How do small businesses hire undocumented workers

Immigration, Displacement and Asylum: Current Issues

Peter Birch

Dr. Peter Birke is a research associate at the Institute for Sociology at the University of Göttingen and editor of the journal Sozial.Geschichte Online. Research focus: (historical) sociology of work, work and migration, urban sociology. Email: [email protected]

Many people from Eastern Europe work in German slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. In the wake of the corona pandemic, their precarious living and working conditions hit the headlines.

Workers cut poultry in a slaughterhouse in Lower Saxony. At the beginning of the 2020 corona pandemic, working conditions came into the public eye in which compliance with hygiene rules and minimum distances were not possible. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, Friso Gentsch)

At the beginning of the 2020 corona pandemic, the situation of people who come to work in Germany, especially from Eastern European countries, hit the headlines. While there was talk of working from home and social distancing to contain the pandemic, these were workers anyway on the assembly line or in the field. All of a sudden, working conditions came into the public eye in which compliance with hygiene rules and minimum distances were not possible. Migrants posted pictures of their arrival in overcrowded buses; small video clips made the rounds that showed the precarious conditions under which many Eastern European workers live and work in Germany or how wage fraud works. Initiatives criticized the working conditions - especially in the meat industry, where almost all employees in slaughtering, cutting and processing often do not have a German passport. The criticism was intensified after the first established mass infections at Müller-Fleisch in Pforzheim and Westfleisch in Coesfeld. [1] After more than 1,500 workers tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in Tönnies in Rheda-Wiedenbrück (East Westphalia) in Germany's largest slaughterhouse and cutting plant, and the company had been closed for four weeks, the Federal Cabinet decided on June 27th Draft law to prohibit contract employment and temporary employment in large slaughterhouses in order to improve employment conditions. What will this change for the people who come to Germany to work in the meat industry?

The business model

The German meat industry has had a movement of expansion and concentration that has lasted for almost two decades - a development that has led to an enormous increase in production and sales. The market leaders for pork and poultry (Tönnies, VION, PHW / Wiesenhof, Westfleisch, Danish Crown) have purposefully taken over small companies, massively expanded their market shares within the EU to the detriment of other competitors and continuously increased the export of meat products, especially to Southeast Asia. The meat industry combines permanent rationalization with increasing economic concentration. This process involves a shift in corporate responsibility to subcontractors, housing providers, recruitment agencies, and so on. This has significant consequences for the employees. Their working hours are - not officially, but in practice - often far beyond the provisions of the Working Hours Act. By changing working hours (e.g. by canceling breaks), levied "fees" for tools or "penalties" for alleged or actual errors, subcontractors also reduce wages. [2] Occupational safety also suffers: a lack of instruction and a high working tempo pressure lead to the most serious accidents at work. The number of occupational accidents in the area of ​​slaughtering, cutting animals and meat processing is significantly higher than in other areas of the food industry. [3] In addition, the living conditions are precarious: Those who come from work often find themselves in a four-bed room for € 250 rent a month, but not infrequently also in barracks or on campsites, some of which are managed by the same subcontractors that are also used for the Supplying the meat companies with labor are responsible. [4] Often they deduct the (excessive) costs for the accommodation directly from the wages.
Monthly sales of the meat industry ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (bpb)

Working conditions tightened again during the pandemic. The demand for meat products (especially in China) increased. In the first and second quarters there was a rapid increase in sales - an indicator for a further expansion of working hours and production pressure. In interviews with employees that we conducted in the meat industry as part of a study carried out by the Sociological Research Institute in Göttingen since 2017, all those interviewed during the pandemic reported an increased workload and demands for overtime and weekend work. The working conditions under increasing production pressure as well as the physically strenuous work on the assembly line in rooms in which the Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus is likely to spread faster than in a warm environment due to the cold temperatures, can be considered to be the direct causes of the mass infections in the meat plants. As a result of the closure of individual farms, the situation worsened where production was being maintained because a larger proportion of animals to be slaughtered and cut was now accounted for by the farms that were still open.

Source text

Meat industry in Germany

Germany is the largest pork, the second largest beef and the fifth largest poultry producer in Europe. In 2018, a total of 8.04 million tons of meat were produced in Germany, of which around four million tons were exported abroad, mainly to other EU countries. The market leader Tönnies alone slaughtered and cut up 20.8 million pigs (16.6 million of them in Germany) and 440,000 cattle - 50 percent of them for export. The Tönnies Group employs 16,500 people in its operations, more than 6,000 of them at the Rheda-Wiedenbrück location.

According to various estimates, more than 200,000 people work in Germany in companies with more than 50 employees. Since the number of contract workers and temporary workers is not fully recorded in the data of the Federal Statistical Office, one has to rely on estimates here. In the area of ​​slaughtering and cutting, the proportion of our own employees is between 10 and (very rarely up to) 50 percent. A few companies have already switched to direct employment for a number of years.

