For more than 20 years, Raya had scraped by, earning the equivalent of €200 a month at a hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria. But in September 2019, the 48-year-old widow risked everything to move west. She did it for her daughter. “I wanted to give her the chance to realise her dreams,” Raya says, anxiously rolling cigarettes, her hands mottled by red scars. “Desperation forced me to Germany.”
Her initial attempts were humiliating. First, Raya (not her real name), was swindled by fake recruiters. They disappeared after she paid a deposit. Next, she was unwittingly hired by an eastern European mafia ring to work in a vegetable warehouse near Munich, where she was quickly arrested and deported.
Then, in December 2019, while scrolling through Facebook, Raya found “the Müllers”, two Macedonians based in Germany. They recruited workers for companies like Besselmann, subcontractors to major European meat producers such as Vion and Tönnies. One post showed workers in hair nets and rubber gloves, working with large cuts of meat. Wages, Raya was told, were €1,600-€1,900 a month.
She quickly headed to Rheda-Wiedenbrück — a north-west German town of white-washed, half-timbered buildings. Recruited by the Müllers and now employed by Besselmann, she started working at the largest abattoir in Germany, the Tönnies logo of a smiling bull, cow and pig twirling overhead.
The first hint something was wrong was her shabby hostel, arranged by Besselmann, where she was charged €300 a month for a bed in a shared room. Her paychecks, also from Besselmann, were the next blow: the first two came to just €496 apiece, and she could not understand why. Nor did she have time to try: she was put to work 10 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. “When I was arrested previously, in Munich, I discovered I’d been the victim of a mafia,” she says. “This felt the same, only worse — because this is actually legal.”
Raya kept working, depressed and in pain, until July, when a coronavirus outbreak infected 1,500 Tönnies workers and forced the entire municipality into lockdown. More than 7,000 workers — including Raya, who never knew whether she tested positive — endured weeks of strict quarantine.
The Tönnies outbreak became the worst of many to hit German abattoirs and farms, sparking a public outcry that forced Europe’s largest economy to reckon with an open secret, long ignored. While Germany is known for strong trade unions and harmonious labour relations, several pockets of its economy are dependent on cheap migrant labour and have been accused of exploitative conditions — from trucking and home nursing to parcel delivery and seasonal harvests. Nowhere was this starker than in the service of cheap meat.
Even after the pandemic shone a light on slaughterhouse conditions, it took labour minister Hubertus Heil months of wrangling to push a bill through parliament banning subcontracting systems in the meat industry. The law, which came into force at the start of January, has activists and trade unionists cheering. They agree it is the most exhaustive reform attempted yet. But court battles loom, and monitoring any violations or loopholes is up to the same political class that ignored the problem for decades. The coming months will test whether the fight is really won.
“When I read this law, I can see Heil fought hard,” says Jutta Krellmann, a Bundestag member from the leftist party Die Linke. “But it was a compromise that kept a few doors open … We don’t know yet what will happen.”
Transforming Germany’s meat industry is an uphill slog: entrenched lobbies and political interests are deeply intertwined with industrialised food production; consumers have become accustomed to low prices. Even as meat consumption is declining within Germany, its production remains big business: 8.6 million tonnes in 2019, making the country one of the largest producers in Europe, and the third-largest pork exporter worldwide.
But this success comes at a price, not just to workers like Raya but by perpetuating inequalities across Europe — enabling corrupt practices in poorer eastern states and undermining western states’ attempts to impose fairer conditions. The unsettling lesson of Germany’s meat industry is that even apparently well-regulated markets can inflict deep costs beyond a country’s borders.
“The German meat sector has been a major source of unfair competition,” says Enrico Somaglia, deputy general secretary of EFFAT, an association of European trade unions. “It’s really time to act. There is no option B. It’s important for Germany, it’s important for Europe.”
The rise of Tönnies reflects a much broader story. Fifty years ago, the Tönnies family owned a small local butchery. But as food production became industrialised, local abattoirs became unprofitable. Brothers Bernd and Clemens Tönnies bought up, modernised and enlarged plants, while also fostering relationships with grocery chains through lower prices.
