Poor conditions in meat plants fuel Covid-19 outbreaks, say unions


The coronavirus outbreaks that have struck workers in meat-processing plants around the world are due to poor working conditions and living quarters in a sector that is in a “disastrous race to the bottom” in the quest for cheap meat, trade union representatives have said.

Meat plants have persistently been centres for outbreaks, with some of the biggest clusters in the US and Canada focused on slaughterhouses. According to the Food & Environment Reporting Network (Fern), which has been tracking the outbreaks, nearly 30,000 meat-plant workers across the US and Europe have been infected with the virus and more than 100 have died.

“The entire sector is in a disastrous race to the bottom, driven by the market and by consumer demand for cheap meat,” said Peter Schmidt, the head of international affairs at the German food workers union NGG. Schmidt claimed modern plants in Germany brought in contract workers from Eastern Europe who were prepared to put up with low wages.

“The working conditions in these plants are the absolute worst; cold, close together, working at high speed. And the housing, it is like in slavery times. When we were looking at it, we found that people were having to share beds. You do a 12-hour shift and then you change over.”

US meat plants have been hit even harder than European plants, leading to a supply chain crisis involving at least 27,000 infections and 86 deaths, according to Fern. Several million farm animals have been euthanised. In May, Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep meat plants open.

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Less dependent on contract workers living in shared housing than European slaughterhouses, a large part of the US workforce are migrants or refugees. “What we’ve consistently seen in places where there have been outbreaks is individuals that are ride sharing or house sharing,” said Adam Speck, a senior commodity analyst at IHS Markit’s Agribusiness Intelligence.

Speck believes the situation in the US is stabilising and many companies have made the necessary adjustments for their workers. “These companies want healthy workers. It is in their interests to look after them.”

But Ben Lilliston, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, doesn’t share Speck’s optimism. “We still have workers dying here,” he said. “The inherent problems in the way that packing plants are set up are still there.” Under Trump, labour inspectors have been cut back, while production-line speeds have been increased, he said. Profits depend on workers being close together, working at high speed.

Some meat processing firms have suggested the chilled air in factories is to blame, rather than working conditions.

“That [cold] is an interesting hypothesis,” said Prof James Wood, the head of the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge. “But you would need to exclude the challenges of not stopping close working between individuals and the substantial air movement that exists in/across many slaughterhouses and meat plants.”

Schmidt said the coldness theory was an excuse. “That’s absolute nonsense,” he said. “They’ve tried to find excuses to get out of responsibility. Why are there no outbreaks in the dairy sector in this case? They also have cool sections, they deal with the frozen food sector. The outbreaks are because of the working conditions.”

The German government recently announced plans to reform the sector. Health and safety will be improved, and from 1 January 2021, the use of subcontractors will be banned and large meat processing companies will only be able to use workers they directly employ.

Most observers believe that much deeper changes are needed. “The whole system is built on using low-paid, badly exploited workers,” said James Ritchie of the International Union of Food Workers . “They may be charged excessive rent for their accommodation, or for transport from east Europe. It is dirty and dangerous work, and most people don’t want to do it. So companies have to go looking for people who are prepared to do it and put up with the wages.”


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