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MigrationOnline.czE-library › Paying a high price for cheap meat: Working Conditions of Migrants in the Meat Industry

Paying a high price for cheap meat: Working Conditions of Migrants in the Meat Industry

The article deals with issues related to the meat industry from two angles. The first is a survey of the working conditions during the slaughter of livestock and disassembly of carcasses; the second is an overview of working conditions in the plants where the meat is subsequently processed and prepared for delivery to supermarket chains. Another aim of the article is to point out the situation of the most vulnerable workers on the labour market – migrants. The study draws on freely available sources – the situation in carcass disassembly operations is explained using the example of recent developments in a country neighbouring with the Czech Republic, Germany, where the meat mafia and its links to some politicians is discussed openly. Problems in the meat processing sector are explained using the example of the United Kingdom, where extensive research has been carried out in this field and where numerous cases of brutal work practices has prompted (not only) human rights organisation to scrutinize this industry.

Information on food and food production is more easily available now and has become the subject of an increasing number of books and articles. One area in which the findings are usually alarming is the meat industry. A disturbing view of the meat industry has been presented by Philip Lymbery in his recent book titled Farmageddon [1], which deals with the consequences of factory farming, from the conditions of livestock farming to the not immediately perceptible catastrophic impact on, for example, rainforest biodiversity or on the indigenous tribes that are being pushed out of their homelands to make way for expanding soya plantations, which are founded mainly as a source of fodder for livestock. An unusually detailed analysis of the current globalised meat industry is presented by the Meat Atlas [2], which focuses on the industrialisation and concentration of meat factory farms and the associated downsides. This well designed publication full of tables and diagrams analyses the globalisation of the meat industry and associated problems from broad perspectives. However, the text below, which is based on available information, is focused primarily on another aspect of the meat industry — the working conditions in the meat and meat processing sectors.

The battle for the lowest possible price of meat is reflected not only in the treatment of animals and the manner in which livestock farming is organised, but also in staff working conditions. Mechanisation has significantly reduced the demand for skilled labour in this industry, resulting in the hiring of cheap unqualified or semi-qualified labour force, often agency supplied workers and not infrequently migrants. At the same time, the job is often associated with a fast pace of work, monotonousness, low temperatures, noise and stress caused by the slaughter of animals. Moreover, as the Meat Atlas (p. 15) says: “Back in the 1960s, labour unions in the meat industry were still strong; in the last two decades they have had a much harder time. Workers have little say in their work conditions, and collective wage agreements are unknown in most parts of the world.”

The text thus explains the problems in the meat sector from two points of view. The first looks at the working conditions connected with the slaughter of livestock and disassembly of the carcasses; the second focuses on the working conditions in the firms where the meat is subsequently processed and prepared for delivery - mostly to supermarkets. The aim of the current article is to highlight the situation of usually the most vulnerable group on the labour market – the migrants. The study draws on freely available sources – the situation in carcass disassembly operations is explained using the example of recent developments in a country neighbouring with the Czech Republic, Germany, where the meat mafia and its links to some politicians is discussed openly. Problems in the meat processing sector are explained using the example of the United Kingdom, where extensive research has been carried out in this field and where numerous cases of brutal work practices has prompted (not only) human rights organisation to scrutinize this industry. The article does not mention the meat industry in the Czech Republic as there has been no research or comprehensive inquiry here focusing on working conditions in this field.

 1. GERMANY

“Our shift usually started at 3 a.m. and ended between three and five in the afternoon; it was not unusual for us to have to start at one or two o’clock in the morning or even at midnight. The worst day would be Sunday, because it was the longest and the meat would be frozen, making our hands freezing cold. (…) We routinely cut around 8,000 shoulders a day, but there were days when we cut 11,200 and we were cruelly exhausted. (…) Most of us lost a lot of weight because of the fast pace of work. There wasn’t a single person not to complain of back and arms pain; but we needed the money, so we continued working.” [3]

