German meatpacker under fire for requesting government support after COVID-19 outbreak

FILE PHOTO: Employees are seen outside the main Toennies meat factory that had to be shut down because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak among its employees, in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, Germany June 20, 2020. REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler/File Photo

BERLIN (Reuters) - The German meat processing company whose plant was at the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the authorities to reimpose a local lockdown came under fire from politicians on Sunday for requesting government support to cover quarantined workers’ pay.

The outbreak at meatpacker Toennies’ slaughterhouse in the western town of Guetersloh in June infected 1,500 workers, resulting in 600,000 people in the surrounding areas having to go into lockdown for two weeks.

It also prompted a national debate about conditions in which workers, many of them foreigners, are working in Germany’s meat industry.

On Friday, the privately owned company, which has 16,500 employees and some 7 billion euros in annual revenues, requested financial support from the government to pay workers who have been quarantined without falling sick, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper reported.

“I don’t have much sympathy with this,” Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “After an entire region was forced into lockdown, this will not help to lessen the public’s irritation.”

Germany’s long-standing law on preventing infectious diseases allows for firms to receive support if their workers are quarantined.

That sentiment was echoed by Karl-Josef Laumann, labour minister in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the slaughterhouse was based. Laumann said that while Toennies might have legal grounds to make the request for financial support, the company should be cautious.

“If I were in the position of Mr Toennies and his business partners, I would think very hard about how much more we expect the people of North Rhine West-Phalia to put up with,” he told the newspaper.

Toennies did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky