Conditions for Romanians at meat factories in Germany were bad before COVID-19 infected thousands at these sites. But could the shattering impact of the pandemic improve their working environment?

Key sectors of the European economies depend on mobile workers inside and outside the Union. This story is part of a project which combines data, narrative and investigative journalism to study labor migration during a pandemic, by mapping outbreaks affecting European industries. Find out more about the Romanian union leaders defending key workers from wage cuts in the United Kingdom and about the Romanian region that expects its residents to live and work abroad.

Authors’ note: The names of Adrian Bucur, Andrei Amariei, George Popa and Mihaela Bălan are fictitious. Due to confidentiality clauses in contracts they have signed, the workers we spoke to for this article wish to remain anonymous. Their concern is a potential legal dispute with the representatives of the former (or, as the case may be, current) employer.

In June 2020, more than 1,000 meat workers were infected with the COVID-19 virus at Germany’s largest slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, in North Rhine-Westphalia. The majority of the staff at the site were mobile workers, and their most common nationality was Romanian.

We kept in contact with the workers over half a year, as hundreds were locked up by a local mayor in their homes for months, and many returned to Romania, disillusioned.

But the conditions before the pandemic were tough for these workers, and the disaster shed light on their working and living environment.

During the health and economic crises of 2020, the facility’s owner, the Tönnies company, became the target of some of the most severe criticism the industry has ever witnessed (More on this, here, here and here).

Since then, the German Government has passed a law to guarantee greater labour rights for these workers.

Could this crisis help such workers gain a better deal from their employers? 

End of the line for 25,000 pigs a day

When pigs arrive by truck at Germany’s largest slaughterhouse Tönnies, workers herd them through a damp and open passageway. The animals are anaesthetized with carbon dioxide, and lose consciousness, then workers kill them by draining blood from their largest artery, cut the body in half, and hang the carcass on a hook. Next they peel off the skin and cut the meat from the bones. Every day up to 25,000 pigs enter this assembly line towards their death.

When Adrian Bucur came to Germany in 2016, right after high-school, he started working in the ‘fridge’, where he cut bones from the meat. Hundreds of kilos of flesh and bones passed his line every day. Soon, he quit due to health problems. 

Half of his family were already working at Tönnies, but nobody employed him for almost four years in Germany. Yet, Bucur did not go back home. Like many of his colleagues from school, he stayed abroad to look for work.

“We want to go somewhere,” he says, “where it’s better.” 

Yet in 2020, he was set to start a new job at Tönnies, this time at a desk.

Like all workers in this article, Bucur’s real name is different, he wants to stay anonymous, for fear of being reprimanded by his employer. At this company, staff turnover is high, especially among Romanians. While he is returning to work for Tönnies, another, Buzău-born Andrei Amariei, has left.  

In his late 20s, Amariei began working on a line preparing cuts of pork in 2015. His job was to slice meat from a pig’s neck into four pieces, and then mix the flesh with sauce inside a plastic box.

“Put one in, add sauce, put the second, sauce again, seal at the end,” Amariei told us, annoyed at reliving the monotony of up to 12 hours of daily shift-work. 

This took place inside a refrigerated atmosphere, where the temperature was kept constant between zero and ten degrees.

When cleaning the machines in the morning, Amariei put on two masks, to shield him from the smell of flesh. 

“It wasn’t great,” he tells us. 

In the first seven weeks, he did not take a single day off, working from Monday to Sunday. 

His accommodation was a flat, where he shared a room with five other men, all Romanian, each paying 180 Euro a month for a place in a bunk-bed. 

But Amariei was not employed by Tönnies, he was under contract with an agency, which was based in both Germany and Romania. This firm sourced workers from Romania, housed them in Germany, and ensured their transport to the factory. So the firm deducted rental and travel costs from their final salary.

This agency from Brașov, Romania, also competed to supply workers to Tönnies, and they fought to supply staff to as many production lines as possible within the factory.

