The meatpacking industry in Germany, like the meatpacking industry in the United States, has recently seen outbreaks of Covid-19 at multiple facilities across the country, and hundreds of migrant workers from Eastern Europe have become infected. But the government’s response in Germany has been dramatically different.
In the US, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that threatens to keep meatpacking plants open even as thousands of workers have become infected. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a guidance for protecting meatpacking workers’ safety which is entirely voluntary, not mandatory, perpetuating a trend of lax protections for workers in the industry. As part of the next stimulus package, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing to shield employers from lawsuits, even when they don’t take reasonable action to protect workers from exposure to coronavirus.
In contrast, Germany is seeking to address some systemic failures that existed long before the pandemic. Last week, the cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed new rules for its meatpacking industry, a sector that employs many migrants and has a history of low wages, poor working conditions, and cramped company-provided accommodation. Under the proposed rules, which need to be adopted by Parliament, starting next year, Germany will ban the common industry practice of contracting out meat processing work in German meatpacking plants to subcontractors, which are often based in eastern European countries such as Romania and Bulgaria. These subcontractors employ local workers under poor conditions and deploy them to work in German meatpacking plants. This practice has shielded German companies from legal responsibility for migrant workers’ employment conditions.
The new draft regulations also increase penalties when employees are required to work longer than the legal limit of 10 hours per shift and obligate employers to provide authorities with information on accommodation provided to migrant workers.
Separately, the cabinet also urged local authorities to implement additional measures to protect the health of meat industry workers during the pandemic, including extra checks that social distancing rules are being adhered to in workplaces and in migrants’ accommodation.
In the US, the government has not sought to address the underlying dangerous conditions in which meatpacking workers were already working – the crowded and cramped conditions, the unrelenting line speed, the drive toward deregulation, and the high rates of injury – let alone the new risks workers face during a pandemic.
The new rules in Germany won’t eliminate workers’ vulnerability to abuse altogether. Trade unions note that more regular inspections of meat processing plants are needed. The proposals could also be watered down during their passage through Parliament. But the government’s drive to focus on protecting workers is an important reminder that the US government can and should be doing more to protect meatpacking workers, and not just the meatpacking industry.