This testimony was given in the middle of May 2003 to the police in Oldenburg (Germany) by a Romanian worker during an investigation into the working conditions of Romanian workers at the D&S Fleisch slaughterhouse (see further). Their experience of work in the German slaughterhouse is no exception – in the last two decades, tens of thousands of Romanians, Bulgarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians as well as workers from the Baltic countries have had a similar experience. It is the Fleischmafia (meat mafia) which has completely taken over the German meat industry in the last two decades that is to blame. Around 7 million tons of meat is produced annually in Germany. According to Markus Dietrich of the Food, Beverages and Catering Trade Unions (Nahrung-Genuss-Gaststätten, NGG), this amount does not match the demand – some 30 % of the meat is a surplus that never makes it to a plate. The German meat producers, however, unlike their Danish or Dutch counterparts, could not agree on a reduction of surplus production and stabilisation of prices. The consequence is ruthless competition between meat processing plants: whoever wants to survive must continue to reduce their costs and push meat prices down. And no cost cuts are as effective as cuts in wage costs. Thus, since the 1990s German meat plants have been employing workers from Central and Eastern Europe on a large scale. While their working conditions are unsatisfactory, their wages are minimal and the way they are treated often goes beyond limits set by law, the meat industry is booming thanks to cheap labour force. Although the unfair practices of the largest German meat processors have been revealed in relatively large detail in the recent years (plus year after year newspaper pages are filled in with new scandals), it has not yet been possible to resolve the problem in a satisfactory manner.

1.1 Genesis of employment of foreigners

In the beginning of the 1990s Germany signed agreements with the governments of the young Central and Eastern European democracies enabling them to send a specific number of workers to Germany to work there on the basis of specified-purpose contracts for work. Such contracts were granted only to individuals who were employed in a functioning enterprise in their home country; they were supposed to work in Germany only for a specified period (usually one year) and then return to their old factories and enrich them with their new experience. A complex approval procedure was designed to prevent abuse and, apart from other things, wage dumping. Article 5 of the German-Bulgarian government agreement provides a good example: “A work permit shall be granted only if the remuneration of the holder of a specified-purpose contract for work (…) matches the remuneration prescribed by the relevant German pay scales.” The only benefit for German companies would thus be the low social welfare contributions in the Eastern European countries concerned. [4]

The reality turned out to be quite different. The competent German authorities often gave up on the supervisory process and approved contracts without regard to their impact on the German labour market and to the conditions in which the foreign workers were forced to work. During the period from October 2000 to September 2001 alone, the Federal Government issued a total of 56,690 work permits (plus 20,750 separately issued permits for the building industry). It may be claimed, nevertheless, that the scope of the problem was still curtailed to a certain degree by the necessity to obtain a work permit. In reality, however, substantial problems took root, and already in this early period there were cases of trafficking in human beings, which was made possible by deficient legislation and the situation was especially unfortunate in the meat industry

1.2 Suppliers, sub-suppliers and sub sub-suppliers...

What happened was that a specific system developed in the meat industry where foreigners are recruited through a complex structure of sub-supplier companies. Meat plants are seldom registered as the employers of these workers: what they do is sign contracts with a sub-supplier for a certain number of slaughtered animals or for the price of a kilogram of meat. Quite often they actually do not have any employees of their own (in some cases around 50 %, but more commonly 10 to 15 %) – and usually only office and management staff have permanent full time jobs. This is very practical – there is no need to deal with the trade unions, working conditions of the workers or pay rates.

The manner in which the sub-supplier executes the contract is then formally his own problem. The usual practice is that the German sub-supplier concludes a further contract with an Eastern European enterprise. This allows the meat plants to achieve a massive reduction of their costs without having any legal liability for the wage dumping committed by their sub-suppliers. Such a system is a direct invitation to exploit workers: as the contract stipulates the amount to be paid out for the work to the sub-supplier, the latter can increase its profit only by minimising the amounts – i.e. the workers’ wages — it passes on. [5]

This is a very flimsy construct from the legal point of view.According to German law, production line jobs in slaughterhouses are an activity which ought to be carried out under an employee agreement, not a specified-purpose contract for work. The so-called Framework Employment Contracts thus emphasise that the sub-supplier shall execute the work independently and on his own responsibility. [6]

However, should anybody from the domestic meat plant give instructions to the workers hired by the sub-contractor, this would constitute a breach of law. It is also a legal requirement for foreign workers to be distinguishable from the other workers by having to wear different work clothes and to use their own working aids. [7]

It would appear that it should not be too difficult for the public prosecutor’s office to prevent such practices. The reality, however, is more complex: neither the meat companies nor the sub-suppliers have any interest in exposure and investigation – and the same applies to the frightened Eastern Europeans, who are fighting for their livelihoods. And although in recent years there has been greater willingness on the part of FKS [8] to expose these practices, it is an extremely difficult task to find one’s bearings in the maze of sub-supplier chains to get the necessary evidence.

The ways of sub-suppliers

The most problematic aspect is the manner in which the sub-suppliers treat hired foreign workers. This can be illustrated by the case of the Romanian slaughterhouse workers working for D&S Fleisch in the Oldenburg district. The statement quoted above is from the same investigation.