Today, its Rheda-Wiedenbrück abattoir alone slaughters 20,000 pigs daily, and Tönnies is one of four companies controlling 55 per cent of German pork production. Its 2018 revenues were €6.7bn. Clemens Tönnies, who is worth €2.3bn, now features on Forbes’ list of Europe’s wealthiest and enjoys relationships with powerful figures such as Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Critics say the success of Tönnies and other German businesses is rooted in agreements between the EU and eastern European countries that began in the 1990s, allowing EU companies to hire “posted workers” from companies outside the bloc, paying the same wages they would earn back home. They received the equivalent of €3-€5 an hour, roughly a third of what Germans typically earned. Some companies’ workers did 16- to 20- hour shifts and lived in tents in the forests.
The advantage to German businesses became so great that producers such as Vion, from the Netherlands, and Danish Crown moved some operations to Gemany rather than try to compete. By 2014, public outrage and complaints from neighbouring countries pushed the industry in Germany to agree a minimum wage. A year later, to avoid legislation, companies also pledged to stop using posted workers.
But no sooner had unions and activists celebrated the end of the old model when a new one emerged. 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. An abattoir did not hire workers directly; it paid subcontractors a flat rate for a given service — a certain amount of animals slaughtered or meat produced, for example. The subcontractors provided the workers, and thus were responsible for their pay, treatment and sometimes housing. But because subcontractors were paid by production, not by the hour, it was profitable to push workers to work ever faster, in long, gruelling shifts. Few workers withstood such conditions for longer than a year.
To keep a steady supply of fresh labour, subcontractors relied on middlemen, who regularly brought workers from eastern Europe. Some were formal operations but many, like the Müller brothers who recruited Raya, advertise on Facebook with cartoons, alongside pictures of themselves at casinos and partying.
“Sick tricks” by subcontracting companies to skim wages are common, according to a Besselmann foreman who requested anonymity. One involves helping register workers for child benefits and tax cuts — free state services — in return for commissions which can be €20-€500, according to interviews with subcontractors and groups that counsel migrant workers. Another, the foreman says, falsely inflates salaries by including commuter tax benefits for which migrant workers are not eligible. Inevitably, the state reclaims the taxes. “The worker doesn’t know what to do — they’re already in Germany and now they discover their salary is far lower,” the foreman said. He did not say whether Besselmann did this.
Both the Müllers and Besselmann declined repeated requests for comment.
The links between subcontractors, recruiters and other middlemen are murky. Piotr Mazurek, a counsellor at Fair Mobility, a government-funded programme for migrant workers, believes this is intentional.
He spends his days parsing confusing payslips and helping workers reclaim wages, fight unfair housing rentals or spot illegal “fees” for knives or protective abattoir gear. “You have farmers and workers on one hand, and you have consumers on the other hand, and you have a big black box in between,” says Mazurek. “That black box is making millions every year.”
When discussing the origins of this “black box,” many activists point to MGM Handels- und Vermittlungs, owned by Romanian businessman Dumitru Miculescu. His company last year employed 1,700 workers, contracting with several of Germany’s biggest meat producers, including Tönnies.
Miculescu’s success was helped by a television station in Dambovita, an hour’s drive from Bucharest.
A January 2019 spot, for example, which looks like a news report, introduces a man called Gabriel, who describes working at a German abattoir for six years with MGM Handels and being “treated just like the other workers, who are from Poland or even Germany”. Similar spots ran as late as spring 2020. None mentions that MGM Handels and the TV station are owned by the same man’s family: Miculescu.
Alexandru Iancu, 28, who worked for MGM Handels at Tönnies for two years, describes a different reality. He says he regularly did 16- to 18-hour shifts, received no overtime and returned at daylight to a cockroach-infested room. One colleague cut off four fingers following pressure to work quickly, he recalls. When Iancu cut his own finger, he only saw a doctor three days later.
“Most come to us only once they can no longer stand the pain,” says one doctor in the area, requesting anonymity. The worst injuries, he says, are often hidden: severe depression, which fuels rampant alcoholism and brawling.
Iancu says some co-workers just gave up on weeks of unpaid salary and went home. Two recruiters and one former subcontractor say withholding final pay was one of many strategies to skim wages.
“[The] money never reaches that employee,” says the former subcontractor, who now works at a leading German meat company and requested anonymity. Subcontractors handling even just 150 employees monthly, he said, could “make tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of euros”.
