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Plight of foreign abattoir workers in Germany

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(BERLIN) - Working conditions were already tough for the 170 Germans, Czechs, Slovakians, Poles, Hungarians, Brazilians and Romanians employed at the Waldkraiburg abattoir in Bavaria until the summer of 2012.

But when the sub-contractor who employed them, Global Dienstleistungs GmbH, went bust in June of that year and was replaced by two new firms, things took a turn for the worse.

The workers were given just 24 hours to sign new contracts, explains one worker, an Eastern European who only gives his name as Igor, in broken German.

They were told "you sign, or you walk," Igor says.

"My family is here, without money, without security. My children go to school here. I have no choice."

The Waldkraiburg abattoir belongs to Dutch-owned group VION, whose motto, according to its website, is "Passion for Better Food".

In Germany, which has only recently pledged to introduce a nationwide minimum wage, it is common practice in certain industries to use sub-contractors who recruit employees from elsewhere in the European Union, preferably the east, particularly for seasonal work such as crop harvesting.

The workers are hired in their own country, but then transferred for the season to Germany where they are housed in temporary accommodation.

Under EU rules so-called posted workers are supposed to be paid wages consistent with those in the country where they work, but social insurance payments are made in their home EU country.

In reality, however, their wages and work conditions resemble those in their home countries.

Host countries have either failed to adequately police the practice or have encountered difficulties getting information from companies located abroad.

Last week, EU labour ministers agreed to curtail abuses by companies that temporarily post workers to other EU countries at lower wages, a practice France sees as social dumping.

EU countries will now have greater powers to force companies to prove they are complying with local labour laws.

It is not only the agricultural and construction industries which make use of such arrangements.

'Workers keep quiet out of fear of reprisals'

Online retail giant Amazon recently found itself under fire for using similar practices to hire cheap labour during the busy Christmas period at its main German sites.

Estimates vary, but between 50 and 80 percent of people working in Germany's meat-packing industries are hired by sub-contractors. These include all nationalities, including Germans.

At the Waldkraiburg abattoir, when Global went bust it was replaced by two new firms, Romanian-incorporated Salamandra and German company CCF GmbH.

And according to Igor, the workers were promised "the same pay and the same work."

But the reality turned out to be very different.

Abattoir workers are traditionally paid by the piece. And Igor says he used to earn up to 1,600 euros per month from Global. Now he takes home 1,200 euros at the very most for more or less the same number of hours.

Johannes Specht from the local Rosenheim branch of the NGG union which represents the food and catering industries said there is "a system of fear in German abattoirs where workers keep quiet out of fear of reprisals."

And Specht said that Romanians frequently found themselves at the bottom of the pile, forced to live in cramped accommodation that the sub-contractor has rented for them and paid the equivalent of just 5.0-7.0 euros per hour for shifts that last 12 hours and even longer.

In addition, their employment contracts also appear to contain clauses which make the workers themselves responsible for any thefts of meat or equipment and any on-site accidents and require them to pay any medical costs caused by those accidents.

The clauses were contained in copies of the contracts made available to AFP by the union NGG at the time when Global went bust in June 2012.

Contacted by AFP in Bucharest, the head of Salamandra, Gabriela-Cristina Cirstean, insisted that "all workers" were offered good, comfortable lodging.

Cirstean refused to specify how many days of annual leave the workers were entitled to, saying only the number was "what is legal in Romania."

According to Igor, the workers who signed new contracts with the German firm CCF GmbH were also obliged to work Saturdays and their breaks have been cut from 15-20 minutes every three hours to just 10 minutes.

CCF, which is also headed by Cirstean, was not immediately reachable to comment on the allegations.

Dutch-based VION, which employs 5,300 people in Germany, including 4,000 via sub-contractors, told AFP in a written statement that "the alleged grievances are not known to us.

"As a company that uses external service providers, VION is not in a position under current law to monitor the working contracts between employees and the sub-contractor," it said.

VION insisted that the firms were required "in their contract with VION to abide by German labour law."

It rejected the allegations of poor working conditions and said it would take legal action against any media outlet that stated otherwise.

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