Several dozen Romanian workers signed a contract with a sub-supplier organisation headed by a Wilfried I. They arrived in Germany in 2002 having been promised accommodation and meals, reimbursement of their tickets and a monthly wage of some 3,000 DM (roughly 1,530 Euros). But the reality was totally different. It was not rare for working hours to extend to around 16 hours. Wages were paid irregularly, sometimes not at all – and were always much lower than had been agreed; the Romanians never got more than 2,250 DM (approx. 1,150 Euros), but usually less. They were often forced to sign blank wage receipt forms without knowing how much they would really be finally paid for their work. Hefty amounts would be deducted from their wages for equipment damaged during work. Their passports would be confiscated. Anyone who tried to object would be told that he could pack up and return home and only dream of being paid for the worked days. [9]

Catastrophic conditions prevailed in workers’ quarters. There would be ten to twelve workers to a room that often had no doors. When Wilfried I. hired a new group of thirty workers he did not bother to search for new premises but accommodated the newcomers in a building where some 50 people had already been crowded in unsatisfactory conditions. Later, one of the workers described a situation to the police, when a drain got clogged and waste water flooded the ground floor of the building: instead of immediately calling a plumber, Wilfried I. let the workers live in the stench and without working sewage for a whole week.

Employment Office (Arbeitsamt) inspectors did come to the plant, but with no effect, because the slaughterhouse operators received tip-offs from somebody in that office. The workers were given clear instructions how to answer certain questions – e.g. that they worked only 40 hours a week and earned something around 2,800-2,900 DM (roughly 1,435 – 1,490 Euros). “It did not really matter what we said, because the only translator was a foreman who defended W. I.’s interests,” said one of the workers in his statement. Also, on inspection days an easier pace of work would be prescribed.

Sometime around the turn of 2002/2003, a quarrel broke out at a filling station near Oldenburg between Wilfried I. and one of the workers. During the incident Wilfried I. threatened the Romanian with an unregistered gun. The situation escalated a couple of days later when the Romanian workers decided to go on strike. In response, Wilfried I. and thirty masked men with baseball bats stormed the workers’ quarters. The result was one fracture, a black eye and the knocked out teeth of some of the Romanians – it was several dozen minutes before one of the Romanian workers managed to call the police. [10]

Wilfried I. was arrested and then, eight days later, set free, with the only documented offence of being in possession of an unregistered weapon. However, the case of the Romanian workers and their working conditions started being investigated and detectives obtained a warrant to tap Wilfried I.’s mobile phone. It was thanks to this tapping that the prosecutor’s office succeeded in convicting Wilfried I. in 2004. This was also the first case in which company managers, D&S Fleisch executives Herbert Dreckmann and Joachim Scholten, were convicted together with the sub-supplier.

The collaboration between Wilfried I. and D&S Fleisch lasted four lucrative years. During that time, D&S Fleisch became one of the largest meat enterprises in Germany. Wilfried I. added 4 million Euros to his accounts and a Bentley, Rolls Royce and Alfa Romeo to his garage. 1.3

The situation after EU accession

In 2004, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Baltic countries became new members of the EU; three years later they were joined by Romania and Bulgaria. Paradoxically, this made the bad situation of Eastern Europeans in the German meat industry worse. Aiming to protect the German labour market, the government of Gerhard Schröder pushed through a continuation of restrictions on free access to the employment market of citizens of the new member states. Even after accession to the EU, the institute of posting of workers - workers formally employed [11] by a company established in one of the states that are usually sources countries – continued to be applied. Moreover, the approval process, which guaranteed a certain degree of regulation, when each individual work contract had to be approved by the Labour Offices, was abolished, making it even easier to hire workers from Central and Eastern Europe through sub-suppliers.

The posting of workers is governed by directive 96/71/EC concerning the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services [12]. On account of this directive, the German maximum hours of work, length of leave, safety at work and minimum wage should apply to foreign workers unless the terms of such entitlements are more favourable in the sending country. [13]

Until this year, however, there was no flat national minimum wage in Germany – the amount of the minimum wage would be negotiated between the trade unions with employer associations. The minimum wage was then not the same in all the federal states; in some industries, including the meat industry, it was not set at all.

The expanding European Union thus presented an opportunity to meat corporations: they dismissed their permanent workforce and ordered work from unbeatably cheaper Eastern European sub-suppliers. This led to an enormous demand for cheap labour from Eastern Europe, a demand that could no longer be satisfied by the already existing Eastern European meat processing plants. Therefore bogus companies were founded with the sole purpose of hiring workers. Such companies are in fact empty shells, which often do not even pay social welfare contributions and medical insurance of their employees in their home country.

