England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Inside the food industry: the human cost of exploitation

Although not well-known outside of Germany, the Tönnies Group is a major contender when it comes to oppression. The family-owned business – which has a 16,000 strong global workforce and runs some of Germany’s largest abattoirs – has honed an especially abusive management regime.

Tönnies’ appalling operating practices made the international news last summer when their Rheda-Wiedenbrück abattoir saw over 1,500 workers testing positive for Covid-19 out of a total workforce of around 8,000 people. Yet despite this huge outbreak clearly being connected to the unsafe working practices common across Tönnies’ many abattoirs, the single academic study that investigated the causes of the outbreak placed most of the blame for this disaster on one superspreading event. 

The scientists who conducted this limited study determined that just one worker had been able to transmit his infection to 29 of his co-workers (who stood up to 8 metres away from him on the same production line), highlighting that Covid-19 could be quickly transmitted over long distances via airborne particles. However, the authors partially acknowledged one of the study’s serious shortcomings when they observed:

“Firstly, all data on workers, including workplace location and sharing of apartments or transport, was provided by the employer. While the employer readily answered all our requests and we have no reason to doubt the accuracy or completeness of the provided information, we did not perform independent validation of this information.” 

No mention was made by the scientists of any attempt to talk to the trade unions attempting to organise at the abattoir, and no indication was made by the researchers of the appalling working and living conditions that Tönnies workers were subjected to. They studiously ignored news reporting of the subhuman living conditions that workers had to endure, which meant that as many as 16 people were living in single rooms. Surely this would have represented an important factor in facilitating the virus’ spread? 

The scientists did acknowledge that “later viral transmission within shared living quarters or work rides very well may have been a confounding factor in context of the second, larger outbreak occurring one month after the first outbreak.” This is true, especially given that the largely migrant workforce is warehoused in huge accommodation blocks located many miles from work, with most people having to cram into white vans to get to and from the abattoir. 

But it is also very likely that the main reason why the massive outbreak originated in the Tönnies site owed much to the dangerous working conditions within the abattoir itself – an issue that remained unexplored in the scientists otherwise detailed report. For example, plenty of articles in the mainstream media show that in the run-up to Tönnies’ superspreading event social distancing was not something that was seriously encouraged at their site. “We stand at the conveyor belt about 20 to 30 centimeters apart, right next to each other,” explained one worker. 

The role of poor working conditions are mentioned in passing by the scientists who state that the so-called “superspreading” individual had probably become infected after coming into close proximity with meat workers from a related but independently owned factory based nearby. At that independent meat processing site, the scientists noted that a total of 94 out of 279 workers had previously tested positive.

Exploitation by any means

A recent investigative report published by the Financial Times titled “Inside Germany’s abattoirs: the human cost of cheap meat” shows clearly how a carefully managed form of abuse has made Clemens Tönnies a very wealthy man. Forbes’ estimates that Clemens is now worth €2.3 billion, and counts the likes of Vladimir Putin among his close friends. 

The article outlines that for decades profitable businesses like Tönnies had free reign to exploit foreign workers using the European Union’s regressive ‘free movement’ legislation. That is, legislation which allowed “companies to hire ‘posted workers’ from companies outside the bloc, paying the same wages they would earn back home.” With workers receiving “the equivalent of €3-€5 an hour, roughly a third of what Germans typically earned.” In Germany this convenient and highly profitable arrangement was only brought to an end in 2015 when “to avoid legislation” which might stop businesses from continuing to exploit such lucrative hiring practices, many companies agreed (reluctantly) to stop using posted workers. This however only seems to have encouraged the companies to devise other new ways to exploit workers. As the Financial Times goes on to explain:

“In place of posted workers, meat companies hired new subcontractors to recruit workers — now technically German companies, yet often with the same eastern European owners. Subcontracting, which provided about two-thirds of abattoir workers, removed responsibility from meat companies.”

One Tönnies employee who had worked throughout the June mega-outbreak recalled her past abuse to the FT reporters. She described how a subcontractor had charged her €300 a month for a bed in a shared room in a shabby hostel. She was then “put to work ten hours a day, seven days a week, for three months straight. On some days, Raya says, she wasn’t given gloves and her fingers went numb handling frozen meat. On others, she lifted so many 30kg boxes she could not feel her swollen wrists. She never called a doctor. The foreman, she says, yelled and threw boxes at workers to move them faster and threatened to fire anyone who took a sick day.” Her total pay for her first two months of work was just short of €1,000. 

Too little has changed since then. All the same, the international attention that the Tönnies outbreak received did at least force the hand of politicians who have finally passed new laws which demand that workers in the German meat industry must now be employed directly, not by subcontractors. But without the active intervention of trade unions and organised workers the bosses will almost certainly find other innovative ways to extract maximum profits from their overworked employees. 

Global trend

Tönnies is a company with global ambitions, and in recent years has been expanding its operations to the UK, and into Chinese meat markets too. This makes the need to coordinate international solidarity initiatives even more urgent, which must be combined with forcing trade union recognition agreements on Tönnies and their growing number of subsidiaries. Needless to say the same applies to nearly all companies in the meat processing sector, where bullying of low-paid workers is rife. 

