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‘The whole system is rotten’: life inside Europe’s meat industry

·10 min read
<span>Photograph: Ibl/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Ibl/Shutterstock

Every inch of Margot’s body hurt from the unrelenting work. Her hands bled from blisters that burst as she repeatedly hauled carcasses, but she would wait until she got home to sterilise her wounds with ammonia. “If you didn’t do your job well, you’d be pushed – they didn’t care if your hands were full of blood,” she says.

This wasn’t the life Margot* imagined when she left her job in a clothes factory near her home village in Romania in search of better prospects for her young family in western Europe. She thought labour conditions in the Netherlands – where she worked for three years in a meat factory – would be much more favourable than in her home country. “I didn’t expect it to be so awful.”

Life as a meat worker can be brutally hard. But Margot soon realised there were two types of workers: employees, who she says were mainly Dutch; and precarious workers, mostly migrants like herself, who had to work harder and faster but earned less. “The ones hired directly by the company have more rights, get more relaxed work, stability and hours,” she says. 

Europe’s meat industry is a multibillion pound powerhouse, employing about 1 million people. But unions estimate that thousands of workers in some countries are precariously employed through subcontractors and agencies, with some earning 40% to 50% less than employees in the same factories.

The Guardian has spoken to officials, labour experts and workers, like Margot, who describe how the industry across Europe – including the UK – has become reliant on outsourced labour, with a two-tier employment system.

“The whole system is really rotten,” says Nora Labo, a union official in Ireland who spoke before the Irish parliament last year about meat factories and the “unscrupulous practices” of some agencies involved. “It’s a way for employers to avoid all responsibility towards their workers.”

Watch: CO2 shortage: Poultry, pork and bakery products could disappear from supermarkets 'within days', industry chief warns

Cheap meat and worker exploitation

Europe’s meat industry came into sharp political focus in 2020 when plants became hotspots for coronavirus transmission. Precarious workers were particularly vulnerable, as many say they did not have sick pay and they feared for their jobs if they could not work because of illness. In addition, substandard accommodation – often cramped, squalid conditions – made social distancing or self-isolation extremely challenging. It was reported that some companies also lacked the necessary data to be able to trace the outbreak.

Enrico SomagliaYou have workers elbow to elbow doing the same work, but under different conditions

“It’s the subcontracting model in Europe that is at the core of the exploitation and rights abuses in the meat industry,” argues James Ritchie, assistant general of the Geneva-based International Union of Food Workers. The use of agency workers is more prevalent in the European meat industry than anywhere else in the developed world.

Unions are calling for an immediate Europe-wide ban on the use of precarious workers in meat plants. “You have workers elbow to elbow doing the same work, but under different conditions,” says Enrico Somaglia, deputy secretary general at the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions. “It’s [a system] based on cheap prices for meat, on the exploitation of labour.”

Intermediaries – such as subcontractors, solo agents, multiservice companies, work agencies and co-operatives – have mushroomed to fulfil the industry’s need for a replenishable source of low-paid, flexible workers. They often recruit and pay workers and manage their shifts; they also frequently provide and coordinate their housing and transport.

The relationship between a meat company and worker is not that of employer and employee; rather, the intermediary either acts as the employer, or the worker is designated – often incorrectly – as self-employed. This system can hollow out companies’ responsibility for their workers, and allow them to avoid legal liability for issues such as pay, working times, accidents and injuries, in a sector recognised as dangerous and physically challenging.

Workers say they feel powerless

The Guardian has learned how precarious workers often have undefined working hours, zero-hours contracts and no overtime or statutory sick pay. They describe living in a state of extreme insecurity in countries where they do not speak the language and struggle to understand agreements and their legal rights. Workers also report having to pay agencies high costs for overcrowded housing, and may working for hours – sometimes weeks – without pay. Those living in housing supplied by intermediaries told the Guardian they feel powerless and fear they will end up on the streets if work ends.

A “phased” contract system, operated by some agencies, can keep workers on the lowest pay for extended periods. In the Netherlands, for example, workers allege they are often let go before they are legally due a pay increase or pension contributions, then rehired on a similar contract. The Dutch Meat Association says it could only speak for its members, but it believed the practice was anything but widespread, and nevertheless it should be banned. It says it has recently been discussing this so-called “revolving door” construct with labour unions, the minister of social affairs and employment and the minister of food and agriculture and says that by the end of 2021, it should be a thing of the past. 

About 62% of the 97,000 meat workers in the UK are EU nationals. The British Meat Processors Association says most sites across the UK use agency staff, but it does not collect data on the exact percentage of workers this represents. The sector relies on agency and subcontracted labour to fulfil what the industry calls seasonal needs, which can lead to significant increases in workers at plants at some points during the year.