1.4 The development in recent years

It has been common knowledge at least since 2006, when the reporter Adrian Peter published his Die Fleischmafia: Kriminelle Geschäfte mit Fleisch und Menschen (The Meat Mafia: Criminal Trade in Meat and People), that crooked practices prevail in the German meat plants. There have also been several lawsuits since 2004, in which the prosecutor’s office succeeded in convicting some of the members of the Fleischmafia.

The meat companies did not, of course, learn their lesson – it all simply paid off too well. The largest meat producers continue to grow: more than half of all the pigs are slaughtered in one of the four largest companies that do business in Germany. The leaders on the market are the East Westphalian family company Tönnies, followed by the Dutch Vion, German Westfleisch and Danish Crown. [14]

In 2011, the sales of the whole industry were worth a total of 34 billion Euros, which was 25 % more than in 2005.

The conditions on the German market have a disastrous impact on the meat industries of neighbouring countries. Danish and Dutch businesses, which are subject to minimum wage requirements, have often switched to more humane, automated, and paradoxically more expensive, slaughter of animals and have then gone bankrupt, one after another, or are simply finding it hard just to stay above the water. In some cases the enterprises have acceded to the rules of the game and moved their plants to Germany. [15]

In spite of all the available information it seems that nothing much has changed when it comes to working conditions. In 2013, Frontal 21, a ZDF television programme, reported about the living conditions of gastarbeiters at the Danish Crown and Vion slaughterhouses. Workers from Hungary worked 10-14 hours a day and were paid 362 Euros for two months. According to an estimate made by the NGG trade union [16], meat industry workers who work on the basis of a specific-purpose contract for work receive 4 to 5 Euros an hour on average, but lower wages are no exception. [17]

1.5 What next?

The situation in the meat industry seems to have started to change for the better in recent months (written in August 2014). Pressure from the media and public opinion has led to an agreement concluded in February 2014 between the NGG trade union and the German Food and Beverage Employers’ Association (ANG) concerning the amount of the minimum wage to be paid in the meat sector. In May, the agreement was endorsed also by the Federal Government. As of 1 July 2014, the minimum wage was to be 7.75 Euros, from December 2014 8 Euros, from October 2014 8.60 Euros, and from December 2016 8.75 Euros. The minimum wage was to apply to all workers in the meat industry regardless of whether they were in an employment relationship or worked on the basis of a specified-purpose contract for work, which means the unequivocal inclusion of foreign workers. [18]

However, there are no exact details of the number of workers who will be affected by the change. It is estimated there are some 80 to 100 thousand workers in the meat sector in Germany as a whole, but the enterprises have no obligation to report the number of workers working under a specified-purpose contract for work. It can be assumed, however, that they are at least 30 thousand.

It needs to be mentioned that in the meantime, after years of long debates, a flat minimum wage of 8.50 Euros was adopted in Germany with effect from January 2015. The above mentioned agreement means that meat enterprises have in fact been exempted and the minimum wage in the meat industry would reach the level of the flat national minimum wage with a ten month delay. [19]

Another issue is the fact that although the minimum wage was to have started being paid from 1 July of the current year, this has not been the case – “for time and procedural reasons” the date of its implementation has been postponed to September 2014. [20]

2. THE UNITED KINGDOM

Reports from the United Kingdom focus on what happens once the animals are slaughtered and the carcasses disassembled, in other words, after the meat has been processed for retail. British processors often use agency workers, a large proportion of whom are migrants, to be able to cover fluctuating demand on the part of their clients – mostly supermarkets – and maintain the lowest possible price. Like in some other food industries, meat processing companies need to deliver the product to the supermarkets quickly and the time they have to process the meat is very short. Not being able to meet deadlines can led to loss of orders. The pressure to reduce costs and increase productivity in combination with highly variable demand for labour force leads to what Lalani and Metcalf (2012, p. 28) describe as a “dual labour market, whereby some businesses retain a small number of permanent staff together with a variable labour force provided by agencies and sub-supplies of work”. Migrants are then that variable labour force, of which almost no qualifications are required and which is badly paid. And it is namely here that the least secure and most exploitative work takes place.

In the United Kingdom, the issue of working conditions in the meat industry was studied especially by the British Equality and Human Rights Commission. [21] A substantial part of its work from 2008 to 2012 was focused on recruitment of workers and terms of employment in the sectors which process meat and poultry.

