May 20, 2020 / 10:22 AM / in 6 days

Germany tightens abattoir rules after coronavirus outbreaks

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany will tighten up rules on abattoirs, banning the subcontracting of meatpacking work through agencies after a rash of coronavirus outbreaks, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil said.

The cases have caused outrage in the home countries of the sector’s predominately foreign workers.

The new rules were agreed on Wednesday after more than 600 cases were reported of workers contracting the disease, government sources said.

The epidemic has thrown a spotlight on the German food industry’s reliance on migrant labour, particularly from Romania, where anger at the deaths of two harvest workers from the coronavirus and mass infections led the labour minister to travel to Berlin to demand better conditions.

Under the new rules, meatpackers in abattoirs must be employed by the company itself, ending the practice of hiring many of the sector’s 200,000 workers through long chains of subcontracting agencies which pushes down final wages.

Heil said repeated attempts to improve conditions in the industry had failed but this time the government would persist.

Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said companies must take responsibility for their workers.

“There are conditions in the meat industry that are not acceptable,” she said.

Some in the industry fear that having to hire workers as staff will drive up their costs.

The state of Lower Saxony ordered that 10,000 abattoir workers at plants that used subcontracted employment be tested for COVID-19 after 92 tested positive at a plant in the town of Dissen.

The law will also allow workplace inspections and give local inspectors new powers to check workers’ accommodation.

COVID-19 infections were also found at three slaughterhouses in France, prompting the government to plan tougher regulations, Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume told France Info radio.

One of the abattoirs was ordered to shut for a week so staff can be tested. France is now considering testing all slaughterhouse workers, Guillaume said.

Reporting by Holger Hansen, Additional reporting by Gus Trompiz and Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris, Writing by Thomas Escritt, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood

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