Miculescu called allegations against his company “fabulations” during a phone call with the FT, but hung up before they could all be put to him. He did, however, say he was no longer in the subcontracting business as of December 2020. A follow-up email went unanswered.
Thomas Dosch, a spokesman for Tönnies, says his company never tolerated abuse. “I don’t think we can say they [workers] are exploited,” he says, arguing some kept silent about injuries in order to work enough hours for month-long home leaves. Dosch said Tönnies has taken major steps to improve the situation for workers after the public outcry last summer, including introducing “integration specialists” into the company’s work council and a confidential ombudsman. Responding to accounts read to him by the FT, he replied: “There has always been trouble with subcontractors … But the responsibility is put on the slaughter companies instead.”
For counsellors such as Mazurek, this is no excuse. He sees a vicious cycle, from consumers seeking cheap prices to the grocery chains competing to provide them, all pressuring meat producers for lower costs. They meet that demand by ignoring subcontractors’ aggressive practices on abattoir floors: “Ultimately, they are the cause of all this,” he says. “Everyone is in a race to the bottom. It’s naive to say, ‘We didn’t know.’”
The doctor, drinking a socially distanced beer after work, wonders what all this says about him, his neighbours, Germany and Europe. For years, he has driven to work past the labourers waiting outside the metal gates, cramming themselves into white vans, and said nothing.
“It’s a great system here — the only problem is, it can’t survive without all these poor people. If you think of it that way, this is what we want — we don’t want to pay the extra euros,” he says. “When you work a lot, you don’t think about it. I just sew those guys up and let them go. They survive their shift, and I survive mine.”
Just a few kilometres away, at a lakeside café in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, Raya chain-smokes and waits for a friend. She fears being watched closer to her hostel, though in her baggy work clothes she stands out among the tables of women wearing delicate jewellery, sipping cappuccinos.
Earlier that week, Raya and some fellow workers confronted Besselmann about unpaid wages. It sent them to their German middleman, a woman known as “Heidi”. Heidi sent them to their original recruiters, the Müller brothers, who directed her back to Heidi. Afterwards, one co-worker believed he was being followed and they panicked.
So now, Raya and her friend pore over her payslips, trying to make sense of where her money went. One problem is missing hours that Raya insists she worked. Another is that Besselmann transferred money for “transport services”, which Raya says she was not using, to an account associated with the Müllers. “I feel like a victim of some kind of modern slavery,” she says. “The worst part is the helplessness and desperation.”
That desperation has turned into anger. In September, Raya left Rheda-Wiedenbrück, seeking work elsewhere. Every month since, she has made a 120km drive back to demand her unpaid wages.
Experiences like Raya’s are an example of inequality that has been perpetuated across the continent, according to Clotilde Armand, a former member of the European parliament and now mayor of a district in Bucharest. She sees the system of migrant abattoir workers in Germany as a symptom of east-west disparities persisting three decades after the Iron Curtain’s collapse.
Corporate EU legal infrastructure created advantages for western companies, she says, so that while products such as meat should in theory be processed in eastern Europe, where raw materials are cheaper, instead they are made by eastern European workers in Germany — then exported back to eastern Europe and sold in German-owned supermarkets. Meanwhile, EU subsidies are imbalanced: the subsidy per cattle head or hectare of land in Romania is at most half that in the west, Armand says: “The money is flowing from the east to the west, not the other way around.”
Seventeen per cent of Romania’s population are employed but on the brink of poverty — the highest rate in Europe, according to Eurostat. The EU average is 9.6 per cent. So many Romanians left the country in 2001-2016 that they became the fifth-largest national group of emigrants, according to OECD figures.
Eastern Europeans notice the disparity, Armand says, and it fuels Eurosceptic populism in their countries. “It is to our advantage [for the EU] to be more just.”
It is shift change on a wet morning at the Vion abattoir in the northern German town of Cloppenburg. Triple-tiered trucks filled with pigs clatter through the metal gates, their cargo squealing frantically. Refrigerated trucks of meat roll out. Mazurek is waiting outside with his colleague, Manuela Szabó, one of many new hires to bolster Fair Mobility; the group has been tasked with informing workers about the law and seeking their help for its enforcement by the labour ministry. Armed with fliers in several languages, they wait for white vans packed full of workers — despite pandemic conditions.
