Revealed: exploitation of meat plant workers rife across UK and Europe

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<span>Photograph: Agencja Fotograficzna Caro/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Agencja Fotograficzna Caro/Alamy

Meat companies across Europe have been hiring thousands of workers through subcontractors, agencies and bogus co-operatives on inferior pay and conditions, a Guardian investigation has found.

Workers, officials and labour experts have described how Europe’s £190bn meat industry has become a global hotspot for outsourced labour, with a floating cohort of workers, many of whom are migrants, with some earning 40% to 50% less than directly employed staff in the same factories.

The Guardian has uncovered evidence of a two-tier employment system with workers subjected to sub-standard pay and conditions to fulfil the meat industry’s need for a replenishable source of low-paid, hyper-flexible workers.

About 1 million people work in Europe’s meat sector, with unions estimating that thousands of workers in some countries are precariously employed through subcontractors and agencies.

Although there is no universally accepted definition of "precarious work", the term is used to describe workers who have temporary employment that does not offer the security and protection of employed work.

For example, it may involve zero-hours contracts or unpredictable/variable work or hours, non-standard or atypical employment contracts, designation of bogus "self-employed" status, below-average pay, an elevated threat of losing work at short notice, along with minimum or no holiday, parental and sick pay.

Individuals in precarious work may be at a high risk of in-work poverty and economic vulnerability. They may be excluded from social rights such as pensions, decent housing and healthcare.

In 2016, it was estimated that more than 7 million Britons were in precarious employment. An EU report recognises precariousness as a problematic practice.

“The system is sick everywhere across Europe. It’s based on cheap prices for meat, on the exploitation of labour,” said Enrico Somaglia, deputy secretary general of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions. “You have workers elbow to elbow doing the same work, but under different conditions.”

The Guardian has heard how precarious workers often have undefined working hours, zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employed status and no sick pay. Workers describe living in an extremely precarious state in countries where they do not speak the language and therefore struggle to understand their agreements and legal rights.

“They can fire you instantly and you can lose everything,” said a Romanian worker in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands – one of Europe’s largest meat exporters with sales worth €8.8bn (£7.5bn) last year – the labour inspectorate said migrants, primarily on precarious contracts, make up to 90% of the workforce.

The UK’s meat processing plants are struggling with a shortage of workers as they gear up for Christmas, as many of the eastern European workers employed in the sector returned to their home countries during the Covid pandemic and have not come back. Unions predict the use of agency and subcontracted migrant labour will become more prevalent because local people do not want to work in meat plants.

Unions are calling for an immediate Europe-wide ban on the use of precarious workers in meat plants. “Without a shadow of a doubt, agencies and subcontracted work should be banned,” said Bev Clarkson of Unite Union.

Serife Erol, researcher at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, said: “If the meat processing companies cannot get the margins through selling the products, they have the opportunity of getting it through the payments of their workers.”

EU enlargement from 2004 – and free movement of people across Europe – brought a vast pool of people from Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Hungary willing to migrate for work opportunities.

Across Europe, the freedom of movement for workers has been misused, said Özlem Alev Demirel, MEP from the German Die Linke party. “Employers have depressed wages by bringing workers from countries where wages are lower, and the social security systems are weak, and this is not acceptable.” She said the principle of the same wage for the same work at the same place must be upheld across Europe.

As the economies of countries such as Poland improved, and the need for a replenishable source of cheap labour increased, the search has extended across the world to countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Georgia, India, China and Armenia.

Europe map

Romanian agencies are now bringing workers across the world from south Asia, specifically Nepal and Sri Lanka. Their visas are dependent on the jobs they get; if they are fired, they become illegal immigrants. “In Romania, we are abusing Nepalese workers in the same way Romanians are abused elsewhere,” said Nora Labo, who worked for the Independent Workers Union in Ireland until earlier this year.

Nicolas Schmit, EU commissioner for jobs and social rights, said that it is up to member states to uphold labour law. “EU law is clear: all workers hired via agencies and subcontractors should be guaranteed the same rights as permanent employees. National authorities must enforce these rules.”

Karsten Maier, secretary general of UECBV, which represents 20,000 companies in the livestock and meat trade across Europe, as well as Japan, Russia and Ukraine, said labour conditions were not part of its work but were the responsibility of the companies, as well as the relevant authorities. “Abuse of any kind will not be tolerated,” said Maier, adding cases should be prosecuted accordingly.

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