For example, 2 Sisters Food Group, which is the UK’s largest chicken producer, has a long history of treating their employees like dirt. Last June a coronavirus outbreak infected nearly 300 people at their Llangefni plant in Wales. This outbreak was arguably driven by the fact that 2 Sisters refused to give sick pay to their staff. In this instance organised workers successfully forced their employer to pay up; although this victory was restricted to that single factory, and so trade unions continue the battle to force 2 Sisters to pay sick pay for all workers.  

In the interconnected world of networked business bullies, it should not be too surprising that for the past two years 2 Sisters’ “technical director” (with responsibility for “health and safety”) formerly held the same position with Greencore Food Group – another food manufacturer whose multi-million bosses have grown fat off their workers’ immiseration. Last summer Greencore likewise manufactured its own Covid fiasco when just short of 300 workers tested positive at their site in Northampton. It was only the quick and militant response of the BFAWU bakers’ union that ensured that effective safety measures were finally enacted – a response which had the bonus of massively swelling union membership. When Greencore decided to unilaterally remove Covid safety marshalls from their production lines at the start of the year, the union membership responded quickly and ensured that they were reinstated almost immediately.

The current bullying head of Tönnies’ UK operations, Carsten Jakobsen, had in the past served as the chairman of Tulip Ltd, which is now the UK’s largest pork processor. And just over a year ago Tulip (now called Pilgrim’s Pride) was acquired by JBS, which is the world’s largest meat processing conglomerate – a corporation which employs around a quarter of a million people worldwide. 


Last year Greenpeace published a detailed report titled “How JBS is still slaughtering the Amazon,” which, while mostly focused on the environmental destruction wrought by this Brazilian-based company, provided many other shocking details of corporate malfeasance. In just one example:

“In 2017, as part of ‘Operation Carwash’, a multi-year probe into corruption involving Brazilian politicians and businesspeople, Brazil’s Federal Police exposed bribery by JBS executives on a truly massive scale. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism summarises it, the targets stretched ‘from meat inspectors to the highest office in Brazil: Temer’ (Michel Temer was at that point the country’s president). As a result of the investigation J&F Investimentos [the holding company for JBS] agreed in a leniency deal to pay R$10.3 billion ($3.2 billion) – one of the biggest fines in global corporate history. On this occasion Wesley and Joesley Batista [the owners of JBS] escaped prosecution through a plea bargain with government prosecutors, but they admitted to having bribed close to 1,900 politicians.” 

Like other corporate food processors, many JBS factories have served as epicentres for the spread of Covid-19. “Workers are considered as expendable as the things that they’re slaughtering,” explained Raj Patel, the author of ‘Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System’. The Greenpeace report highlights: 

“In the USA, outbreaks have occurred at processing plants run by meat giants JBS, Smithfield and Tyson Foods. In mid-April one JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, was closed after an outbreak in which five workers reportedly died, but reopened nine days later without comprehensive testing of staff: by mid-June the death toll at the plant stood at seven. Meanwhile, three workers died at one UK plant where, according to the family of one plant worker, staff were initially told that they could not wear face masks because they would be taking them from the National Health Service and where employees report being reluctant to take sick leave – despite the risk of infecting colleagues – because they receive only the country’s inadequate statutory sick pay…

“But even without the menace of Covid-19, meat processing has long been recognised as a highly dangerous job. In the USA, meat processing workers have some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness, while in Brazil (where a 2018 survey in one chicken plant found that over 70% of workers had suffered occupational accidents or diseases) major processors JBS, Minerva and Marfrig are reported to have illegally failed to report work-related illnesses in order to avoid paying sick pay. Migrant workers are at particular risk, as safety information may not be translated into languages that they understand.” 

Coordinating  a working class fightback

In the face of the flagrant disregard for human life meted out by corporate bosses, workers continue to organise and fight back to defend their rights. A particularly relevant example of resistance occurred at the start of the pandemic when around 1,000 meat workers at JBS-owned Moy Park (which is the largest employer in Northern Ireland) refused to work following the failure of their employer to provide basic health and safety protections to its workforce. 

Susan Fitzgerald, a Unite the Union organiser and member of Socialist Alternative’s sister organisation in Ireland, the Socialist Party, was involved in related struggles. She previously explained: 

“We recently organised strike action against one of the richest men in Ireland, a lauded industrialist and ‘beef baron’.

“This battle was at a meat plant where grown adults had on occasion soiled themselves because they weren’t allowed go to the bathroom. Previously this guy had beaten my union, this time we were better organised – we mobilised six nationalities on the picket line, we won on pay and working conditions and built a stronger union in the process.” 

We need more of these types of combative struggles at all workplaces, whether they are unionised or not. After all it is through taking such collective action that workers can grow in confidence in demanding a greater share of the profits in their own workplaces. And where existing trade union leaders refuse to enable workers to wage such a united battle then we must actively transform our unions into sharp weapons for protecting our class interests.

The type of super-exploitation that has been laid bare in the food industry during the pandemic is inherent within the capitalist system, where profit comes before all else. The big food companies should be brought into public ownership under the democratic control and management of workers and their trade unions. An international socialist plan of production and distribution would allow us to meet the needs of humanity and the environment, and end all exploitation and oppression. 


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