Sounds normal: In the future, major German meat companies will be obliged to award labor contracts to people who slaughter animals and slaughter and process meat. But this banality is breakthrough. The new Occupational Health and Safety Monitoring Act will prohibit workers without contracts in major German meat and sausage factories. The aim is to end the precarious conditions that are causing the massive outbreak of the coronavirus in slaughterhouses this summer.
This is actually a disgrace. Most of the conditions eastern European workforce were targeted in German slaughterhouses and their despicable housing situation was discovered. However, only if an coronavirus epidemic it is a risk for local residents that politicians eventually find a desire to introduce measures to improve working conditions in the meat industry.
But the slaughterhouse is no exception. Conditions at construction sites were similar, as in the asparagus and strawberry fields and in nursing homes and logistics centers. Often times, workers from eastern Europe with little protection and worse working conditions than Germans with similar jobs toil in this sector.
Better pay, worse conditions
People have came to Germany for work from Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria since the eastern expansion of the European Union, because the wage gap makes it valuable. Often these “field workers” spend several months in Germany and several months at home. A whole system has been put in place to attract “field workers”, who do not enjoy the same rights as other employees in Germany. All sectors have become dependent on field workers. When borders were forced to close due to the pandemic earlier this year, there were protests from German agricultural companies that there weren’t enough seasonal workers to harvest crops. About 80,000 Romanian workers flown to pick asparagus.
About 300,000 elderly German receive round-the-clock care at home. Most of their care workers woman from eastern Europe, with contracts that are supposed to be limited to 40 hours per week. Without these low-paid workers, Germany’s elderly care system might collapse.
All these workers face the same problem: German companies do not employ them directly, saving costs and avoiding responsibility. The main beneficiaries of this system are institutions, which exploit loopholes in EU labor law. Workers don’t have much influence with them and are usually taken advantage of. They pay high fees to agents who find them working and end up earning less than the minimum wage. Moreover, they often know certain conditions, such as not being covered by health insurance at home, even though they are already at work. Field workers, regardless of sector, often say the same thing: They would never have imagined that such conditions exist in Germany, the country of law.
Politicians close their eyes
The government has turned a blind eye for years. Academics accuse German politicians of deliberately accepting the situation as long as the system is functioning. Politicians in Eastern Europe are also willing to join the process, because it means the unemployment rate in their country goes down and money comes in. There is little complacency from the court. A recent court ruling provides Bulgarian caregivers with a minimum salary for the elderly for round-the-clock service. One of the judges expressed surprise that there were no more lawsuits like this.
But in general, people who only come to Germany for a few months, who don’t know anyone and can’t speak the language, will tolerate almost intolerable conditions until they return home. They are unlikely to organize or strive for better conditions. That’s why more laws are needed. The construction industry should also ban temporary work contracts and people working in the elderly care sector must receive higher wages.
In addition, field workers should have access to better advice regarding their rights. At the EU level, there should be a list that people can use in real time to ensure that workers are covered by social security.
The coronavirus pandemic serves to destabilize the meat industry and trigger long-term change. Let’s hope another pandemic is not needed to improve conditions for workers from Eastern Europe in other sectors.