Between 2008 and 2010 there was an extensive inquiry into recruitment of workers and work in the English and Welsh meat and poultry processing industry. The findings (details below) made on the basis of the collected evidence point to a widespread mistreatment and exploitation of migrants and agency workers, and, specifically, to the highly problematic treatment of pregnant women.

In 2010/2011 the results of the inquiry prompted the Commission to establish a working group with the task of drafting proposals of ways to deal with the identified issues. The working group included various players in the field. It mediated an agreement between the representatives of all the large supermarket chains and industrial entities on the implementation of a set of standards, with the aim of helping the processing companies deal with the problems identified during the inquiry (see further).

In 2011-2012 a review of the outcome of the inquiry was carried out at the recommendation of the above-mentioned working group to see whether there had been any shift in the problematic areas. The outcome of the review was quite favourable and the Commission stated that in view of the difficult economic environment it was happy with the progress made. It especially welcomed the improvement in the treatment of pregnant women, the abolition of the separation of workers on the basis of their nationality, fewer cases of physical abuse and the fact that British workers no longer faced difficulties because of their nationality when registering with agencies. The review also contains other recommendations as well as advice on how to approach the remaining issues.

2.1 Inquiry into recruitment and employment in the meat and poultry processing sector (2010) [22]

The aim of the inquiry was to examine how the people who work in this sector are recruited and how they are treated at work. The inquiry looked at all the aspects related to recruitment and employment in all the stages of meat and poultry processing including packaging prior to delivery to retail outlets. The inquiry, however, excluded (!) the slaughter and initial preparation of red meat.

The inquiry focused on agency workers, who are dominant in this sector. Migrants make up 70 % of agency staff. [23]

Evidence received prior to the inquiry showed that agency workers were treated differently to directly employed workers, especially in terms of pay and conditions and their treatment at work, and that there were tensions between different nationalities at the workplace. That is also why the aim of the inquiry was to explore the extent of these issues and recommend ways of resolving them. Specifically to:

  • understand the issues affecting these workers  
  • examine the impact of current recruitment and employment practice on individuals and on relations between workers of different nationalities, and  
  • look for examples of good practice which promote equality of opportunity for agency workers and good relations between different nationalities in this sector. 
The inquiry was based on extensive research which covered a full picture of the supply chain: from the agency staff working on production lines, the work agencies that supply them, the processing firms at which they are placed, to the supermarkets that buy around 80 % of the meat products from this sector. The evidence included: 
  • 150 written responses from organisations and individuals working in this sector; written evidence from supermarkets, trade unions, government departments and industry bodies; 
  • 140 face-to-face interviews with meat processing workers in 15 different locations across England and Wales. 120 were migrant workers;  
  • 190 responses from meat and poultry processing firms and 131 responses from work agencies supplying labour to this sector, case studies of seven organisations – both processing firms and work agencies – which were recognised as displaying good practice in terms of recruitment, employment, equality and integration; 
  • interviews with a range of stakeholders – from police officers to consulting agencies, and other groups who represent the interests of migrant and/or agency workers. 

2.2 Migrants and agency workers in the inquiry

According to the Inquiry, the proportion of agency workers in the meat processing sector differs in the individual parts of the industry but it could be said that in large firms 10 to 50 % of the workers are agency workers. Although in the UK work agencies need not be licensed in most sectors, a licence is required in the case of sectors processing food and beverages. The 131 work agencies responding to the survey said that 70 % (in some cases up to 90 %) of the workers they supplied to the processing firms were migrant workers. The largest nationality was Polish, followed by Lithuanian, Latvian, Czech, Slovak and Portuguese.

The main reason why there are so many migrants working in this sector and why the job is so unattractive to British workers is the low pay – especially for agency workers. Some British workers spoke of difficulty registering for work with some agencies, which were almost exclusively focused on supplying workers from Eastern Europe, which is, of course, unlawful in Britain. Most work agencies also had experience of firms asking for workers from specific countries, primarily Polish and British. A third of the agencies confirmed that they also acted unlawfully in sometimes meeting such requests or by judging what nationality the processing firm would prefer. Almost without exception the responding agency workers (260 responders) would have preferred permanent work due to the security and rights it offers. 

2.3 Problems faced by agency workers identified by the Inquiry

The inquiry encountered processing firms which treated agency workers lawfully and fairly; on the other hand, extensive evidence was found of widespread mistreatment of agency workers, particularly migrants and pregnant women, both in the workplace and by the agencies. Evidence was found of practices that: 

  • contravene various legal requirements regarding employment agencies, employment rights, health and safety, and equality in the workplace • breach minimum ethical trading standards and basic human rights, and 
  • treat migrants and agency workers in ways which, while not necessarily unlawful, are an affront to dignity and in some cases exploitative. 

