From Germany to Brazil to South Dakota, meat processing workers around the world have been among the hardest hit by Covid-19. Will the pandemic encourage us to reevaluate our food systems?
The rise of coronavirus has sparked the conversation about the abysmal living conditions of workers in meat industries throughout the world — unpacking the uncomfortable truth that the meat industry isn’t only oppressive towards animals, but also people.
Tönnies, one of Germany’s biggest meat processing companies, has been under fire ever since news broke in June that a number of its labourers had contracted the virus. Over 1,500 individuals in the meat giant have tested positive for Covid-19. This outbreak is owed predominantly to the fact that the industry is made up of foreign labourers set up in cramped living quarters with subpar living conditions. To heighten things, Tönnies hadn’t even ensured that social distancing measures have been enforced at the workplace.
Such outbreaks, however, are not confined to German meat processing plants, but have been springing up all over the world. In a recent report, the European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agriculture and Tourism sectors (EFFAT) warned that “appalling working, employment and housing conditions” affect “thousands of meat workers in many countries across Europe.”
Many labourers in the European meat industry are employed by subcontractors and hail from Eastern Europe, Africa, and South America. Legally, the company operating the slaughterhouse thus holds no responsibility for the number of labourers at its site, their salaries and how work is organised among them. This major loophole in the paperwork is the reason labourers find themselves in a precarious economic situation and are forced into endless hours of on-site work with minimal breaks. Most dormitories do not even meet basic hygiene standards.
Similar to Germany, in terms of numbers, is the US. Several American plants had to halt production after some 5,000 workers tested positive for the virus. Many sites reopened in May, however, after US president Donald Trump issued a decree declaring the meat industry a critical sector. His step came after US supermarkets faced meat shortages. During a virtual town hall with meat workers, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden recently compared the US meat processing plants to a “war zone”. US abattoirs are usually staffed by foreign labourers from Latin America, who have to endure dire working conditions.
Most meat producers across the globe pay their labourers very low wages and force them to endure an insecure, precarious existence in order to keep production costs and sales prices down. Media reports from Great Britain, Canada, Brazil and Australia show that here, too, Covid-19 outbreaks abound.
Seeing as how the pandemic has put the meat industry in the international spotlight, some have proposed an easy solution: eat less meat. The answer to all the ills of the meat industry is a drastic reduction in meat consumption — the key to “any sustainable future” for the food system, both for workers and the environment. However, the transition to vegetarianism or veganism or any plant-based lifestyle is only a partial remedy to the problems at hand.
With the pandemic forcing us to consider the rights of migrant workers across all industries, there is a strong emphasis on the need to listen to demands from food workers themselves when charting the transition to a more sustainable food system.
This growing concern is taking the form of widespread union protests in an attempt to boycott meat. In the US, a coalition led by Latino workers in Iowa — one of the states where the meat industry has been hardest hit by Covid-19 — issued a call for a nationwide “Meatless May” to protest against unforgivable conditions in meatpacking facilities. The Food Chain Workers Alliance, another labour advocacy group from the USA, has issued a list of five steps that citizens may implement to support at-risk workers, including putting pressure on both corporations and elected officials to guarantee sick pay, health care, the right to organise and other protections.
The European Commission too has echoed some of these proposals in its Farm to Fork Strategy, also published as part of its roadmap for the continent-wide Green Deal announced in January 2020. The Commission says it plans to promote “shorter supply chains” in order “to enhance resilience of regional and local food systems”.