Sunday, December 5

“We have to fight for these conditions”: why workers in Danish meat plants are the best paid in Europe | Meat industry


IIn meat plants, there is a golden rule: the production line never stops. For 28 years, Frank Vestergaard has worked in the Danish meat processing industry. When it started, he says, workers were expected to slaughter 80 pigs an hour on the line; Today, that number has skyrocketed to 432 animals.

He starts work at 6 in the morning and takes care of the animal carcasses. First the pigs are put to sleep on gas, then the workers slaughter their throats to drain the blood. Vestergaard’s job is to remove any injuries from the corpses, such as broken bones, that line vets identify. If the gallbladder is accidentally punctured, for example, a yellow fluid can seep into the meat and Vestergaard has to remove it.

“We have six seconds per pig for an operation, and then there is a new pig. We do the same over and over again. This is how we earn our money. “

It can be unforgiving on workers, and speed typically leads to repetitive strain injuries, but Vestergaard says that workers at his plant change regularly to avoid this. “It’s the law, the government has to protect us, so they say we have to move.”

Vestergaard works at Horsens Meat Plant in northern Denmark, the largest and one of the most modern pig slaughterhouses in Europe, run by Danish Crown, Europe’s largest pork producer. Throughout his career, he has seen the industry transform in his country.

Smaller slaughterhouses have practically disappeared when a handful of large meat processors came to dominate the market; Robots and new technologies now complete the heaviest tasks, saving workers from potential injury. “They make work easier,” says Vestergaard. “But you have to remember that pigs are not cars, they are not all the same. The human eye can see the differences and robots can make mistakes. “

Almost three decades ago, almost everyone Vestergaard worked with was Danish; the only other nationality was Germans, who crossed the border to work because labor standards were higher. Today, he says, nearly two-thirds of workers are migrants, many from Poland, including refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Yemen, while about 35% are from Denmark.

These changes reflect trends in other parts of the continent. However, Vestergaard’s experience in the industry is different from that of meat plant workers in many other countries, because he has been working for 28 years in a sector recognized worldwide for high staff turnover, low wages and conditions of exploitation.

Europe map

Denmark is an outlier when it comes to working conditions in the European meat industry. Vestergaard and his colleagues are hired directly by Danish Crown, while in parts of the European meat industry the Guardian has discovered a burgeoning two-tier system based on cheap, flexible and frequently migrant labor, where the use of middlemen is somewhat common.

While meat companies in Denmark can use workers hired through agencies and subcontractors, workers must receive the same salaries as directly hired personnel, so there is no financial benefit for companies that hire workers through intermediaries.

In Denmark, the average hourly wage in meat plants is 27 to 35 euros (23 to 30 pounds sterling) for people with higher incomes, according to unions, compared to less than half that in countries that include Ireland and Germany. Workers in Danish meat plants receive pensions, up to 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, sick pay and five weeks of paid vacation per year.

‘We have lost thousands of jobs in Germany’

All the workers in the beef and pork factories are represented by unions, according to the NNF food union, and they work under collective bargaining. “We have good conditions in Denmark compared to other meat factory workers in Europe,” says Vestergaard, “but we have to fight for these conditions. If we don’t stick together, it will be taken from us. “

However, Denmark has paid the price for not following other European countries in a race to the bottom.

“We have lost thousands of jobs in Germany,” says Jim Jensen of NNF, who claims that the industry has lost two-thirds of all jobs in the last 20 years, mainly in Germany.

German consumers are used to cheap and hearty meat, from ground pork in sausages, sausages in blutwurst and schwarzwurst, to thin slices of schnitzel. The country’s meat industry has just emerged from 20 years of highly profitable, low-cost meat production that used cheaper foreign workers, subcontractors, and the absence of a minimum wage to gain a competitive advantage. It has made billions for German meat companies, but the workers have paid the price.

Germany had a tradition of strong unions and a generous welfare system, but as the labor market deregulated over the past two decades, contractors took over the main business of the large meat factories. Instead of directly employing local workers, who had previously trained for three years under an apprenticeship, the industry turned to outsourcing labor to middlemen, who hired workers in Eastern Europe and beyond, paying them so little What € 3 to € 5 an hour.

The meat companies had used subcontractors to hire two-thirds of its 90,000 workers, which saved them money but led to allegations that they were operating a system that treated workers as “Wage slaves”. In 2019, German labor inspectors visited 30 slaughterhouses with 17,000 workers and 90 subcontractors, and found thousands of labor law violations, including 16-hour shifts, suspected breaches of the minimum wage, wage withholding for equipment and misconduct, and substandard accommodation, which had been controlled, in many cases, by subcontractors.

Low margins on meat driving agency use

Last summer, when Covid wiped out Germany’s largest meat plants, thousands of migrant workers were infected and nearby schools and kindergartens were forced to close. German consumers came face to face with the reality of the true cost of producing meat at a reduced price: a precarious workforce, poorly paid, without sick pay, unable to self-quarantine and living in appalling conditions.

Questions and answers

What is a ‘precarious worker’?

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Although there is no universally accepted definition of “precarious work”, the term is used to describe workers who have a temporary job that does not offer the security and protection of employed work.

For example, it may involve Zero hours Unpredictable / variable contracts or work or hours, non-standard or atypical employment contracts, false “self-employed” status designation, below-average pay, elevated threat of job loss on short notice, along with no or no vacation , parents and sick pay.

People in precarious jobs can be at high risk of working poverty and economic vulnerability. They can be excluded from social rights such as pensions, decent housing and medical care.

In 2016, it was estimated that more than 7 million Britons were in precarious employment. A I report recognizes precariousness as a problematic practice.

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“They work and suffer in silence like modern slaves”, said Father Peter Kossen, Roman Catholic priest and a longtime activist for workers’ rights at meat plants.

The situation led Angela Merkel’s government to prohibit large meat companies from using subcontractors and agency workers in slaughterhouses. German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil said the new law would mark the end of “organized irresponsibility” in the industry.

“The legal prohibition of the use of outsourcing in meat production was supported by us as an association. We advocate a level playing field for all our companies, ”said a spokesman for the German meat industry association, Verband der Fleischwirtschaft (VDF). In May of this year, a minimum wage of € 10.80 per hour It was agreed for all employees, although according to VDF it has not yet been declared legally binding by the Ministry of Labor.

Introducing a living wage and minimum social requirements across Europe could help balance working conditions across the industry, says Rupert Claxton, director of meat at international consultancy Girafood.

“Margins in the meat sector are low and we have a labor problem in Europe. Agency work is a way to fill a job gap in a profitable way. But ultimately, meat companies want to retain workers, ”he says. “The industry does not always care that everyone is on an equal footing; meat companies are willing to pay a better rate. Denmark is a good example of how this can be done: the government sets high levels of minimum wage and social security ”.

But while retailers are unlikely to switch to imports, foodservice industries like take-out, canteens and restaurants may be less loyal, Claxton cautions. “Go to a pub in Ireland, they might be tempted to put cheaper Brazilian meat on the menu … How do you deal with that in a free trade system?”

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