Mankini judge cattle who pays

The price of the meat: About the work in Austria's slaughterhouses

They slaughter cattle and pigs in a piece, process meat on the assembly line until it ends up in cellophane, visibly dismantled, or packed in boxes and ends up in stores. For the job they often commute hundreds of kilometers across Europe and live in crowded quarters on weekdays in a confined space. The already meager wages are curtailed by overpriced accommodation, money for knives and work clothes. Unpaid overtime and incorrect pay slips have a system in the non-transparent network of countless sub-companies.

The precarious working conditions in the German meat industry have been bitterly open to trade unionists for years. The government remained inactive, only a few concessions were made to workers, such as minimum criteria for accommodation. Until the Corona crisis drew attention to the industry. In the German slaughterhouses, which use many workers from Romania and Bulgaria, but also hire temporary workers from Belarus and Ukraine, infections with Covid-19 increased. Since then, the waves have been rising in politics.

Modern slavery

There is talk of modern slavery, of shocking and inhuman conditions. The German Federal Cabinet now wants to ban contracts for work and temporary work that encourage abuse in the meat industry at the turn of the year. Debates about cheap food have also reignited: in many places there are calls for minimum prices, higher taxes and a ban on advertising for cheap meat.

What are the consequences of the turbulence for Austria? Who in this country benefits from the exploitation in Germany? And under what conditions do Eastern Europeans work in local slaughterhouses? The answers are diverse.

Significantly higher wage costs

With 1,800 employees, Norbert Marcher processes around one million pigs and 130,000 cattle every year. With five slaughterhouses in Austria, his operation is the largest in the industry. For him, the situation in the two countries is worlds apart. In Germany, the minimum wage for butchers is just over nine euros per hour, he calculates. There is no obligation to pay 13th and 14th salaries due to the lack of collective agreements. In Austria all butchers are to be paid according to the collective agreement. Including the special payments, a minimum wage of almost 15 euros applies. "Our wage costs are more than 58 percent higher."

As in Germany, individual Austrian slaughterhouses outsource employees to subcontractors. This practice is unusual, says Marcher. He himself does not employ migrant workers. Most of his long-term employees are Hungarian and Croatian weekend commuters. "Your loyalty is high." They lived in their own apartments, which were cleaned regularly by cleaning staff. Two or a maximum of four people shared accommodation. He himself earned nothing from the quarters.

Hard price war

Finding good skilled workers is becoming more and more difficult, adds Marcher, especially since wages in Hungary have also increased significantly. The incentive to commute to Austria is decreasing. He leaves it undisputed that there is not much to be earned in his industry compared to others. "I would like to pay more, but the tough price competition does not allow it."

Meat is still considered a decoy in the food trade, which does not generate large sales, but instead generates customer frequency. Austria's supermarkets attach great importance to regional products when it comes to fresh meat. Processed meat, on the other hand, does not have a steak. In the case of promotional goods, the origin takes a back seat.

Distorted competition

Klaus Grandits, who mainly slaughters cattle at two locations in Austria, also works, as he says, exclusively with his own staff. Many of his 200 people commuted from Hungary every day. He himself does not offer any accommodation for those whose journey is further, but he does help with the search. Private people charge around 200 euros a month for this.

According to Grandits, colleagues sometimes use leasing staff in order to be able to react more flexibly to weak seasons such as the summer when there are many cattle on the pasture. But they too would have to compensate for these forces according to the Austrian collective agreement. Like Marcher, Grandits complains of massive market distortion caused by German wage dumping. After all, in the meat industry, personnel costs are the biggest chunk of costs alongside energy. The Austrians export to all world markets just like the Germans. The unequal financial burden strengthens Germany in comparison to meat nations such as the Netherlands, France, Denmark, but also Austria.

Highly concentrated

Along with Alpenrind, Steirerfleisch, Großfurtner, Handlbauer and Hütthaler, Marcher and Grandits are among the largest of the total of around 200 companies that are qualified for slaughter in Austria. 80 percent of their staff come from Eastern Europe, the majority from Hungary. The market is particularly highly concentrated in the cattle sector: a handful of entrepreneurs largely split up the business. In the case of pigs, those who process up to 10,000 animals per week are among the big ones. Around 20 farms slaughter between 1,000 and 4,000 pigs a week.

Compared to Germany, these are peanuts. At three billion euros, the turnover of the entire Austrian meat industry is just as much as that of a single German giant. The Austrians consider it long overdue that the mighty competition is now being forced to eliminate grievances in wages, social security and accommodation.

"Unworthy of Europe"

The market has been distorted for far too long, says Anka Lorencz, head of the Federal Guild of the Food Industry in the Chamber of Commerce. "Conditions like those in a number of German companies are unworthy of a Europe of the 21st century." Austria decouples itself sharply in every respect.

Erwin Kinslechner also does not lump Austria's meat industry with the German one. The industry, with its 12,000 employees, is far from an ideal world, even in this country, emphasizes the trade unionist. Kinslechner, who regularly negotiates the wages of meat processors, talks about desolate residential units with which employers earned a tax-deductible wage allowance, and about the lack of surcharges for overtime. As soon as someone is trained, they have a monthly right to around 1,800 euros gross. On paper. In practice, some people involuntarily remain in the lowest wage category.

Journey home with 900 euros

Many workers earned only 1,200 euros net a month, minus the quarter they drove home with just 900 euros, says Kinslechner. "If you resist, you risk your job." This often also applies to those who are trying to set up a works council. But where there is no plaintiff, there is no judge. "It just needs more controls here."

Lorencz speaks of individual black sheep and only a few cases of proven abuse. However, all of these were reported. "We have zero tolerance here."

Kinslechner is thorn in the side that slaughterhouses are historically assigned to the trade: Their weekly working hours are one and a half hours longer than those of the industry. Also, the industry still does not allow changing changing times to be recorded as working hours.

Securing basic services

The fact that the grocery trade is giving its employees bonuses in the wake of the Corona crisis makes him think. The meat processors, among whom no Covid-19 case has so far been registered in Austria, also secured the basic supply. They sometimes spent up to 16 hours a day while shopping for hamsters in the supermarkets. "A Corona-Thousand would be appropriate."

"How can it be that exploitation pays off?" Asks Sebastian Bohrn Mena, initiator of the animal protection referendum, with a view not only to Germany. He reminds us that cheap international meat also ends up on Austria's plates via the catering trade, wholesalers and the food industry. "We are driving demand." Austria also uses taxpayers' money to buy it for public kitchens, such as schools, kindergartens and hospitals. "We are not allowed to transfigure our country as a delicatessen store."

"No artificial price increases"

Bohrn Mena thinks little of making meat more expensive artificially through taxes. This creates new social injustice, hits those who can hardly afford it now. Nor does it reduce meat consumption. It would be wiser to start with public procurement, intervene through subsidies and make the origin more transparent. "The problems in Germany also concern Austria. They are a warning signal of what can happen when small-scale agriculture collapses." (Verena Kainrath, May 28, 2020)