian companies received information about inspections to be carried out by the customs office. “It is puzzling how the state department could have such a” leak “… there must be a mole,” he said. According to Hanganu, there must be informers in the echelons higher than the agency.
DW reaches out to the German Central Customs Authority for comments about claims. “There is no knowledge about this!” said the federal authority in a short answer.
After news of coronavirus infections surged on German farms and meat processing plants due to grim work and housing conditions, German lawmakers were forced to act. They plan to ban the practice of subcontracted labor in the meat industry on January 1, 2021. Since then, companies must directly employ all their workers.
Labor Minister Hubertus Heil has submitted a bill that will be debated and, potentially, adopted after a summer parliamentary recess. However, it is not clear why this step will only be applied to the German meat industry.
Heil told DW: “There are areas where labor standards need to be monitored; we will raise standards so we have more influence in important sectors.”
“There are other areas where this is about safety inspections in the workplace. It (inspections) will be increased mandatory so we can go to vulnerable areas more often.”
An opportunity to change
The ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Bavaria once again highlights the spotlight of businesses that seem to ignore coronavirus prevention measures – and the lack of state checks to enforce them. More than 170 seasonal workers in an agricultural business in Mamming, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) northeast of Munich, tested positive for COVID-19. Most workers come from Romania. Others come from Bulgaria, Hungary and Ukraine. Business has been placed under quarantine.
At a press conference on Monday, Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder said the company had consciously violated hygiene rules and other standards – prompting state leaders to call for stricter and unspecified inspections, both day and night.
Söder also suggested increasing fines for such violations from € 5,000 to € 25,000 ($ 5,800 to $ 29,000). In addition, Söder wants to see all seasonal workers in Bavaria tested for coronavirus. Complete regional lockdown might also be looming, he said.
The pandemic has drawn attention to the inhumane treatment of workers that have been taking place in Germany for years. The outbreak might provide an opportunity to finally improve the lives of many Eastern European workers in the country.
Alex is confident that without a pandemic, everything will continue as before. He now starts working in a different meat processing company. He has been given a permanent position – and says he will never allow himself to be exploited.