M Bird, L Verschwele, C Ferrara, V Odobescu, R Zamfira, A Cotrut | 20 November 2020
The killer coronavirus has infected thousands working in the meat sector in Europe, and shed light on the vulnerabilities for employees in this high-intensity industry
“Covid has been the great revealer,” says David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Special Envoy on COVID-19. “It has shown up so much about the inequities that we tolerate in order to get the life that we rich people live—whether it’s how we get cheap food or meat or fish, or what we are prepared to tolerate in the way people live.”
In 2020, among places of work, the novel coronavirus has infected hospitals, care homes, army barracks, textile factories and centres of food preparation, but across the USA, South America and Europe, one sector that has seen an explosion of cases are meat factories. Labor-intensive sites with over 500 members of staff are major targets of infection, as well as those which are vertically integrated, from the killing of animals to the packaging of products ready to cook.
The virus has hit meat plants due to vulnerabilities on the factory floor: staff work shoulder to shoulder on an assembly line, and the plants have temperatures that are usually between four and ten degrees, and COVID-19 appears to thrive in the cold. Meanwhile growing research is showing how ventilation systems are likely to be transmitting the virus, through an airborne route.
Social factors also contribute to the spread of the virus. Workers in these factories are mostly immigrants and, in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, the predominant nationality is Romanian. They are often crowded together in temporary accommodation, and shepherded from their housing to the job in tightly-packed buses and cars.
“We probably didn’t realise before how poor people live in cramped conditions, and how widespread double bunking and treble bunking of migrant workers is in food processing in Europe, until Covid-19 came along,” Nabarro says via video-link from Switzerland. “Covid-19 has been an extraordinary revealer.”
Large meat factories, such as Tönnies in Rheda-Wiedenbrück in Germany, which—directly or indirectly—employs more than 7,000 people, are the center of a town’s industry.
“A meat plant tends to be dominant in the local community, and the primary employers of personnel, with the personnel often tightly packed in residential accommodation because meat plants have expanded so much in recent years,” adds Nabarro. “You cannot insulate a meat plant away from the local community and we have seen how infections in meat plants have spread into local communities and the link between the two are important, it’s like the relationship between outbreaks in prisons in local communities.”
Here is a map of the scale of infections at meat factories in Europe:
These are the reasons why the meat sector has been so sensitive to COVID-19 infection:
In large meat factories in northern Europe, staff work close together on an assembly line. Droplets are the primary means the virus is transmitted, and most of these fall from about a meter from the mouth, when a person coughs, or sneezes or shouts in an enclosed space. Few droplets travel further than two metres, which is why a two metre rule is key to reducing transmission.
Because the temperatures are cold, staff cough and sneeze. Because the atmosphere is loud, staff need to shout at each other. All these factors enhance viral transmission. To reduce infection rates, many factories have laid out their floorplans with one-way systems, clad staff from head to toe in protective equipment, installed plastic screens between employees and redesigned the locker rooms and canteens to allow social distancing. “We have seen examples of really good practice by governments, companies, unions and individual workers,” says Nabarro. “If a company really wants to work with a workforce, it makes a massive difference than if there is a combative atmosphere.”
Nano-particle transmission of the virus may spread through the ventilation and cooling systems in cold factories that may pick up particles and move them long distances. This is where airborne transmission may be occurring.
“A low ceiling with a rapid throughput of gusts of air might be a force that carries the virus,” Nabarro adds. “We have seen the same in cruise liners.” The WHO envoy says that a difference could be where ceilings in factories are low, as air currents are different when ceilings are 2.2 metres high as opposed to four metres.
Low ceilings, and a particular type of gusting air may make airborne transmission more likely. Putting up plastic partitions between workers may be good for droplet spread but, says Nabarro, “it may not be enough” for airborne spread.
In cold plants, which usually keep temperatures between four and ten degrees, there are “a lot of questions about other means besides droplet spread,” says Nabarro.
“We believe the virus sticks around longer when it’s cold than when it’s hot,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be transmitted when it’s hot. It’s just present for longer. Surfaces in cold areas could well have a lot of viruses.”
From our map on outbreaks in the UK above, major infections took place not only in meat factories, but also sites which maintained low temperatures—such as dessert and sandwich preparation facilities, and those for packing frozen food.
