COESFELD, Germany (AP) — Big white trailers adorned with pictures of juicy roasts and the wholesome slogan “Straight from the farmer” sit idle in northwestern Germany, their usual pork hauls disrupted by a coronavirus outbreak at one of the country’s biggest meat processing companies that has put the industry in the spotlight.
At least 260 workers at Westfleisch’s slaughterhouse in the city of of Coesfeld have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, causing alarm at a time when the country is trying to slowly relax the restrictions that were imposed to curb the pandemic.
As authorities scrambled to contain the growing outbreak over the weekend, it emerged that many of those infected were Eastern European migrants working for subcontractors who also provide them with accommodation and shuttle buses to work.
“If one person is infected then basically everybody else that sits on the bus or lives in the shared houses is infected,” said Anne-Monika Spallek, a Green Party representative in Coesfeld who has campaigned against the meat industry’s practice of outsourcing much of its back-breaking work to migrants working under precarious conditions.
Among them is Iulian, a trained carpenter from Bacau in Romania’s poor northeast who previously worked for a German courier company . He recently got a job at Westfleisch that promised several times what he would make back home.
The 48-year-old, who declined to give his last name fearing repercussions, said he still must pay his employer rent for a room he shares with a colleague, but he doesn’t know if he will receive pay while he isn’t working.
Standing behind a metal fence erected to stop workers from leaving the house they share about a 15-minute drive from Coesfeld, Iulian waited Tuesday for results from a coronavirus test. Residents inside also awaited results from tests taken four days earlier.
“Like a jail,” he said of his current situation. “Like a lion in a cage.”
Authorities had stopped the men from going to a nearby supermarket but subsequently groceries had been delivered.
“Water, food, salami, it’s OK for now,” Iulian said. As for medical care, so far there is none. “If we do have problem, we call,” he said hopefully.
Westfleisch declined a request for an interview. But in a statement, the company said it was “deeply affected” by what had happened in recent days.
“We are fully aware of our responsibility,” Westfleisch said, adding it now requires workers at facilities that remain open to wear face masks on site, have their temperature taken at the gate and work in clearly separated small groups. The company said it is also trying to impress upon workers “the importance of hygiene and behavior measures in the company and in private settings.”
The outbreak has caused consternation in Berlin, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged Wednesday the “alarming news” about the situation at Westfleisch.
“There are significant shortcomings in accommodation – we have all seen that now – and it has to be seen who is held responsible,” Merkel said. “I can tell you in any case that I am not satisfied with what we have seen there.”
The outbreak began shortly before Germany’s federal and state governments agreed to trigger an “emergency brake” on relaxing restrictions when the number of new infections passed 50 per 100,000 inhabitants in a week — a threshold that Coesfeld has far surpassed.
Authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia, where Coesfeld is located, have ordered all 20,000 workers in the meat industry tested for the new coronavirus and delayed the reopening of bars and restaurants in the region by another week.
Some enraged restaurant owners have threatened to sue for lost earnings, though it is unclear who they would take to court: Westfleisch, the subcontractors, the workers or regional officials now being accused of acting too slowly.
Olaf Klenke of the NGG union, which represents workers in the food industry, says the outbreak could be the right moment to clamp down on outsourcing in the meat industry.
“The corona crisis simply reveals the situation that exists in this area,” he said. “We often talk about animal welfare in the industry,”but what happens to the people who work there is at least as important.”
While the outbreak in Coesfeld has drawn the most attention, there have been smaller clusters of cases at slaughterhouses across the country in recent days. And though there’s been no death yet among abattoir workers, a 57-year-old farm worker from Romania died of COVID-19 in Germany last month.
In the United States, which has also seen a spate of infections at meatpacking plants, experts have cited extremely tight working conditions that make factories natural high risk locations for contagion.
Klenk blamed a lack of public interest in the issue and price pressure from large supermarket chains for promoting cut-throat competition in the slaughterhouse business. At a market stall in Coesfeld’s town square, a pork cutlet from a pig butchered by hand costs 15.50 euros per kilogram ($7.63 a pound), compared with 3.29 euros per kilogram ($2.32 a pound) for an industrially processed portion of the same cut at a nearby supermarket.
Amid mounting pressure to act, Labor Minister Hubertus Heil pledged late Wednesday to “clean up” conditions in German slaughterhouses.
“We as a society mustn’t continue to look on as people from Central and Eastern Europe are exploited,” he said, adding that the subcontractors were the “root of the problem.”
Spallek, the Green party politician, said the outbreak has prompted sympathy for the migrants among many Germans who had previously taken little notice of the problem.
“Everybody wants these miserable conditions to finally end,” she said. “On the other hand the people are really mad at Westfleisch and at the county official for not closing (the factory) sooner.”
Spallek voiced fears that a number of workers might develop serious illnesses in the coming days.
“I’m convinced that we’ve yet to see the consequences, including in the hospitals,” she said.
Kerstin Sopke in Berlin, and Vadim Ghirda in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.