God Sends Meat, and the Devil Sends Cooks

"In our truly remarkable and unexampled civil peace, where there are rarely fist fights; where no one is born, is gravely ill, or dies; where meat is eaten but no one sees an animal slaughtered; where scores of millions of cars, trains, elevators, and airplanes go their scheduled way and there is rarely a crash; where an immense production proceeds in orderly efficiency and the shelves are duly cleared – and nevertheless none of this comes to joy or tragic grief or any other final good – it is not surprising if there are explosions. They occur at the boundaries of the organized system of society: in juvenile gang fights, in prison riots, in foreign wars.

Paul Goodman: "Gestalt Therapy" 

Recent outbreaks of the coronavirus have confirmed what has been known for a long time now: conditions in the meat industry (a terrible term) in Germany are scandalous. Cheap labour from various foreign countries endures inhumane living conditions in order that the population can consume vast quantities of cheap meat. It is not only the working environment which must be changed, but also the substandard accommodation for this workforce. 

Now that several hundred Eastern European workers at a slaughterhouse in Germany tested positive for the coronavirus, it is patently obvious that people will pay with their lives for the price of cheap meat. Many companies running abattoirs only retain a small number of actual employees, and rely on subcontractors, who, in turn, draw on cheap labour forces from Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. This is modern slavery. In legal terms, the slaughterhouse itself can not be held responsible for filthy, cramped living conditions for the workers. 

The system of subcontractors started to expand in the 1990s. In essence, workers are not employed directly by a slaughterhouse, but by a third party, a company that pays minimum wages, and also provides accommodation but docks rent, and even charges for use of protective clothing. For their part, the subcontractors argue that the government should set and enforce labour laws and concomitant health standards. In Germany, this, as with much else, remains the prerogative of the respective Federal States. This situation is exacerbated by intensive lobbying both in Berlin and locally by farmers’ unions, who are interested in one thing only: selling as many animals as possible to the slaughterhouses. What happens within and without is none of their business they argue. 

The conflict has escalated. For some time now, the industrial meat-processing sector has been a thorn in the side of politicians - regardless of party affiliation. Now, following the recent outbreaks of corona, the federal cabinet has, according to government circles, decided on a ban on so-called "Werkverträge" (lit. work contracts, but read outsourcing) and the hiring of temporary workers in an "occupational safety programme for the meat industry". As of January, only employees of their own company may slaughter animals and process the meat, according to a recent German cabinet meeting. The regulation is limited to companies whose core business is slaughtering and meat processing. The butchery trade, on the other hand, with its usually much smaller operations, would remain exempt from the ban.

After several Corona outbreaks in German abattoirs, everything moved on apace. Critics blame the shared accommodation for Eastern European workers, which is widespread in the meat industry, as well as poor hygiene standards for the rapid spread of the virus there. Finally, the Federal Government wants to introduce stronger controls to force employers to comply with health standards. Employers should also be required to keep digital records of working hours. The fines for violations of working hours would be doubled to up to 30,000 euros. 

The Federal Government now has a chance to overhaul the entire system of meat production and animal husbandry. The severe price hikes at the expense of animals, farmers, the environment and workers might finally be stopped. What is absolutely necessary is a ban on outsourcing contracts. If up to 90 percent of butchers and meat cutters do not work at the company but with subcontractors, responsibility will continue to be outsourced. The rules have to be tightened in order to stop exploitation. Coupled with higher animal welfare standards and strictly monitored, mandatory labelling of husbandry and place of origin, an animal welfare levy could also help to finance the conversion of the meat industry (that term again) to animal husbandry appropriate to species.