In countries such as the UK, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, the majority of workers at meat factories are from foreign countries. These mobile workers often stay in dormitories or shared accommodation, where up to ten people can be sleeping in one room. Even in better conditions, they are often in a shared house, says Bev Clarkson, head of food, drink and agriculture sector, union Unite: “When you think of five or six men living in a shared house, they will have their own bedroom but shared kitchen and bathroom and sometimes a lounge—if there is a lounge because, as sometimes this is made into a bedroom as well. Now I’m not saying this about men, but are men’s hygiene standards as high as womens’?”
Workers at meat factories often live in the same place, and share cars to work, as this saves money on petrol, or they are picked up by mini-buses, organised by the employer. Workers living in the same house may work in different sites, or share cars with others who are employed in different sites. Therefore this trend of cramming into vehicles can result in cross-contamination between factories. In Northampton in the UK, where an outbreak in August broke out at sandwich factory Greencore, there were concerns that the virus was spreading from the plant to other sites, because workers from Greencore were car-pooling with those from another factory, which was also hit with the virus.
Workers are often recruited and paid in a wage structure which favors them coming to work when they are sick. For casual staff, which is a common phenomenon in Dutch and German slaughterhouses, there is a lack of sick pay, so staff are more incentivised to work when ill, than stay at home. Both these countries have seen massive outbreaks in meat factories.
But for full-time employees the situation is not much better. One major issue in the UK is that the basic sick pay is £95 per week, while a minimum salary is four times this amount.
If a migrant worker has to send money home, or has a family or is renting a house, or must pay back a loan, they are not going to take two weeks off because they have been in contact with someone who has Covid, says Nabarro.
“They’re not going to stop coming to work because they’re feeling feverish.” he says. “They’re going to tough it out.”
Bev Clarkson, of British union Unite, undertook a survey of workers in one site in the UK on this issue: “We found that almost 70% of staff said that if they tested positive and they were asymptomatic they would still go to work because they couldn’t afford not to go to work,” she says.
Only when an employer compensates workers with a sick pay comparable to what they would receive if they are working would they be “more likely to stay away,” says Nabarro.
Cynics might argue that some employees would trick this system by staying at home and pocketing cash for nothing. But, from his contact with employers during the pandemic, Nabarro believes that “by and large workers respond to this trust”.
In Europe, Germany is at the forefront of the “Big Meat” phenomenon, where mega-companies are concentrating the slaughter, production and supply of meat products, often in a single site. In Germany, ten large groups process around 75 per of pork meat. These include Tonnies and Westfleisch, which compete globally with the Big Meat giants in China, Brazil, and the USA. With the exception of firms in China (as far as we know), many of these “mega-companies” have been hit with COVID-19 outbreaks.
European unions have criticised these firms for employing staff on short-term contracts, and being over-reliant on migrant and cross-border workers. The sector is unattractive due to the low wages, which help the companies keep costs down, and the prices of meat products cheap in the supermarket.
“This sector is sick everywhere, when it comes to worker conditions, employment conditions and sometimes housing conditions of meat workers,” says Enrico Somaglia, deputy director of the European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agriculture and Tourism (EFFAT). “We have unfair competition and social dumping within the same country. We have unfair competition between meat companies across borders within the EU, and is also an element of aggressive competition coming from outside the EU.”
If companies do not change their practices in the short-term, the result could be that factories see further outbreaks and shutdowns, which could, in the long-term, increase their costs and damage their profits, at least until a vaccine preventing COVID-19 infections is widely available.
To ensure worker safety, some meat companies are moving away employing staff casually, and towards full-time contracts. “What companies have tried to do is reduce the number of agency workers and have a larger amount of regular employees, so they can build up more of a relationship with employees,” adds Nabarro.
When a meat factory closes this breaks the supply chain of the industry, harming farms further down the chain, and distribution and retail further up.
“In this industry everything is tightly planned,” says Nabarro. “Farms have sheds full of animals that need to be slaughtered and processed, and the logistics are complicated, and if a farmer can’t get his animals into the slaughterhouse and into processing on time the farmer is faced with a huge problem and the animals have to be slaughtered and rendered and the money is lost, so any breakdown in this conveyor belt system of animal processing has knock on effects on so many other places.”
A joined-up approach can prevent this.
“I have been in contact with a number of companies in poultry, beef and pork,” adds Nabarro, “where I have a real effort from seen management working closely with the unions and workforce to build a situation of trust, so that if you do get cases, they do not build up into big outbreaks.”