Some 350 million poultry, 19 million pigs and over 500,000 cows are slaughtered every year in the abattoirs of Lower Saxony, an agricultural area in the north-west of the country.
Over the years, this German state has become the heart of the millions of tons of meat consumed and exported by Germany. It is also the site of all kinds of abuses in terms of the pay and working conditions imposed on slaughterhouse employees.
The plight of workers in the sector was gradually exposed a few years ago: gross hourly wages of €5 (US$5.20) or less, migrant workers from eastern Europe crammed into lodgings unfit for human habitation for which they had to pay hundreds of euros, working 12 to 14 hour days and extremely hazardous working conditions.
“Salaried slaves in German abattoirs,” headlined the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in June 2013. “Meat industry systematically exploits eastern European workers,” Die Zeit went on to report the following year.
According to the food, beverages and catering trade union Nahrung-Genuss-Gaststätten (NGG), a third of Germany’s 30,000 slaughterhouse workers are from eastern and southern Europe, aside from those working in meat processing and packing sites.
By alerting the local authorities and the press, and setting up special support structures for migrant workers in the industry, trade unions in the sector have managed to secure a number of changes over the last two years.
“Public outrage needs to be roused to bring about improvements in the situation. That is what we did in the region. The church then started to get involved and the media took an interest in the matter. The migrant workers are now boarded in better quality and less costly lodgings,” says Thomas Bernhard, regional secretary of the NGG.
In 2014, around 50 companies in the sector signed a code of conduct regarding their migrant workers’ accommodation. The code is not legally binding but is a guideline they have committed to follow to prevent degrading living conditions. Their subcontractors are also under an obligation, in principle, to respect the same standards.
“But we are still seeing workers whose employers deduct €250 (US$263) from their pay for accommodation in four to six person dormitories,” says Piotr Mazurek, who works as an advisor in the city of Oldenburg for Polish workers in the sector, as part of the Faire Mobilität programme led by the German trade union confederation Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB).
Such an amount would be sufficient for a room to oneself in a simple house share or even for a small flat. “But the workers accept because they are doubly dependent on their employer for work and for lodging. If they protest, they risk finding themselves on the street.”
Subcontracting on a massive scale
The improvements promised, for the most part, have not yet materialised.
A sectoral minimum wage was introduced in the meat sector in 2014. It was €7.75 (US$8.11) an hour at the time and is currently €8.75, no more than the national minimum wage introduced in Germany in 2015.
“But workers are still, in fact, struggling to have it respected in terms of their net pay. Some employers make their staff pay for their work tools or for their work clothes to be laundered, for example,” Mazurek points out.
Migrant workers struggling to have their rights respected call on Mazurek for help. He is one of the only people they can turn to, as the majority work for small subcontracting firms that are often registered abroad and have no employee representative, nevermind a trade union representative.
According to the figures published by the employers’ association itself, the Verband der Ernährungswirtschaft, over half of the workers in the sector are employed by subcontractors or as temporary staff.
According to Mazurek, the proportion is as high as 50 per cent in the four large groups dominating the industry in Lower Saxony.
“Over the last 15 years, the proportion of workers directly employed by meat industry companies has fallen sharply and the numbers employed by subcontractors has increased,” says the advisor.
“It costs companies less and is more flexible in terms of labour legislation. Subcontracted workers receive 60 per cent less pay, on average, than direct employees. And when there are serious exploitation problems at a subcontracting firm, the companies placing orders with them are able to pass the buck and protect their image by simply switching to another one. In the past, many of them were shell companies, no more than letterbox companies registered in Slovakia or Poland, employing so-called posted workers who received the rates of pay and social security contributions applicable there.”
Fortunately, changes have been secured at this level. In 2015, eighteen companies committed to ensuring that their subcontractors’ employees work under the terms of German law. They do not, however, foresee any reduction in their recourse to subcontractors, although this is the heart of the problem, according to the NGG.
The trade union is calling for the collective agreement to oblige companies in the sector to increase their share of direct employees by 10 per cent a year. It would, in fact, amount to no more than ensuring compliance with the law.
“Normally, in Germany, subcontracting can only be used for accessory tasks that are not part of a company’s core business. This is not the practice in the meat sector. Far from it,” says Mazurek.