German slaughterhouses under fire over 'insufficient precautionary measures' to block COVID-19 spread

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Meat processors face COVID-19 workforce crisis / Pic: GettyImages-industryview
Meat processors face COVID-19 workforce crisis / Pic: GettyImages-industryview

Related tags COVID-19 Slaughterhouse

An outbreak of coronavirus in German slaughterhouses has placed the sector’s living and working conditions in the spotlight.

Around one-quarter of employees at Müller Fleisch’s slaughterhouse in Baden-Württemberg have tested positive for COVID-19.

According to details released by local authorities in Enzkreis this week, 400 people have tested positive for the disease in a workforce of 1100. Of these, almost 150 have recovered and been allowed to return to work, although they remain subject to quarantine measures and are only allowed to travel between the work site and their accommodation.

In a statement, Müller Fleisch said that the test findings are being used to ‘reorganise occupational health and safety measures’ with the aim of reducing the number of new infections. The company has agreed with the district office of the Enzkreis that it will develop a ‘pandemic plan 2.0’ by the end of the week, with implementation ‘as soon as possible’.

Müller Fleisch also stressed that the number of new cases in this second batch of tests demonstrates that the rate of infection has slowed at the site. This is a ‘significant improvement’ in the situation, the company suggested.

"We are doing everything we can to change the production processes so that we protect our employees,”​ managing director Martin Müller said in a statement. “We care about the health of the people who work for us.”

Münster backs forced closure of Müller Fleisch

Müller Fleisch is not alone in its struggles to battle the spread of COVID-19 among slaughterhouse employees.

Last week, Münster Administrative Court backed a decision to shutter a slaughterhouse operated by meat processor Westfleisch when it rejected the company’s appeal to suspend the temporary closure of the facility, located in Coesfeld.

The Coesfeld district health authority required the facility to close between the 9th and 18th of May after 171 tests for the Sars-CoV-2 virus returned positive. According to information submitted to the Court by Westfleisch, 952 tests have been carried out and 205 of the 461 results available are positive.

“On this basis, it should also be assumed that, in addition to the identified patients, there is also an undetermined number of [undiagnosed] contagions,”​ Münster Administrative Court concluded.

The Court highlighted a number of health and safety failings observed at the facility: “The mouth-nose protection provided is not worn correctly. The representatives of the company were not able to identify main areas of infection. According to these findings, the organizational precautionary measures to curb infections in the applicant's company are inadequate and do not offer sufficiently reliable protection to prevent new infections, to interrupt and track infection chains.”

Unlike in Enzkreis, where regional authorities said the possibility of closing the Müller Fleisch plant was rejected on legal grounds, the Münster Administrative Court suggested that the forced suspension of activities is indeed legal.

“The corona pandemic is causing a serious increase in danger. The state intervention is not only justified, but also [necessary] with regard to the state's duty to protect.”

The Court accused Westfleisch of adopting ‘insufficient precautionary measures’, causing the facility to ‘become a significant source of epidemiological danger not only for their own workforce’.

“In contrast, the economic considerations [that were the] the focus of the applicant's arguments failed. The disadvantages threatening the applicant are of a purely financial nature and have not been able to assert themselves against the life and health protection of their employees and their possible contact persons.”

Westfleisch did not immediately respond to request for comment but an appeal to the higher administrative court for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia can be lodged against the decision.

Employment conditions in the spotlight

The implicit – or in the case of the Münster Administrative Court explicit – suggestion that German slaughterhouses are putting profit before people has drawn attention to working conditions in the sector, which is reliant on migrant labour.

Enzkreis District Administrator Bastian Rosenau stressed the need to find a ‘long-term solution’ warning that the ‘constantly changing workforce’ that relies on short-term migrant workers point to the possibility of another outbreak in six months.

“We have to think sustainably and need a long-term solution,"​ said Rosenau.

Rosenau warned that he is particularly concerned about the accommodation that is offered to these workers. "We know that living conditions promote the chain of infection - this is not a reproach, but a fact." ​Rosenau said he believes Müller Fleisch is obliged to implement improvements here.

The issue is gaining national attention and, on Monday, The Greens requested a debate in the Bundestag.

Bitta Haßelmann, Green MP, commented: “In the corona pandemic, miserable working conditions in slaughterhouses have serious consequences. There must be an end to exploitation. We need more occupational safety for the workers.”

An international problem endemic to the sector? 

The spread of COVID-19 within the meat packing industry is not confined to Germany.

In the UK, trade union Unite is calling out conditions in the industry, which has been blighted by high infection levels and now the death of a Moy Park employee in Northern Ireland.

Unite wrote to Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, and Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, to demand testing for workers as coronavirus clusters emerge in the poultry and meatpacking sector.

Regional secretary Jackie Pollock warned that the ‘high-risk nature’ of the poultry and meatpacking sector has been ‘widely recognised’. This, the union representative wrote, makes ‘all the worse’ the ‘abject failure to roll-out a comprehensive programme of testing’ for people working in the field.

“The absence of extensive testing among all essential workers has been a key factor leading to this growing crisis, a crisis which is already spilling over into the local communities from which these workers come," ​Pollock warned. 

Elsewhere, meatpackers in Brazil have been plagued by the COVID-19 crisis, although the number of people impacted is undetermined due to a lack of testing. BRF, the country's largest poultry processor, conceded worker absenteeism and potential forced factory closures from health authorities could interrupt production.

“There may be accelerated contamination in a region and this will undoubtedly affect supplies,”​ CEO Lorival Luz said during a presentation to discuss the company's first-quarter results. “Perhaps the biggest challenge [related to pandemic] would be not on the demand side, but on the supply side.”

US meat plants, too, have struggled to contain the pandemic. US meat processing plants have been ordered to remain operational during the coronavirus pandemic under an Executive Order from President Trump. More than 10,000 workers in the sector have contracted the virus.

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