“The company where I worked was lowering production prices [the costs related to workers],” says Amariei. “If they knew there was a good price for production per kilogram at a certain line, they would offer the same service at one or two Euro less. So [their business] started to grow. ”

This constant battle to lower costs has been a feature of the modern German meat industry. In 2019, 55 million pigs were slaughtered in Germany – the EU’s biggest pork meat producer. This requires hands-on staff willing to kill, dress carcasses and package flesh in work that is gruelling, monotonous, and cold. Few Germans are willing to do this.

Among EU workers in these facilities in 2019, 2,500 were from Bulgaria, 3,300 from Hungary and 8,300 from Poland, but almost doubling the total of these three countries is Romania – where 22,400 nationals work in German slaughterhouses. 

The industry welcomes such workers – because they are cheap. East Europeans earn several hundreds of euros less than their German colleagues, according to the German Federal Agency for Work. Many receive the minimum salary or less, due to unpaid overtime.

East Europeans also come with fewer risks for meat factories. Although their job takes place in factories, their employment is often outsourced to external agencies. The German meat giants employ a large part of their staff through subcontractors. For example, before the pandemic, Tönnies hired only about half of its 12,500 workers in Germany directly. 

Because of these practices, activists have accused the industry of slave labor, and politicians have implemented new laws to increase employers’ liabilities. Since 2013, CEO Clemens Tönnies has met regularly with critics of his company’s work practices. The conditions of the precarious workers have been discussed, but little has changed. Tönnies has kept refusing any direct responsibility for subcontracted workers, as the flow of workers continued from east to west. 

22,400 Romanian citizens worked in German slaughterhouses in 2019

In 2019, Amariei’s wife came to Germany to work in Tönnies. By then, Amariei was a line-chef, on 1,600 euros per month – a high salary compared to his colleagues. However his wife was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis, and Amariei was suffering from knee problems, which he believed were due to his job. Neither received any support from the factory. 

But this did not surprise the couple.

“Germans see the Romanians as three or four classes below them, as the lowest in Europe,” says Amariei. “There are a lot of Turks and Polish where we lived in Germany, and they also say that Romanians are beneath them.” 

In February 2020, the two returned to Romania. During his three years at the company, Amariei estimated that he lost 40,000 euro of his salary to agencies.

Three months later, things got worse for the staff at Tönnies.

All smiles in the city of meat

Tönnies’ main factory is in Germany’s populous North Rhine-Westphalia – the industrial heartland of mainland Europe. The area is also known as ‘The Greasemark’, due to its large meat producers. 

When we visited in October, the huge white industrial halls of the Tönnies plant commanded the landscape like aircraft hangers. Next to this factory was a meadow with flowers, where bees collected honey. Surrounding the factory was a tall security fence, and cameras were monitoring the area.

“Before the pandemic, I think even Angela Merkel couldn’t get in if she wanted,” says Amariei. “It is simply a state within a state. No one has access to the factory. No one can impose any rules on Tönnies.”

A poster extended over several floors of the factory’s parking lot. It claimed Tönnies was a “strong partner for the rural area”. A large sign stood on one of the buildings, showing a cut-out of a cartoon pig and two cows, a bull and a heifer, whose tails were formed into the shape of a heart. The bull, with a ring in its nose, looked lovingly into the eyes of the cow.

In nearby Rheda-Wiedenbrück live around 50,000 people. Half-timbered houses from the 17th century stood along calm streets. The river Ems flowed around the local castle, with a chapel dating back to the 13th century, and added baroque and renaissance wings. Statues of everyday people decorated the larger squares, some of them were dancing, others sitting on benches, full of joy, and all smiling. 

Rheda-Wiedenbrück celebrates its residents with statues of everyday people, but Germans and Romanians rarely meet.

In the last few years the city has seen an influx of Romanians. According to the latest figures, 3,300 out of 6,000 workers at Tönnies in Rheda-Wiedenbrück come from Romania.

