A fresh coronavirus outbreak in Germany has placed the country’s massive meat processing industry under intense scrutiny, after more than 1,500 workers were infected at a family-owned slaughterhouse in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Officials said Tuesday that 1,553 workers at the meatpacking plant owned by Germany’s Tönnies Group have tested positive for coronavirus — up from 1,331 on Sunday. The plant is situated in Gütersloh, a city in the west of the country, which is now reintroducing lockdown restrictions until the end of June.
The outbreak had already prompted the closure of daycare centers and schools in the district and the Robert Koch Institute, a public health body, linked a spike in Germany’s overall coronavirus reproduction rate directly to the plant. Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, announced Tuesday that restaurants, bars and gyms in Gütersloh district would close for a week. Outdoor gatherings of more than two people are again prohibited.
The plant owned by Tönnies is one of several meat processing factories now facing scrutiny after coronavirus outbreaks highlighted the poor working and living conditions faced by the industry’s many foreign workers. Germany has been relatively successful in fighting the coronavirus, but there have been several outbreaks at slaughterhouses in the past month that threaten to undermine the gradual reopening of its economy.
Clemens Tönnies, a managing partner at the company, said on Twitter that the company will fund widespread coronavirus testing in Gütersloh to compensate the local community. He apologized for the outbreak and said the company carried full responsibility.
Tönnies, which exports about half its products, has 16,500 employees worldwide and generated revenue of €6.7 billion ($7.5 billion) in 2018. Founded in 1971 by Clemens’ late brother Bernd Tönnies, the company produces 850 tons of frozen and fresh meat a day and is Germany’s single biggest pork processor, with 27% of the market. Tönnies slaughters tens of millions of pigs each year.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the global meat processing industry especially hard. Workers often labor in close quarters, and for relatively meager wages, leaving them more exposed to the virus. In the United States, thousands of industry workers have tested positive for coronavirus and dozens have died.
In Germany, federal labor minister Hubertus Heil told German tabloid Bild that he had “pretty much zero” trust in Tönnies. He said that the exploitation of people from Central and Eastern Europe has “obviously” taken place at the company’s plants.
According to German labor union NGG, 70% to 80% of Tönnies’ 7,000 factory workers are employed through subcontractors and made to work long hours. At some meatpacking plants, staff work 12 to 14 hours a day but only get paid for eight hours, NGG spokesman Jonas Bohl told CNN Business. “Tönnies is no different here,” he said.
Tönnies did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its labor practices. Gütersloh officials put out a call Tuesday for Romanian, Bulgarian and Polish translators to improve communication with the plant’s workers.
The meat processing industry employs around 200,000 people in Germany. According to statistics from the Federal Labor Office, roughly a third of the industry’s workers are foreigners.
In reaction to the outbreaks at slaughterhouses, the German government has said it will bring in new laws to protect workers next year, banning the use of subcontractors and doubling fines for breaching rules on working hours.
Local authorities said Tönnies failed to provide addresses of employees to help health officials trace those who may have been in contact with the virus. The company has blamed Germany’s data protection laws for slowing down information sharing.
Germany called in its army to assist with testing in Gütersloh. The country has recorded 192,127 total cases of coronavirus and 9,209 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
German grocery retailer Aldi said on Monday that Tönnies was among the suppliers that have made a voluntary commitment to improve working conditions for staff. Aldi said it was not worried about the risk of contamination, as there is no evidence to show that coronavirus can be transmitted through food.
— Fred Pleitgen and Zamira Rahim contributed reporting.