German Benedictines have come to the rescue of exploited slaughterhouse workers infected with COVID-19.

– COVID-19 shining a light on “sick” meat industry, workplace abuses

Last week Germany was shaken by the news that more than 600 meat factory employees in plants around the country had tested positive for coronavirus.

Investigations into those infections carried out by social activists and the authorities shone a light on shady labour practices in the sector including contracts of a day’s duration, salaries beneath the minimum wage, deplorable living conditions for workers and the inability of those employees to even take sick leave.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that the meat industry is worth nearly 20 billion euros a year to the German economy, workplace inspections in the sector fell by half in the decade from 2008 to 2018, according to freedom of information figures published last week by the German government.

That’s why, even despite the coronavirus infections in the sector, the German Food, Beverages and Catering Union (NGG) is celebrating that finally “they’re shining a light” on a “sick” meat industry, in words from a statement last week, with politicians all the way to German Chancellor Angela Merkel deploring the “appalling news” of the COVID-19 positives and promising reforms.

“Many of the workers sleep in rooms with up to eight beds in them”, decried NGG spokesman Thomas Bernhard, denouncing that “for years” the union has been criticising the “workplace exploitation” employees are subject to, to the inaction of the authorities.

– Monks take in some of 280 COVID-19-sick workers from Coesfeld plant

One of the worst cases of bad treatment of slaughterhouse workers exposed by the coronavirus crisis has been that of the Westfleisch factory in the town of Coesfeld, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Over 280 workers in that plant alone were found to have been infected with COVID-19, many of whom were from Eastern Europe and who were subject to “unfair and unhealthy” working conditions, in the words of German Church aid agency Renovabis.

The sick Coesfeld workers were living in run-down accommodation too small for them to properly observe quarantine regulations. But now, thanks to the generosity of the Benedictines of the nearby Gerleve Abbey, at least some of those slaughterhouse employees now have a more dignified place to recuperate.

The 37 monks of the monastery – which dates to the nineteenth century – announced last week that they would make a youth training centre and grounds available to the ill Coesfeld employees, in an agreement with politicians of the district and the city of Billerbeck.

“We hope that the new guests can feel comfortable in these rooms despite the necessary quarantine restrictions”, the order said in a statement, recalling the monks’ vocation to hospitality.

– Church figures denounce “double standards” in discrimination against migrants

Even despite the gesture of the Gerleve monks, more must be done to support exploited workers in the meat industry, insisted both Renovabis and Catholic social rights campaigner Father Peter Kossen, the founder of the “Action, Dignity and Justice” association which supports migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe.

Both Kossen and Renovabis – the German Church’s solidarity initiative with Eastern Europe – called for greater regulation of the sector.

“If you really want to create a situation in which people are able to do their work without being in constant danger of becoming infected, that must go hand-in-hand with regulating an exploitative 60-hour week”, warned Kossen, who also denounced the “criminals” who take advantage of the loopholes around sub-contracting slaughterhouse workers.

Renovabis CEO Christian Hartl deplored, for his part, that in Germany “we apply double standards when it comes to fair wages or acceptable working and living conditions – as if there were first- and second-class people”.

Decrying the linguistic barriers faced by slaughterhouse workers and the fact that employees often lose their accommodation if they are laid off or leave their work, Hartl also criticsed the sub-contracting system, which he warned relieves meat companies of their responsibilities for their employees.

“We must ask ourselves whether after the crisis we can continue as before with some of the social conditions to which we have become accustomed and from which we benefit”, Hartl warned.

Next on Novena:

German priest says “modern slavery” to blame for COVID-19 outbreaks in slaughterhouses


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.