In meat factories, there is a golden rule: the production chain never stops. For 28 years Frank Vestergaard worked in the meat processing industry in Denmark. When it started, he says, workers had to slaughter 80 hogs an hour on the line; today that number has climbed to 432 animals.
He starts work at 6 a.m. and takes care of animal carcasses. The pigs are first put to sleep with gas, then the workers slit their throats to let the blood flow. Vestergaard’s job is to remove any injuries from carcasses, such as broken bones, that line vets identify. If the gallbladder is accidentally punctured, for example, a yellow liquid can seep onto the meat and Vestergaard must remove it.
âWe have six seconds per pig for an operation, then there’s a new pig. We do the same thing over and over again. This is how we earn our money.
It can be relentless for workers, and usually the speed leads to repetitive strain injuries, but Vestergaard says workers at his factory travel regularly to prevent this. “It’s the law – the government has to protect us, so they say we have to move.”
Vestergaard works at Horse meat factory in northern Denmark – the largest and one of the most modern pig slaughterhouses in Europe, run by Danish Crown, Europe’s largest pork producer. Throughout his career, he has seen his country’s industry transform.
Small slaughterhouses have all but disappeared as a handful of large meat processors have come to dominate the market; robots and new technologies now do the heaviest tasks, saving workers from potential injuries. âThey make the job easier,â Vestergaard explains. âBut you have to remember that pigs are not cars – they are not all the same. The human eye can see the differences and robots can make mistakes. “
Almost three decades ago, almost everyone Vestergaard worked with was Danish – the only other nationality was Germans, who crossed the border to work because labor standards were higher. Today, he says, nearly two-thirds of workers are migrants, many of whom come from Poland, including refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Yemen, while around 35% are from Denmark.
These changes reflect trends elsewhere on the continent. Yet Vestergaard’s experience in the industry is different from that of workers in meat processing plants in many other countries, as he has worked for 28 years in a sector known around the world for its high turnover, its low wages and operating conditions.
Denmark is an outlier when it comes to employment conditions in the European meat industry. Vestergaard and his colleagues are all directly hired by Danish Crown, while in parts of the European meat industry the Guardian has discovered a thriving two-tier system based on cheap, flexible and frequent labor. migrant, where the use of intermediaries is common.
While meat companies in Denmark can use workers recruited through agencies and subcontractors, workers must receive the same salary as directly employed staff, so there is no financial benefit to companies that do. source from intermediaries.
In Denmark, the average hourly wage in meat processing factories is â¬ 27-35 (Â£ 23-30) for high earners, according to unions, compared to less than half that in countries with Ireland and Germany. Danish meat factory workers receive pensions, up to 18 weeks paid maternity leave, sick pay and five weeks paid leave per year.
“We have lost thousands of jobs to Germany”
All workers in the beef and pork plants are represented by unions, according to the NNF food union, and they work under collective agreements. âWe have good conditions in Denmark compared to other meat factory workers in Europe,â says Vestergaard, âbut we have to fight for these conditions. If we don’t stay together, they’ll take it away from us.
Yet Denmark has paid the price for not following other countries across Europe in a race to the bottom.
âWe have lost thousands of jobs to Germany,â says Jim Jensen of NNF, who says the industry has lost two-thirds of all jobs over the past 20 years, mostly in Germany.
German consumers are used to cheap and plentiful meat – from ground pork in bratwurst, sausage meat in blutwurst and schwarzwurst, to thin slices of schnitzel. The country’s meat industry has just emerged from 20 years of highly profitable, low-cost meat production that used cheaper foreign workers, contractors, and the absence of minimum wages to gain a competitive advantage. It made billions for German meat companies, but the workers paid the price.
Germany had a tradition of strong unions and a generous welfare system, but as the labor market has become deregulated over the past two decades, the main activity of the large meat factories has been undertaken by entrepreneurs. Instead of directly employing local workers – who had previously been trained for three years as part of an apprenticeship system – the industry turned to outsourcing the workforce to intermediaries. , who recruited workers from Eastern Europe and beyond, paying them as little as 3 â¬ to 5 â¬ per hour.
The meat companies had used subcontractors to hire approximately two-thirds of their 90,000 workers, which saved them money but led to accusations that they were exploiting a system that treated workers as “Wage slaves”. In 2019, German labor inspectors visited 30 slaughterhouses with 17,000 workers and 90 subcontractors, and find thousands of labor law violations, including 16-hour shifts, suspected minimum wage violations, payroll deductions for equipment and misconduct, and substandard housing, which had been controlled, in many cases, by subcontractors.
Low margins in meat boost agency use
Last summer, as Covid destroyed Germany’s largest meat factories, thousands of migrant workers were infected and nearby schools and kindergartens were forced to close. German consumers were faced with the reality of the real cost of producing cut-price meat: a precarious workforce, poorly paid, no sick pay, unable to self-quarantine, and living in dire conditions.
The situation prompted Angela Merkel’s government to ban large meat companies from using contractors and agency workers in slaughterhouses. German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil said the new law would mark the end of “organized irresponsibility” in the industry.
âThe legal ban on the use of subcontracting in meat production was supported by us as an association. We advocate a level playing field for all our businesses, âsaid a spokesperson for the German meat industry association Verband der Fleischwirtschaft (VDF). In May of this year, a minimum wage of â¬ 10.80 per hour agreed for all employees, although, according to VDF, it has not yet been declared legally binding by the Ministry of Labor.
Introducing a living wage and minimum social requirements across Europe could help balance working conditions in industry, says Rupert Claxton, meat manager at international consultancy Girafood.
âThe margins in the meat sector are slim and we have a labor problem in Europe. Temporary agency work is a cost-effective way to fill a labor shortage. But at the end of the day, the meat companies want to keep their workers, âhe says. âThe industry doesn’t care as long as everyone is on an equal footing; the meat companies are prepared to pay a better rate. Denmark is a good example of how this can be done – the government sets high levels of minimum wages and social security. “
But while retailers are unlikely to turn to imports, foodservice industries – such as take-out, canteens and restaurants – may be less loyal, warns Claxton. âGo to a pub in Ireland, they might be tempted to put cheaper Brazilian beef on the menuâ¦ How do you approach that in a free trade system? “
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