With a turnover share of 27.5 percent, the meat industry is the top-selling area in the food and beverage industry. In 2019, the 563 slaughterhouses and meat processing companies with more than 50 employees generated around 39.7 billion euros. In March 2020 alone, the industry achieved a turnover of 3.9 billion euros. That was the highest monthly value ever measured. The 15 largest meat companies accounted for 56 percent of the industry's turnover in 2019.

The increases in sales in recent years were primarily due to growing demand abroad - especially in China. Meat consumption in Germany has decreased in the long term. In 2018, 60.2 kilograms of meat were consumed per capita.

Sources: Hans Böckler Foundation (2019): Slaughtering and Meat Processing Industry Monitor. Düsseldorf; Federal Statistical Office (2020): Meat industry with record turnover in March 2020. Press release from July 1st; Federal Statistical Office (2020): Meat production in 2019 fell by 1.4 percent compared to the previous year. Press release from February 5th.



Occupational health and safety control law for the meat industry

The main content of the federal government's draft law to improve the enforcement of occupational safety and health is the prohibition of employment with a work contract and after temporary employment. It is nothing new that the legislature intervenes in working conditions. In 2014, for example, a minimum wage was declared generally binding in the meat industry (now abolished again). In 2017, the law to secure workers' rights in the meat industry (GSA) was passed. Since then, employing companies have been liable for the payment of social security contributions and have to record the working hours of all employees. The problem: the informal character of the employment relationships undermines these regulations. At various points in the process, from travel to accommodation to the employment relationship itself, the practice has hardly changed so far: Working hours must be adhered to on paper, in fact up to 16 hours a day and up to seven days in undocumented worked the week. Or, as is often documented in our study, "entry fees" are charged for employment relationships or horrific travel costs for transport to the workplace are deducted from wages.

The workers often accept these conditions - also because they lack social rights. This includes the non-recognition of foreign professional qualifications, which leaves hardly any alternatives to work in the low-wage sector. Or the fact that many EU citizens do not have a job-independent right to basic security for job seekers (according to SGB II) and social assistance (according to SGB XII). Almost all of the interviewees said that the dependency it creates is one of the main reasons why working conditions on paper and in reality do not match.

The ban on contracts for work and services from January 1, 2021 is an important step in the right direction. It remains to be seen how the prohibition of temporary work from April 1st, 2021 will have an effect: The legislature has allowed some exceptions here, which are, however, linked to tariffs and a quota, for example. [6] However, the prohibition of work contracts and temporary work does not necessarily result in longer-term employment relationships, according to a finding from our research project: Companies that have recently abolished work contracts primarily use short-term fixed-term contracts in many areas of activity.

Overall, the possibility of actually enforcing one's own labor law claims, which may formally exist, is a prerequisite for reducing precarious working and living conditions in the meat industry and elsewhere: this requires expanded social and political rights and a workforce capable of acting on the Can build support for a well-anchored company and trade union interest representation.

For further reading

Birke, P. (2020): Coesfeld and the consequences. Work and Migration in the Pandemic, in: Sozial.Geschichte Online, H. 27, S.137–154, (accessed: October 27, 2020).

Birke, P./Bluhm, F. (2019): Workers welcome. New migration between the work regime and gainful employment, in: Sozial.Geschichte Online, no. 25, pp. 11–44, (accessed: August 14, 2020).

Bosch G./Hüttenhoff, F./Weinkopf, C. (2020): Corona hotspot meat industry: The failure of self-commitment. Institute Work and Qualification: IAQ-Report 2020-07, Duisburg-Essen.

Federal Government (2020): Draft of a law to improve enforcement in occupational safety (Arbeitsschutzkontrollgesetz), 2 (accessed: October 27, 2020).

Erol, Serife / Schulten, Thorsten (2020): Reorganization of working relationships in the meat industry. The end of "organized irresponsibility"? Report No. 61 by the Institute for Economic and Social Sciences of the Hans Böckler Foundation, October. (Access: October 30, 2020).

Götzke, M. (2020): withdrawn, cheated, endangered, Romanians and Bulgarians in Germany, broadcast by Deutschlandradios, May 23, 2020, 1775. de.html? dram: article_id = 477011 (accessed: 08/14/2020)

Grüner, G. (2014): Migrant work and meat production in Lower Saxony. Results of two studies on behalf of French farmers in Oldenburg, Oldenburg.

Hans Böckler Foundation (Ed.) (2019): Slaughterhouse and meat processing industry monitor (Update 2019), Düsseldorf.

This article is part of the Policy Brief, Migration in Urban and Rural Areas.