“Once they arrive,” he continued, “they have a job through the subcontractor and then work for Tönnies or another company.”
Tönnies, whose hulking factory sits just a few miles down the road, is Europe’s largest slaughterhouse — and the site of a coronavirus outbreak that triggered Germany’s first snapback in restrictions. More than 1,500 workers have tested positive, contributing to a sharp rise in the country’s overall virus reproduction rate and forcing more than half a million people into a semi-lockdown.
The meat-processing industry has emerged as the Achilles’ heel of Germany’s otherwise widely praised coronavirus response.
Processing plants are thought to be especially conducive to viral spread, with their cold temperatures, limited ventilation and people close together shouting to one another over all the noise. Abattoirs from the United States to the Netherlands have been forced to close their doors because of coronavirus outbreaks.
In Germany, the eight outbreaks linked to the meat industry have also focused scrutiny on murky hiring practices and substandard living conditions for laborers — largely from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland — who do the grueling work of slaughtering pigs for minimum wage. Even during the peak of the epidemic on the continent, when travel between countries was banned, exceptions were made so that workers could cross borders and ensure that Western Europe could continue to eat.
Now, for many Gütersloh residents who have seen their schools, gyms, pools and bars closed once again, ire is directed both at Tönnies and government officials, who they complain have long failed to act on calls to clean up working practices.
“There is a lot of anger and disappointment,” said Daniela Brey, 39, who was waiting in a snaking four-hour line for a voluntary coronavirus test, with her 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter in tow.
“Tönnies is just a symptom of the problem,” she said. “The government has to do something.”
Even before the Tönnies outbreak, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government had hastily drafted new regulations to stop the use of subcontractors at Germany’s meat firms. The practice hampers the simplest question for coronavirus contact tracing: Who works there?
Legislation must still be approved by parliament, and the meat lobby is pushing back, calling the move “arbitrary discrimination” and saying it is not a means for guaranteeing worker protection.
If the legislation does come into force, it wouldn’t be until next year at the earliest — meaning that Germany will continue to face a threat of outbreaks that are difficult to trace.
Inge Bultschnieder, a local bakery owner, said she’d been warning about the coronavirus risk at Tönnies for months, as workers were ferried around with little regard for social distancing. “The town was worried,” she said.
Bultschnieder organized her first demonstration against Tönnies in 2013, after a hospital stay when she befriended a Bulgarian Tönnies worker in the next bed.
But in this part of Germany, meat is money. Atop the slaughterhouse, a towering Tönnies sign — featuring a smiling pig, cow and steer, tails intertwined to form a heart — is a sky-high reminder of the source of much of the wealth here.
The slaughterhouse sits on the outskirts of Rheda-Wiedenbrück, a postcard-perfect town a few miles from Gütersloh, the district’s main hub. At the site of the plant is Tönnies Arena: a 4,000-seat stadium used for local soccer matches. Clemens Tönnies, a self-made billionaire who runs the meatpacking firm, also owns Schalke, a Bundesliga soccer team.
His company is a giant in the European meat industry, with an annual turnover of more than 7 billion euros (about $8 billion). It slaughters more than 20.8 million pigs a year, according to industry publications.
Now, with the factory closed and more than 7,000 workers in quarantine, scores of distribution trucks sit idle, and European farmers are scrambling to find other places to slaughter their fattened livestock.
Clemens Tönnies has called it an “existential crisis” for the firm he co-founded with his brother nearly 50 years ago. Initially, the company suggested the outbreak might be attributed to cross-border travel by workers. But Clemens Tönnies apologized and said he was “fully responsible.” He has resisted calls to resign.
Last year, he was forced to temporarily step down from his position as president of the Schalke soccer club after comments roundly condemned as racist. Rather than fighting climate change with tax increases, he said, governments should fund power plants in Africa. “Then the Africans would stop cutting down trees, and they would stop making babies when it gets dark,” he said.
German authorities have said his company might be liable for damages related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Experts say the system of subcontracts is designed to avoid accountability, with subcompanies that continuously change their names responsible for worker safety, rather than the firms themselves.
While Tönnies the company is highly visible, its workers are less so.
“They are in their own microcosm,” said Claus Freitag, 54, who runs an electronics store in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, not far from the town’s moated castle. “They stick together. They live in the more remote places. They jump in these minibuses in the morning.”
The Tönnies company is footing the bill for mass testing. But Clemens Tönnies cited data protection as the reason he could not share a worker list with health authorities.
Mobile coronavirus testing teams, wearing white protective overalls, have been left to largely rely on official but inaccurate city lists as they try to figure out who works at the plant and where they live.
“Most of the time, there’s more people or also other people than we have on the lists,” said Martin Bieker, a volunteer medic with the teams that fan out each morning.
Some of the Tönnies workers live in dilapidated low-rise apartment blocks, in cramped, unsanitary conditions that experts say probably helped the virus spread.
To enforce the quarantine, wire fences have been erected around those apartment buildings and police cars line the streets.
“If I don’t work, who will pay me if I stay two weeks at home?” said a young man at the fence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of affecting his employment.
Employers are required to continue to cover wages during quarantine, but the man said he was between jobs.
Tönnies workers are paid minimum wage, about $10 an hour, but they must each pay about $350 a month for a mattress, according to activists and experts.
The pay in Denmark is more than twice as high, said Karin Vladimirov, spokesperson for the meat-processing labor union representing German workers. “Nowhere is slaughtering as cheap as in Germany,” she said, adding that people often work more hours than they are paid for and lack knowledge of their rights.
So far, health officials say the outbreak in Gütersloh looks to be contained. Only 32 positive cases have been found outside the meat industry. But another outbreak has emerged at a plant in Lower Saxony. And foreign diplomats are concerned that Tönnies workers may have spread their infections farther afield, returning to their home countries in the chaotic period when a quarantine for the plant was being established.
Jakub Wawrzyniak, the Polish consul general in Cologne, spent a day out with mobile testing teams in the hopes of establishing contact with some of the Polish Tönnies workers. At some doors, neighbors said residents had “gone on holiday.”
“I think that means they are at home” back in Central and Eastern Europe, he said. “If we had the data, Polish police or Bulgarian police could go and ask them to quarantine. I’m afraid it’s going to spread out.”
Meanwhile, Süzan continues to ferry workers to local firms. Each worker he brings across is charged $135 for transportation and $30 for a health certificate. The money is docked from their wages by subcontractors when they arrive, he said. He says that his workers live in good conditions and that companies responsible for the squalid conditions for workers are “black sheep.”
Even though reforms afoot in the industry could cut out subcontractors, he said he’s not worried.
“There’s always a Plan B,” he said. “As long as these companies exist, there are ways and means.”
Beck reported from Berlin. Lara Wiedeking in Gütersloh contributed to this report.