More than 80% of the 260 responding workers said that agency workers were treated worse than directly employed workers. The worse treatment covered every aspect of their work – from poorer pay, to allocation of the least desirable jobs, and being treated like “second-class citizens” in the workplace, etc. Agency workers in meat processing firms encountered the following problems: none or inadequate toilet breaks (this included pregnant women and women with heavy periods) with all the consequences; physical abuse (being pushed, kicked or having things thrown at them); verbal abuse – reported by up to one in three responding workers; poor or inadequate treatment of pregnant women - sometimes leading to miscarriages; dismissals of pregnant women by work agencies; severe health and safety issues (concerns raised in over half the interviews, especially over poor-quality personal protective equipment, e.g. gloves, warm clothing for workers in cold areas, or having to share wet overalls and boots which had not been cleaned between shifts). The last of the frequently mentioned issues was overtime, when agency workers worked 7 days in a week without a day off and when some, although these were exceptions, worked up to 90 hours a week. After shifts lasting 16-18 hours, the workers had very little time to rest before having to go back to work again. A serious problem was overbooking of agency workers, who upon arriving at the factory were told they were not needed. They spent time travelling (sometimes long distances) to work to no effect. The last frequently mentioned issue was pay rates, which were often lower for agency workers. Agency workers were paid less than the directly employed workers doing the same work. A quarter of the processing firms admitted they had higher pay rates for directly employed workers than for agency workers; in rare cases directly employed workers were paid up to thrice as much.

2.4 Experiences of agency workers with agencies

Although unlawful in the UK, one in seven responding workers paid (or knew someone who had paid) their agency to find work for them. Some responding migrants said that agency managers did not allow them to leave the factory or would make them get up after just a few hours of sleep to work on their days off. One of the most common (in at least one case out of four) problems with agencies was getting holiday pay and taking, and being paid for, annual leave. Other problems included receiving lower payment (being paid fewer hours than the number of hours worked, being paid less than the national minimum wage, having wages withheld …), having amounts above the legal rate deducted for housing, [24] being charged unreasonable amounts for transport, etc.

The inquiry found that special problems faced by migrant workers included not understanding the terms of their employment contracts and written rules due to their inadequate knowledge of the language. Migrants repeatedly pointed out that they had felt to be under pressure to sign the contract and had no time or real possibility of having someone translate it for them or of reading it slowly themselves. Seven out of ten interviewees said they were treated differently by the employer or the agency because of their nationality. Some firms or line managers favoured certain nationalities and were openly racist towards some others. Language support and information was insufficient, which was a major reason why the migrants were so vulnerable. The inquiry also recorded one extreme form of mistreatment when a criminal gang charged migrant agency workers ₤250 per placement at a poultry firm. Agency workers were then subjected to severe beatings if they were unable to keep up with the escalating payments. Hundreds of workers were affected. 

2.5 Recommendations following from the Inquiry

Besides presenting the results of the Inquiry, the final report contains almost fifty recommendations. [25] Apart from changes in the laws, the recommendations take note also of the role of supermarkets, which work agencies see as being more powerful than the government and all the legislation. Due to this reason, the recommendations challenge the supermarkets to use their influence on their food manufacturing suppliers and force them to use the services of reputable agencies only. The report adds that 80 % of processed meat is supplied to supermarkets and that the main reason for using agency staff is to meet supermarket demand.

The inquiry also made the finding that willingness to behave as an ethical employer was sometimes based on the internal setup of a company and its respect for its employees and was sometimes brought about by the supermarkets to which the goods were supplied. Regardless of the reason why firms were motivated to behave like an ethical employer and treat all the nationalities equally, representatives of firms always mentioned the benefit of such ethical conduct for business as well as the fact that their employees were a well-motivated, qualified and stable labour force. On the other hand, these firms were frustrated over the competition from companies that operated unethically and unlawfully, and called for more action from regulatory bodies to ensure a level playing field for all.

In this perspective, and also from the perspective of the government, which has cited flexibility of agency work as an advantage both for employer and workers, the results of the inquiry, which clearly show that agency work does not provide flexibility for low-skilled, low-paid agency workers, the opposite is the case. These workers feel obliged to work any number of hours asked of them, regardless of other arrangements, fatigue, holidays or illness. In conclusion, the inquiry supports flexible workforce, but not at the expense of equality, dignity and respect.