George Popa, 35 years old, from Alba Iulia, is one of those who came to work in the factory. When he describes his first impression of the place, he says: “Everyone smiles here. Only the Romanians don’t.” 

Popa met us in October, and insisted that we talk at a lake close to his home. Some of his colleagues did not like him talking to the press, and he feared he would be followed. As we sat by the lake, he checked out every pedestrian taking a stroll, or out with their dog, made eye contact, and greeted them politely.

Popa remembered his arrival in May. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was part of a steady turnover of workers from Romania to Rheda. But despite thousands of Romanians working at the local meat plants, there were few indications of their presence. Two Romanian shops have opened in the city center. However, locals and Romanians rarely met, as many Romanians lived in separate accommodation. At the outside of some houses, on the names of letterboxes, these were packed with Romanian surnames.

Back in May, Popa needed a job and he found an agency through which he started working at Tönnies. COVID-19 had already hit a slaughterhouse in Birkenfeld, some 440 km away. But Popa wasn’t worried. 

His bosses promised him an office job, as a coordinator in logistics. However, soon he found himself hauling packages of meat. He worked long shifts and unpaid extra-hours, and shared an apartment with eight other men, provided by the agency. 

“When I complained about the treatment at work or accommodation, my bosses at the agency called me ‘blue-blooded’,” he says. “They also threatened to kick me out.” 

On June 18 his shift came to a sudden end.

“We are people, not animals”

During June and July 2020, more than 2,000 people were infected with Coronavirus due to a mass outbreak at Tönnies. The regional administration shut down the factory, and all employees were sent home, many to crowded apartments.

Popa lived in a large block in Verl, a town close to Rheda-Wiedenbrück. Around half of his neighbours worked at Tönnies. In the afternoon of 20 June, firemen built a fence around the blocks where he was staying. Soon afterwards, the street was locked down. Inside remained 850 people, a mix of the healthy and the infected. The gates were patrolled by the police and private security guards.

During this time, we spoke with one of Popa’s colleagues on the phone.

“This is like a concentration camp,” he said, on the verge of tears.

During the day, the residents tried to cheer each other up by playing table tennis. But at night, fights broke out. The residents were worried there would not be enough food from outside. “We are people, not animals,” Popa told us, “But I sometimes feel that animals were treated better.” 

Outside the block was a meadow where cows wandered around and munched on grass. When the street was under quarantine, this was their only green spot, Popa says. Meanwhile, the German residents were complaining to the press that their vacations at the Baltic Sea were cancelled due to the outbreak.  

2,000 workers at the Tönnies plant in Rheda-Wiedenbrück were infected with the new coronavirus in June and July.

The Mayor of Verl, Michael Esken, justified the installation of the fence. He argued that because the residents lived close to each other, he had to force a quarantine on all the inhabitants of the neighborhood. The North-Rhine Westphalian Minister president Armin Laschet even implied, at an early stage of the outbreak, that Romanians and Bulgarians had brought the virus

However the spread in the factory was likely due to the cold climate and the flow of air in the meat plant, according to a later report, while the crowded accommodation was only a secondary factor. 

But social issues were also key to the spread of the virus. Meat factories across Europe were among those industries hit hardest by COVID-19. Major reasons included crowded homes and transport, and a lack of inspections, according to the European Federation of Food Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions. EFFAT also claimed that sick workers have been pressured to continue work, and threatened with losing their jobs. Subcontracted workers in the German meat industry have been infected twice as often as regular staff. Their risk of an infection was up to eight times higher compared to the average population. This is documented in an answer by the German Government to a request by leftwing party Die Linke. Officially, more than 4,000 meat workers were infected by the end of October, however politicians from the opposition argued that the real numbers might be even higher.

“In Romania, we had to worry about every expense”

While George Popa was under quarantine in Verl, doctors arrived to test the rate of infection of him and his neighbours. With the medical staff came Romanian translators. One of them was Mihaela Bălan, a young mother, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A few days after heading from apartment to apartment, Bălan showed the first symptoms of the virus. Shortly afterwards, her husband and children were sick. 

