A German priest has said that “modern slavery” is to blame for COVID-19 outbreaks in slaughterhouses in the country.

– Over 300 victims in at least three plants

DW reported May 11 that over 300 people have now tested positive for COVID-19 in three plants in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, a fact that has now prompted authorities to begin mass testing in other locations.

Local governments have also shut down at least one plant – that of the Westfleisch factory in Coesfeld – and extended coronavirus lockdown measures until at least May 18, when on a national level COVID-19 easing was due to begin yesterday.

In Coesfeld, where 249 cases of COVID-19 have now been confirmed in that city’s meat packing plant, health inspectors have found evidence of “considerable deficiencies” in the hygiene standards of the dormitory-style living quarters that many of the plant’s 1,200 workers – mostly from Eastern Europe – call home.

Speaking to DW, representative of the Food, Beverages and Catering Union (NGG) Thomas Bernhard deplored the “huge problem” that is the fact that the Coesfeld slaughterhouse workers “live too close together”.

Bernhard also denounced the fact that many of the plant’s Eastern European workers are employed by a subcontractor, and hence constitute a blind spot for German authorities.

– “A catastrophe on the horizon for weeks”

The COVID-19 outbreak in Coesfeld is a “catastrophe” that “was on the horizon for weeks”, priest Kossen denounced to DW Monday as he was protesting at the main entrance to the slaughterhouse.

The 51-year-old pastor and theologian – who was holding a sign that read “End modern slavery” – deplored the fact that the plant workers live “crammed into moldy dorms and decrepit homes”, making it impossible for them to observe COVID-19 social distancing and quarantine regulations.

Those poor living conditions are only made worse by the “overcrowded buses that are used to shuttle workers to the slaughterhouse”, Kossen decried.

Kossen’s is a sentiment shared by locals in Coesfeld, with one woman who lives near the workers in the nearby village of Rosendahl denouncing to DW that authorities were slow to respond to health concerns in the plant.

“They are poor people, put up in squalid conditions and exploited”, denounced that neighbour.

Spokeswoman for the Coesfeld Green party Anne-Monika Spallek also decried the fact that nobody has taken responsibility for the health and safety of the slaughterhouse workers.

The problem of the employees’ living and working conditions has been “pushed back and forth between the local municipality, the region and the state”, with no one willing to act, denounced Spallek.

The politician called for workers to be guaranteed rooms of their own in housing where fellow employees can be properly isolated in the case of them contracting the virus, as well as deliveries of food and other essentials so infected workers are not forced to fend for themselves.

As a result of Kossen’s protest, North Rhine-Westphalian Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann has admitted that the state government has little confidence in the willingness of the meat industry to regulate its employees’ working and living conditions, and has promised to investigate further.

For his part, Kossen – who has been campaigning for the dignity of workers in the industry for the past ten years – celebrated that the North Rhine-Westphalia government “definitely has the will to change something”, but warned that even after a decade of efforts “improvements for workers have so far been only marginal”.

“There is not much that can be done with appeals and voluntary commitments by companies alone”, the priest alerted.

He added that as “exhausted people” Eastern European slaughterhouse workers are “particularly vulnerable” to the pandemic, and warned that “I am firmly convinced that in the next few days there will be more places in the meat industry that will show the same phenomena”.

In reference to a compliance system in place in Germany, Kossen lamented that “there is now a ‘animal welfare traffic light’ on meat products, but unfortunately there is not yet one for human welfare”.

More on Novena on the Church’s fight for dignified work:

11/5: Santa Marta Mass: Pope laments reality of COVID-19 jobless, “illegally” employed

Coronavirus: German, Austrian cardinals warn of growing social inequalities


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