2.6 Review of the inquiry

As proposed in the recommendations, twelve months after the launch of the report a review was performed with the principal aims of:

  • reviewing the extent to which relevant bodies have effectively implemented the report’s recommendations, and 
  • taking enforcement action as appropriate. 

During the 12 months following the launch of the report a working group formed by the Commission was engaged in the task of proposing and implementing solutions to the identified problems (see above). The principal task of the working group was to approve standards of recruitment processes and of working conditions in the meat processing sector and propose procedures that could help processing firms and agencies deal with the issues identified during the inquiry.

The evidence base for the review included: [26]

written information received from 53 processing firms, 16 agencies and 34 supermarkets, trade unions and other stakeholders

interviews with 134 workers (60 % were directly employed, 40 % were agency workers), working in different jobs in the meat processing chain. In 114 cases the interviewees were migrants, the remaining 20 were British and were more difficult to find to interview  

case studies of three organisations (two processing firms and one work agency), which were nominated especially by the supermarkets and others as representing good practice in terms of recruitment, employment, equality and integration.

2.7 Review findings

According to the obtained information there had been an improvement in the treatment of pregnant women (after the scandalous mistreatment pointed out by the first report many agencies provided training to staff on treatment of pregnant women and although this is still an area where legal requirements are not fully observed, there has been evident improvement). There has also been an improvement in the integration of workers of different nationalities. In response to the findings published in the first report, an Effective Communication with a Multi-Language Workforce Toolkit [27] was created; it is expected to be helpful in dealing with the issue of segregation. Access to personal protective equipment also improved significantly, even though less positive information was obtained in some cases. The review also noted considerable improvement in the provision of breaks and toilet breaks during working hours and fewer incidents of physical abuse at the workplace.

In spite of the positive development presented in the review, some of the earlier identified issues in the meat processing sector persisted. They included, especially:

  • Verbal abuse of staff by line managers 
  • Different treatment of permanently employed and agency workers 
  • Agency workers treatment by their agencies  
  • Unfair and non-transparent recruitment 
  • Coercive and threatening behaviour by agencies and firms 
  • Ineffective complaints procedures 
  • Communication barriers for agency workers (especially due to the language barriers) 

After the launch of the first report supermarkets, especially, have shown greater agility in monitoring the operations and work conditions in their sub-suppliers’ chains. Most of the responding workers confirmed a subsequent increase in the number of inspections. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the inspections seems to have been very low. First, most of them were not focused on workers’ rights or working conditions. An announced inspection would actually mean extra cleaning work for the workers, slower line speed, extra staff and fewer agency workers at the workplace. Also processing of meat that was easier to handle. If inspectors did at all speak with a worker, it would be someone selected by a company manager who would then be present at the interview. Thus the findings made by the inspection would often not provide the true picture.

The review acknowledges the effort of the supermarkets to carry out audits and inspections, but also notes their limitations, especially due to the advance knowledge of the inspections and the absence of an area where workers could speak to the inspectors confidentially. It appreciates the efforts made by the main retailers in the sector to adopt, in their response to the first inquiry, a set of management practices and key performance indicators [28] for all their suppliers and meat and poultry processors. They intend to collect and evaluate the data on a quarterly basis.

The 20 recommendations in the end of the review contain specific proposals of measures which the key players – industry representatives, regulatory and government bodies – should adopt to make further progress.

3. IN CONCLUSION

The two surveys — from the United Kingdom and Germany — prove that the price we pay for the meat neatly displayed in the shops is in fact much higher than what we pay out of our purses. Apart from environmental and social impacts, unsuspected dimensions of the meat business involve also exploitation at the workplace, afflicting workers who cannot or do not know how to fight back effectively. None of the described cases points to an easy solution. Although its activities have been described in detail and the situations when legal requirements are being contravened identified, the meat mafia continues to thrive in Germany and, despite the efforts of the trade unions and other institutions, changes are being introduced very slowly. The battle for the first step towards desired improvement – the introduction of the national minimum wage – has been won in Germany. What will follow, and whether and how the situation will change is not quite clear yet. Instead of dealing with the situation at the stage when animals are slaughtered and carcasses disassembled, the British Equality and Human Rights Commission has focused on processing. There, too, a closer look reveals an unsatisfactory situation. Unrelenting pressure to bring down prices, fluctuation of demand and necessity to execute orders quickly have an enormous impact on working conditions. Although measuring change in this field is rather tricky methodologically, it seems that the publication of the findings and the following engagement with the players concerned has contributed to an improvement of the situation. This is an example which aptly illustrates the influence of supermarkets on work processes and working conditions at the firms of both their direct suppliers and the whole sub-supplier chain. It seems that where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the will of the supermarkets can and should be influenced by their customers. In the Czech Republic, too, there are alternatives to meat from factory farms. It would not be off-topic to consider the fact that today’s average European consumes twice to thrice as much meat than is considered to be a healthy norm.