“Verl is where I got infected,” Bălan tells us. 

We met the family in a café in a small town. Her older child was made up as a butterfly and buzzed around our table. 

Eight years ago, Bălan came to Germany to visit her parents, who were already working for Tönnies. 

During her stay, she fell in love with one of their colleagues, who she later married. Bălan then moved permanently to Germany. Though having studied construction, she worked at the hypermarket Kaufland for six years. 

“Before this, we had to worry about every expense,” said Bălan. “Now my family holidays two or three times per year.” 

Tönnies and Kaufland have shaped her family’s life – for better, and for worse. For most of the years, her parents had nothing to complain about, said Bălan. 

But in the middle of June, her father was among the first infected with COVID at the factory. Her mother soon followed, while his condition deteriorated. In the local hospital, the doctors put him into an artificial coma. For two weeks, he needed ventilation, says Bălan. “Whenever I called, there was no improvement. Nothing changed.”

When asked about cases like this, a Tönnies spokesperson informs that the company cannot know about all its employees’ health conditions, due to data protection laws in Germany. 

As the crisis hit the headlines, the meat factory’s CEO Clemens Tönnies apologized. The German minister of labour announced he would finally „clean up” the meat industry. Activists hoped for real change. 

Meanwhile the World Health Organization (WHO) special envoy for COVID-19 David Nabarro called COVID-19 “the great revealer” for social injustice in the meat sector. 

Once the quarantine ended, there was a shift in power, and the staff were more demanding about their rights.  

Many went back to Romania, while others started to protest and strike. We received a video from a telephone, which showed around fifty workers crowding a short man in front of the tall white Tönnies’ building. He tried to shout over them, and convince them to return to work. 

This is Josef Besselmann, the boss of one of the biggest agencies, Besselmann Services, who was previously convicted of fraud and tax evasion. 

Dozens of workers were protesting. In the video, Besselmann was shouting: “Please! Please, now change, go to work… I [will] give everyone 500 Euro and then we will continue in peace.” 

Later, he paid 500 Euros in cash to everyone, one of the strikers and a unionist told us. Besselmann himself would not comment on the incident.

But in January 2021, a new law became effective which means companies, such as those of Besselmann, could become irrelevant this year.

Unions: “We’ve worked for years to achieve this” 

In the summer, German politicians announced a ban on agency contracts in the meat sector. Producers would have to hire workers directly. Tönnies issued its first contracts to employ workers. The industry was starting to change.

One of those who closely watched this process was Armin Wiese. In early October, he stood in front of a workers’ house, surrounded by factories. The din of speeding highway vehicles drummed in the distance, and drizzle was wet on his shirt, his glasses and moustache. But Wiese smiled, while giving out leaflets with his colleagues to the staff of Tönnies. As a unionist of the Food, Beverage and Catering Union NGG (Nahrung Genuss Gaststätten), Wiese has taken care of workers’ rights in the meat industry for over ten years. The new law might bring the biggest change in his career. “We’ve worked for years to achieve this,” he said.

The first improvements were visible. The accommodation was seeing renovation. The old wires had been stripped from inside, and were hanging out of the window, and mattresses were piling up outside. Wiese’s phone rang. The Human Resource Department of Tönnies was calling. In the last few months, Wiese has received more messages from Tönnies than in all previous years put together, he said. The company sought his advice to better understand what has been going on in their own slaughterhouses, Wiese believed. 

Many new contracts were issued by one of Tönnies’ daughter companies, ‘Tillmann’s’, a convenience food brand. The contracts we saw offered a small rise in the salaries, from 9.35 to 10 Euros per hour. However, bonuses would be paid to everyone who stays for more than a year. To improve the workers’ accommodation, Tönnies planned to build its own apartments in one of their former slaughterhouses. A brochure presented light and airy flats with balconies, where children were playing in the yard, and parents were chatting at leisure. “Tönnies knows that many workers are not willing to continue in the current conditions,” said Wiese.

