May 19, 2020 / 3:32 PM / 12 days ago

Romanian minister calls for migrant labour rethink after slaughterhouse COVID cases

BERLIN, May 19 (Reuters) - The coronavirus crisis must prompt a rethink of the conditions in which some people from Eastern Europe work in the farms and food industry of Western Europe, Romania’s labour minister said after outbreaks in German slaughterhouses.

Most of Europe’s borders have been closed since late March as a result of governments’ attempts to slow the spread of the virus, but 30,000 Romanian workers have been among the few who have continued to move, flown to Germany to work in the food sector on flights chartered by farmers.

Like all EU citizens, Romanians can work anywhere in the 27-nation-bloc, a fact which Germany’s highly competitive food-processing industry has relied to keep down costs.

But critics worry that costs have been pushed down too far.

Workers recently arrived on charter flights posted videos on social media showing them crammed into accommodation with four or more people to a room, in defiance of social distancing guidelines designed to reduce the risk of transmission. Reuters has not verified the videos.

At least two have since died of coronavirus, autopsies showed, though they are believed by German and Romanian authorities to have contracted the illness before leaving home.

Others, mostly longer established in Germany, are working in abattoirs that have seen a spate of coronavirus outbreaks, including hundreds of employees testing positive in an individual slaughterhouse.

“The circumstances we are going through reveal a number of systemic problems that we haven’t addressed properly during the last years,” minister Violeta Alexandru told Reuters after driving 18 hours from Bucharest to Berlin for a fact-finding mission into the conditions Romanians are working under.

Other migrants described being charged for accommodation, leaving them with a net wage of as little as 6 euros per hour, making a mockery of Germany’s 9.35 euro minimum wage.

“The coronavirus crisis acts like a magnifying class to highlight what’s already good or bad in a society,” German Labour Minister Hubertus Heil told a joint news conference with Alexandru on Tuesday.

“When we have mass infection of Romanian workers in the meat industry, then I have to say it’s not acceptable. I have to say it makes me ashamed,” he said, pledging more support to local labour authorities to ensure minimum labour standards were being properly enforced.

A draft government proposal seen by Reuters last week said Germany would order meatpacking plants to stop using subcontractors and to improve hygiene standards in the workplace and accommodation. (Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Alison Williams)

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