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The text was written under the project called "Foreign workers in the labour market,"which was carried out by the Association for Integration and Migration, in cooperation with the Organization for Aid to Refugees and the Multicultural Center Prague. International project partners are Caritasverband für die Diezöse Osnabrück from Germany and the Anti-Slavery International from Great Britain.


[1] Philip Lymbery, Isabel Oakeshott, Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, Bloomsbury USA, 2014. This is not a book against eating meat or about “the poor animals”, but a title focused on the consequences of factory livestock farming (authors’ note).

[2] Meat Atlas: Facts and figures about the animals we eat. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and Friends of the Earth Europe. 2014. Freely available at: http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files.publications/foee_hbf_meatatlas_jan2014.pdf

[3] Peter, A. Die Fleischmafia: Kriminelle Geschäfte mit Fleisch und Menschen, Econ 2006, p. 66.

[4] Peter 2006, p. 55.

[5] Peter 2006, p. 96.

[6] Peter 2006, p. 58.

[7] Both incidentally lead to the further deterioration of the working conditions of foreign workers – besides being stigmatised by wearing work clothes of a different colour, they are often forced to pay exorbitant prices for work aids.

[8] Finanzkontrolle Schwarzarbeit der Bundeszollverwaltung – Financial Control of Illegal Employment of the Federal Customs Administration.

[9] Peter 2006, p. 70.

[10] Peter 2006, p. 63.

[11] Note: The directive uses the term “employment relationship”.

[12] Directive 96/71/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 1996 concerning the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services. Available here. A proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the enforcement of directive 96/71/EC concerning the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services, which aims at enhancing the protection of posted workers and reducing the possibility of social dumping, has passed first reading; for more, see here.

[13] The directive further stipulates equality of treatment for men and women and other provisions on non-discrimination or protective measures with regard to the conditions of employment of pregnant women or women who have recently given birth, of children and of young people. As for health and social welfare insurance, the posted worker may continue to be covered by the social and health insurance system of his or her home country.

[14] Source: Gunhild Lütge, Die Schlächter..., Zeit 28.2.2012; available here.

[15] Most frequently to the region of Osnabrück: This region is nicknamed “Deutschlands Fleischtopf” – nowhere are there so many meat processing plants as on territory between Münster, Osnabrück and Oldenburg.

[16] Gewerkschaft Nahrung-Genuss-Gaststätten – Food, Beverages and Catering Union.

[17] Source: Jan Grossarth, Das billige Fleisch hat einen Preis, FAZ 15.4.2013; available here

[18] Source: Mindestlohn in der Fleischindustrie kommt, SPD, 08. 05. 2014; available here

[19] Source: Kabinett gibt grünes Licht für Mindestlohn, Lebensmittelpraxis, 27. 02. 2014; available here

[20] Source: Fleischbranche:Mindestlohn kommt später, DGB, 26. 06. 2014; available here

[21] For more about the Commission working in England, Scotland and Wales, see. The Commission was established in 2006 pursuant to the Equality Act as an independent body governed by a council of commissioners and is financed by the Government Equalities Office; see

[22] The report is available here

[23] Migrants account for 30 % of the employees in this sector.

[24] The deductions for housing that may be made in these cases have been regulated in the UK since 2007.

[25] Many recommendations apply to the specific practices in the UK; some of them, such as producing guidance for identifying forced labour, could be useful also in the Czech or international context. See

[26] The assessment made during the Review was aggravated by the new Agency Workers Regulation, which came into effect in October 2011 and introduced equitable treatment of agency workers in the UK as well as other provisions.

[27] Available here

[28] ASDA, Co-operative Food, Marks & Spencer’s, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose, the British Meat Processing Association, British Poultry Council and Association of Labour Providers

Marie Jelínková
Marie Jelinkova, Ph.D. graduated in sociology from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Charles University in Prague. In her MA thesis she compared Czech and Australian integration policies. She currently pursues a PhD in public and social policy focussing on the quality of life among migrants to the Czech Republic. Ms. Jelínková presently teaches on social exclusion and inclusion.

 

Kristýna Drápalová
Student of Art History at FF UK and European Cultural and Intellectual History at FH, UK, at the time of writing she was also a student of Freie Universität Berlin. Occasionally, she writes art criticism and her articles were published in MF Dnes, Lidové noviny, Právo and Respekt.


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