Only about half of Tönnies’ 12,500 workers were directly employed by the company before the pandemic.

Adrian Bucur was one of those who believe in a brighter future of the meat industry. A few days before his new job at Tönnies started in October, pigs were running around on his TV-screen. The daily news was reporting on a new COVID-19 outbreak in another German meat factory. Bucur seemed calm about it. His new position would be in the office, far from the crowded production lines. Tönnies was paying him more than 2,000 euro per month. Bucur smiled when he spoke about this. We met him at home, in a living room with shiny floors and photos on the wall. Bucur shared a spacious house and garden with five relatives. Nothing resembled the mass accommodation of other meat workers, even though Bucur himself had been one of them.

A few weeks after we first met, the promising future for meat workers was to become law. In the last days of October, the deputies of the German parliament were supposed to vote for the so called ‘Arbeitsschutzkontrollgesetz’ – the law to control the health and safety protection at the workplace, which came as a direct effect of the crisis.

Fear of a sausage shortage

However, a few days before the session, the draft suddenly disappeared from the agenda. The conservative block of the Christian democrats and unionists (CDU/CSU) changed their minds. Someone had been forgotten from this equation, they argued, and this individual was:

The sausage. 

The proposed new law hindered the industry from reacting to ‘seasonal peaks’; if workers couldn’t be hired flexibly, Germans would not have enough sausages at barbeques in summer, the conservative parties warned.

After the law vanished, an internal paper revealed the pressure by lobbyists on politicians. In their paper, the Association of the Meat Industry (Verband der Fleischwirtschaft) informed that the law would most likely not be passed as planned. “The numerous talks, statements and arguments … of the association with and towards federal and state parliament members have thus had an impact,” it stated. Meanwhile, Tönnies sent letters to its critical activists, politicians and journalists, threatening to sue if they continued to be critical. 

The promise to “tidy up” the industry seemed to be off the table.

On November 27, the German minister of Social affairs, Hubertus Heil, announced a compromise. Most of the changes would be implemented: workers in slaughtering and cutting must be directly employed from January 2021, tighter controls and electronic measurements should guarantee that working hours are correct, and anyone who breaks these regulations would have to pay fines of up to 30,000 Euros.

However, subcontracted employment would continue. For processing meat in ‘seasonal peaks’, producers would still be allowed to “borrow workers” from other companies until 2024. This should be possible only when workers and employers associations have agreed on a minimum salary for their industry. Armin Wiese’s union would play a role in making this happen, and the NGG and meat producers would need to agree on this sum.

Wiese’s reaction to the new changes was satisfaction and concern. In the past, meat producers and subcontractors were creative in circumventing new laws. Wiese expected the subcontractors to raise fees for recruiting and accommodation, to guarantee the same profits as before. Tight controls should prevent this. However, it was not clear if there would be enough staff to enforce this oversight. In 2020 less than three percent of meat factories were checked by authorities on compliance with laws and regulations. 

If controls do succeed, agencies could shift their business models to other sectors, Wiese predicts. These recruitment firms could abandon meat in favour of hiring east Europeans for farms, logistics and construction work.

When we spoke with George Popa a few weeks after Christmas, he had moved. He was on a construction site. Adrian Bucur had also changed jobs as his office position at Tönnies did not work out. 

Now Bucur is once again employed with Tönnies, but his salary has halved. He now scans products. He wasn’t complaining though, he just said: “The other job would have been perfect.” 

Months after being infected with COVID-19, Mihaela Balan’s parents left the hospital. Tönnies has offered them both an unlimited contract. However, they can’t accept it. Her father still requires doses of oxygen. 

Both Bălan’s parents are still too weak to work. 

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. Michael Bird and Liviu Bărbulescu contributed to this article.