A 2010 Equality and Human Rights Commission report found mistreatment and exploitation across the UK meat industry’s workforce. Agency workers said they were treated worse than employees and felt like “second-class citizens”.

Trade unions estimate agency and subcontracted workers make up about 10% to 15% of the workforce in UK factories where unions are recognised, but they have no data for non-unionised plants. “The working conditions of agency and employed staff are the same, but agency workers get lower-paid jobs,” says Bev Clarkson of the Unite union.

In June, the UK meat industry warned it was “reaching a point of despair” because of the shrinking pool of labour as a result of Brexit. Clarkson predicts that post-Brexit, the use of agency and subcontracted migrant labour will become more prevalent because local people do not want to work in meat plants.

In Italy, more than 21,000 people work in the meat industry. More than 50% of the workforce in slaughtering and 25% in meat processing are migrants from eastern Europe, the Balkans, north and central Africa, and east Asia. They are increasingly employed through workers’ co-operatives, where they can cost meat companies up to 40% less than their directly employed counterparts, according to unions.

Many of the workers’ co-operatives have been found to be bogus enterprises, fraudulently set up by meat companies to make use of their labour flexibility and tax advantages, according to EU-funded research into Italy’s pork industry. Meat plants frequently subcontract co-operatives from the transport sector to avoid the higher wages covered by the food sector’s collective agreement, a strategy also documented in the Belgian meat industry.

Volker BrüggenjürgenIt is a system of poverty exploitation. People are deceived with the promise of a better life

The emergence of the labour intermediaries system reflects broader shifts in the European meat industry over recent decades, including consolidation of market share by a handful of companies and a rapidly declining number of small independently owned butchers and abattoirs. Thousands of people work in the large slaughterhouses, which can operate for 24 hours a day, satisfying the major retailers’ and food service providers’ system of ordering extensive quantities of cheap meat on demand.

This system has been made possible thanks to a vast pool of workers from Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Hungary willing to migrate for work after the enlargement of the EU that began in 2004. Many came from poor, post-industrial villages and towns, such as former mining regions in Moldova and Romania with few employment opportunities for younger people. Their route into the labour market is often driven by intermediaries, and frequently advertised on social media. “It is a system of poverty exploitation,” says Volker Brüggenjürgen, chair of the charity Caritas Association for the district of Gütersloh, in Germany. “People are deceived with the promise of a better life.”

Watch: Shapps on new measures to ease shortages

‘Abuse will not be tolerated’

Across Europe, the freedom of movement for workers has been misused, says Özlem Alev Demirel, MEP from the German Die Linke party. “Employers have depressed wages by bringing workers from countries where wages are lower, and the social security systems are weak, and this is not acceptable.” She says the principle of the same wage for the same work at the same place must be upheld across Europe.

As the economies of countries such as Poland have improved, and the need for a replenishable source of cheap labour increased, the search has extended to countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Georgia, India, China and Armenia.

Karsten Maier, secretary general of UECBV, an organisation representing 20,000 companies in the livestock and meat trade from across Europe, as well as Japan, Russia and Ukraine, says labour conditions are not part of its work but are the responsibility of the companies, as well as the relevant authorities. “Abuse of any kind will not be tolerated,” says Maier, adding cases should be prosecuted accordingly.

There appears to be dwindling oversight of meat plants and their workforce. Labour inspections have “collapsed” across Europe in the past decade due to austerity measures, while a 2019 EU report on the meat industry highlighted the lack of minimum standards for inspections and standardised definitions of self-employment.

“On the national level in many countries, there is no real oversight or control over recruitment agencies,” says Lilana Keith, senior advocacy officer at the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants.

In 2019, a new agency, the European Labour Authority (ELA), was set up to support member states to carry out inspections and monitor the enforcement of labour laws across Europe. If possible cases of abuse are found, the ELA will be able to initiate cross-border inspections.

“Migrant workers in the meat industry are an invisible group,” says Martijn Huysmans, assistant professor at Utrecht University School of Economics. “In Dutch stores you can see what kind of life an animal has had – we have a star system for animal welfare. But ironically, you can’t see what conditions people in the slaughterhouse were working under.”

This invisibility of many precarious workers extends beyond the workplace. Language barriers, unsocial and long working hours and a lack of information all serve to perpetuate exploitation for precarious migrants, says Paul-Octavian Idu, who gives free advice to meat plant workers at a support centre run by German NGO Arbeit und Leben. “They remain in a ‘social ghetto’,” he says.

Yet workers like Margot continue to seek jobs in western Europe. A few months ago, she found work on a zero-hours contract with another agency at a meat plant in the Netherlands that paid €10.80 (£9.25) an hour for 12-hour shifts, seven days in a row. She says she was underpaid, and left after a week.

* Name changed

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