Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet agreed on tougher standards for the domestic meat industry after coronavirus hot spots at slaughterhouses prompted reports of inadequate working and hygiene standards.
From the beginning of next year, meat packers will no longer be able to subcontract workers and will face stiffer fines for violating labor laws, the government announced on Wednesday. They will also face more frequent inspections by authorities.
“Better worker protection is urgently needed in the meat industry,” Labor Minister Hubertus Heil said after the cabinet decision. “This is no longer about individual cases; there are structural problems we need to address,” said Heil, a member of the Social Democratic party.
Among the industry shortcomings raised by Heil are overcrowded and overpriced living quarters for workers, violations of coronavirus regulations and of minimum-wage legislation.
Germany is coming down on the meat-packing sector amid concerns that looser restrictions on public life could spark a renewed spike in coronavirus infections, prolonging the crisis.
The industry frequently buses in seasonal workers from central and eastern Europe, many of whom are put up in communal housing to cut costs. Production at a meat plant in Lower Saxony was halted Monday after 92 of its workers tested positive for Covid-19, the latest of several outbreaks at such facilities.
“Subcontracting for slaughtering and meat processing will be forbidden,” Heil said.
The meat industry denies that there’s a systemic problem, saying that isolated issues have been blown out of proportion. Yet Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner of Merkel’s Christian Democratic party said that “there are conditions in the meat industry that aren’t sustainable” and that companies can’t “hide behind subcontractors.”
The labor and agriculture ministries will now draft legislation to implement the cabinet’s decision.
Merkel has been widely praised for her handling of the pandemic, and the virus appears to be under control. The spread of cases has slowed considerably in recent weeks, while the infection rate has also dropped.
(Updates to add cabinet decision, labor minister comments)
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