Men and women, teenagers and middle-aged, emerge in sweatpants. Their hands, covered in cuts, clutch plastic bags filled with sodas, sandwiches and hand towels. Workers finishing their shifts head toward the vans, their limbs so stiff many are limping, their foreheads creased red by hair nets. For three hours, the cycle repeats. Szabó, Mazurek and members of the NGG food and beverage union pass out fliers, call out promises of a new era: “Full salaries! No more wage deductions! No more subcontractors!”
Szabó translates for Romanian workers who have crowded around her. Two teenage sisters in sequined trainers pump their fists and dance in celebration: “Finally!” But one older man shakes his head and pushes up toward Szabó. He waves away her fliers, then says gently: “I’ve been working in Germany for six years. For the last five, I’ve been told things would get better. Trust me: here, nothing changes.”
The question of whether the new law can produce lasting change remains. Labour minister Hubertus Heil fought for it up to the final weeks of the Bundestag’s 2020 session, as MPs from the Christian Democrats (CDU), the senior member of Germany’s ruling coalition, demanded concessions. “This is about a fairer European level playing field,” he told the FT at the time. “We must now, at the very latest now, radically clean up.” He even issued an unusual warning to politicians: Do not speak to the meat industry.
Dosch, the Tönnies spokesman, says Heil’s aggressive stance prevented consensus critical for the law’s success. “There are politicians who come forward, declare solidarity in private, but in public they are against the meat industry,” he adds.
The CDU in particular illustrates the deep relationships between agribusiness and Germany’s political class. Several CDU MPs sitting on parliamentary agricultural or economic committees have received tens of thousands of euros in recent years from positions with agricultural associations, according to German transparency website Parliament Watch. This is also true for Heil’s own Social Democrats — former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel earned €10,000 a month for a three-month consultancy for Tönnies last year, according to transparency filings.
Historically, industry ties were so strong that, according to Beatte Müller-Gemmeke, a Green MP, one former CDU parliamentarian actually hid a planned amendment to a 2017 law from fellow party members until voting time. The amendment, which required higher abattoir inspection rates, passed. But two years later, when she requested statistics, Müller-Gemmeke discovered inspections had dropped, even as injuries and violations had risen.
In the state of Thuringia, she found, every inspection turned up a violation. “That law came to nothing.”
Müller-Gemmeke cautiously welcomes Heil’s law; banning subcontracting is a major step. But inspections remain a concern. The law only requires a 5 per cent of abattoirs to be inspected by 2026, and she worries it could take years to know whether the law works. “Just because there is the law, it doesn’t get better,” she says. “It simply must be inspected.”
But the government faces a tricky balancing act. Some associations vowed legal challenges for unfairly singling out the meat industry.
A few companies hinted at moving abroad. “Tönnies himself comes from Rheda … He is rooted in the region,” says Dosch. “But it must still be possible to work. A company that pays €50m taxes in the district also contributes to the common good.” Tönnies already has factories in Spain, Denmark and the UK, where Dosch says the company is, by contrast, “treated as welcome guests”.
He says Tönnies is complying with the new law, directly hiring thousands of workers. Meanwhile, subcontractors such as Besselmann, and middlemen such as the Müllers, are recruiting for other industries, from cigarette and cosmetic factories to parcel deliveries.
Industry opponents suspect these outfits will survive, whether through unforeseen loopholes or because companies still need help finding thousands of workers to bring to Germany. Meat companies are also struggling to buy nearby housing — much of it, according to local activists, has already been bought up by middlemen. The Orbis database of private companies shows both MGM Handels and Besselmann have registered real estate agencies.
As for Raya, she has a new job at a poultry abattoir, chopping and cleaning carcasses, with weekends off. One former colleague was directly hired by Tönnies and says conditions are improving. Another gave up on his unpaid wages and returned to Bulgaria. Raya has clawed back all but €700 of hers, and is still fighting. The new law has buoyed her: “I hope something good will happen.”
Erika Solomon is the FT’s Berlin correspondent. Valerie Hopkins is the FT’s south-east Europe correspondent. Alexander Vladkov is an FT editorial assistant based in Frankfurt. Additional reporting by Cynthia O’Murchu
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