Germany tightens abattoir rules after coronavirus outbreaks

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany will tighten up rules on abattoirs, banning the subcontracting of meatpacking work through agencies after a rash of coronavirus outbreaks, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil said.

FILE PHOTO: A member of medical personnel refills a disinfectant dispenser as employees of meat marketer "Westfleisch" wait in line to get tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a provisional testing center at the premises of a "Westfleisch" meat factory, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hamm, Germany, May 10, 2020. REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler/File Photo

The cases have caused outrage in the home countries of the sector’s predominately foreign workers.

The new rules were agreed on Wednesday after more than 600 cases were reported of workers contracting the disease, government sources said.

The epidemic has thrown a spotlight on the German food industry’s reliance on migrant labour, particularly from Romania, where anger at the deaths of two harvest workers from the coronavirus and mass infections led the country’s labour minister to drive through locked-down Europe to Berlin for a fact-finding mission. [nL8N2D14YQ]

Under the new rules, meatpackers in abattoirs must be employed by the company itself, ending the practice of hiring many of the sector’s 200,000 workers through long chains of subcontracting agencies which pushes down final wages.

Heil said that repeated attempts to legislate to improve conditions in the industry, which works to thin margins, had failed but this time the government would persist.

“The government is resolved to be led not by lobbying interests but by the public good,” he said.

Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner added in a statement that companies must take responsibility for their workers.

“There are conditions in the meat industry that are not acceptable,” she said.

Some in the industry, which faces cost pressures from retailers including discounters Aldi and Lidl, fear that having to hire workers as staff will drive up their costs.

The state of Lower Saxony ordered that 10,000 abbatoir workers at plants that used subcontracted employment be tested for COVID-19 after 92 workers tested positive at a plant in the town of Dissen.

The law will also allow workplace inspections and give local inspectors new powers to check workers’ accommodation.

Reporting by Holger Hansen, Writing by Thomas Escritt, Editing by Angus MacSwan