A German priest is blaming “slave drivers” for the 600 COVID-19 positives that have been registered in a slaughterhouse with 1,000 workers.

– Meat sector employees “third-class citizens” with “no human dignity”

“Women and men are simply worn out by these living and working conditions. They are treated as if they had no human dignity, as if they were third-class citizens. As long as you don’t change this structure, you will always have these mass outbreaks in the meat industry”, Father Peter Kossen told DW after 657 positive cases of coronavirus were confirmed by June 17 in the Rheda-Wiedenbrück meat processing plant, in the district of Gütersloh, near Bielefeld, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, out of a total of 983 completed tests.

Politician Sven-Georg Adenauer confirmed the results of employee testing in the Rheda-Wiedenbrück plant, but warned that further swabs were still to be carried out and that more COVID-19 cases were likely.

– Further outbreaks inevitable when employees working “10, 12 or sometimes even 14 hours a day, 6 days a week”

Kossen was referring to the abusive living and working conditions of abattoir workers which have come under the spotlight during the pandemic, with allegations that the entire meat processing sector is exploiting employees – particularly from Eastern Europe – with long working hours, abusive contracts and third-world living conditions.

“Given the conditions under which migrant workers have to work in the meat industry, such an outbreak was unfortunately predictable”, the priest told katholisch.de with respect to the latest flare-up in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, which follows on from another in a plant in Coesfeld in mid-May.

Migrant workers, the priest said, are simply “exhausted from their long, hard work” – regularly working “10, 12 or sometimes even 14 hours a day, 6 days a week” – and are therefore particularly susceptible to COVID-19.

And although German occupational health and safety regulations in theory apply to foreign nationals, these controls are rarely enforced and followed-up on, the priest denounced.

Kossen – who has been advocating for workers in the meat industry for years – warned that “I am quite certain that we will also experience outbreaks of corona in the near future in Südoldenburg and Emsland – wherever the meat industry is well-represented”.

– Slaughterhouse owners try to blame foreign workers for flare-up; clergyman warns of danger of xenophobia

Authorities have now shut down the Rheda-Wiedenbrück plant, closed schools and daycare centres in the region and put 7,000 local people into quarantine.

But while Germany hopes for no more COVID-19 flare-ups in the meat processing sector, the latest outbreak has taken on an even more sinister turn, with plant owners Tönnies – Germany’s largest meat products company – pointing the finger specifically at Bulgarian and Romanian employees for bringing COVID-19 back to Germany with them after a long weekend in their respective countries.

Despite the fact that European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control numbers put the lie to that claim – with Germany registering 4,814 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, compared to 2,898 in Romania and 915 in Bulgaria – North Rhine-Westphalia chief minister Armin Laschet has now picked up on the scapegoating.

“… [T]he virus was brought by the Romanians and Bulgarians. This will happen everywhere. We have similar measures all around Germany. We had COVID-19 cases in an asparagus farm in Bavaria several weeks ago, we have the case of the Coesfeld slaughterhouse. All these are not prompted by the lift[ing] of the restrictions, but by the accommodation and working conditions of the employees”, Laschet was quoted as saying.

But priest Kossen firmly rejected that blame game, and said “you have to be very careful not to turn victims into perpetrators. And the victims are the slaves and not the slave drivers”.

Those “slave drivers”, the clergyman said, wash their hands of the poor working conditions in the abattoirs, for which reason it is cynical to blame migrant workers alone for surges in COVID-19 positives.

Not only that, but blaming foreign workers also contributes to a rise in xenophobia among less well-informed parts of the population, Kossen warned.

“Then [people] quickly say: ‘The dirty Romanians don’t follow the rules and are bringing the virus in here’. And that is very dangerous”, the priest decried.

More on Novena on the Church’s concern for vulnerable workers during COVID-19:

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

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

“You are not alone”: Pope thanks seafarers for “sacrifices” in feeding humanity despite COVID-19


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.