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Into the Meat Grinder

On the migrant workers who feed Germany

During the summer of 2023, I traveled to two former military bases. The first was a Soviet airbase that has since become a site for a yearly techno bacchanal in the east; the second was a Federal Republic of Germany military base that is currently occupied by autonomous leftists. The former Soviet site cultivated an air of joy: a thoroughfare of creativity that brought seventy thousand people together for an experimental party. The western post inhabited a space between worlds, its jingoist purpose slowly fading away amid the foliage. The grounds were mostly surrounded by farmland.

It was here, on the edge the small town of Oldenburg, that I met Olufemi Achebe (not his real name), a meatpacking worker, at his Wagenplatz, or mobile home community. There were rows of barracks located about half a kilometer away, decaying into ruins. Nestled into the concrete of their foundations, they looked permanently sunken into the landscape.

At the time I visited Olufemi, he was cycling one hour each way to a midsize meat-processing plant to cut, clean, and package flesh five days a week. Starting at five in the morning, he and his 150 fellow workers performed this intermediary labor in the animal husbandry industry, located on a stop between the slaughterhouse and the supermarket. Since he began working at the plant in June 2021, he has had many roles, including cleaving turkey and inspecting beef.

“Are you vegetarian?” I asked him, somewhat queasy at the thought of being surrounded by clusters of bone marrow and crimson tissue.

“No, I eat meat,” he replied with a delicate smile and a soft laugh that shimmered in the air.

Olufemi laid out his labor dutifully. It is an entirely noble act, he said, to work in the meat factory, which he enjoys. For one thing, he was content that his wages had increased from nine to twelve euros an hour, which was enough for him—as a single man—to afford to live. He had made some friends, mostly other migrants, and the post had given him some stability. But it was not what he intended to do when he migrated to Germany in 2019. Olufemi felt like he was in limbo. He wanted to be a mechanic, but to do that in Germany, he needed to go to a vocational school, and in order to enter an institution, he had to master the language.

Though the rhythm of processing meat, studying German, and walking through the countryside had become something he loves, the more protracted his stay became, the longer he went without seeing his family, who mostly live in Igboland, Nigeria. When I asked him if he felt comfortable in rural Germany, where there were few Black people, he nodded. “I was born in a village, and I went to a primary school in a village,” Olufemi remarked, “so I feel at ease.”

Yet the area right outside of Oldenburg is no typical village. Today, it has one of the highest densities of husbandry in Germany. Located in Lower Saxony, a part of northwestern Germany, the area is characterized by food production. Over 20 percent of crops and meat produced in the province are exported. The industry is upheld by the bodies of various sentient beings both human and animal. While only nine percent of Germany’s population lives in Lower Saxony, the region is home to 21 percent of the country’s cows, 31 percent of its pigs, and 65 percent of its broiler chickens. With over seven hundred agricultural companies based in Lower Saxony alone, the industry needs workers—and more specifically, stalwart ones—to support this thirty-five billion euro sector. As the Lower Saxony Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection notes, “The food industry is the second most important processing sector, ahead even of machine construction.”

There is no disputing how significant a role food plays in our lives, but the enterprise of food production relies on labor that most people living in western European cities rarely see. “The powerless must do their dirty work,” James Baldwin once stressed, while “the powerful have it done for them.” Baldwin had the United States in mind, but his sentiment holds for the agricultural industry in Germany today.

Historically and presently, agrarian workers play a vital role in German society, and yet their labor is consistently undervalued. Some three hundred thousand workers in the industry are migrants; a majority of them come from the former Eastern Bloc, while some, like Olufemi, originate from sub-Saharan Africa. Whether it is in the slaughterhouse or the meat-processing plant, these jobs are occupied in large part by migrants partially because most Germans do not want to do them. Their immigration status, as well as the way they are racialized within Germany, has allowed poor working conditions to flourish. In recent years, organizations such as Faire Mobilität (Fair Mobility), have pointed to the discrimination against migrant workers from central and eastern Europe, who earn an average of 13 percent less than Germans for doing the same tasks.

For some migrant workers in Germany’s slaughterhouses, the conditions have been horrific.

While Olufemi’s experience at his plant has been good so far, for some migrant workers in Germany’s slaughterhouses, the conditions have been horrific. In recent years, Yulia Lokshina, a Moscow-born filmmaker, has drawn international interest to the plight of migrant workers in the German meat industry. Reading about a multitude of accidents at some of these factories led her to direct her 2020 documentary Rules on the Assembly Line, at High Speed, a portrait of Bulgarian and Romanian workers living in western Germany. The film is acute in its purpose: to expose the exploitative nature of the meat industry. Some of the laborers Lokshina documents work shifts that lasted for seventeen hours a day; others are harassed by their managers to perform at a greater speed. As Lokshina explained to me, we all profit from the wealth that companies make from migrant labor, parts of which are reinvested into their respective towns. The men depicted in her film make a flood of searing admissions: despite working for five to ten years in Germany, most of them have not registered with the government or received benefits.

During the first wave of the Covid-19 outbreak, the reputation of German meat factories was further diminished by scandal. In May 2020, most people in the country were advised to remain socially distant from people outside their household. But meat-packing plants in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, where workers presumably had not been sent home to isolate, were flooded with outbreaks. Coronavirus quickly appeared in various slaughterhouses in western German cities. When Tönnies, the largest meat-processing plant in Germany, had more than a thousand infected workers, the factory temporarily closed. Up to 80 percent of the workers at the plant were employed through subcontractors, making any accountability for their health and treatment onerous.

Throughout Germany, authorities cited the unhygienic standards of communal dorms for temporary migrant labor as a contributing factor to the spread of Covid-19. In most cases, the accommodations were not provided by the factories themselves but by a third-party company that coordinated migrant work contracts, another way that the industry abdicated responsibility for its workers. It was also reported that the air-cooling systems commonly used at abattoirs could have contributed to the spread of Covid-19.

Social workers and local politicians blamed the outbreak on anti-unionism, which they believe fueled workers’ exploitation. Without a union, migrant laborers had few mechanisms to file formal complaints toward an employer. For some, their nationality also compounded their exploitation: given the free movement of citizens between European Union countries, there was a loophole whereby Romanian and Bulgarian workers could work in Germany without first registering with the state. In practice, this meant that companies could avoid providing them with health care, based on the assumption that they were seasonal workers and had health insurance through their home countries. By the time the outbreak occurred, then, some workers were uninsured.

Like Germany, U.S. meat plants were also a hotbed of coronavirus outbreaks, with 59,000 meat-processing workers testing positive during the first year of the pandemic, and 269 dying Covid-19 related deaths. In the United States, the industry also disproportionately depends on immigrant—mostly Latino—and African American labor. While most of the vulnerable migrant workers in Germany’s meat industry are European, they often come from lower-income countries within the EU such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland. Ultimately, they are still otherized within the German context, and the prejudice that these workers experience is manifest in their wages, housing, and health outcomes. According to Lokshina, there is a hierarchy of sorts, and workers from Hungary tend to be on the upper echelon; the Roma Civil Monitor has noted that Sinti and Roma workers are on the lower rung. Overall, the effect is that many eastern Europeans working in the German meat industry are essentially racialized.

Social workers and union organizers, rather than the state, have been the bedrock of migrant solidarity in Germany. Elena Strato, an education officer with the labor organization Arbeit und Leben (Work and Life), has worked to help integrate migrants into German society for over a decade, advising Romanian and Bulgarian workers on practical issues like finding a flat, registering with the government, or getting their children into school. But aspects of her work became more challenging during the pandemic. Over the course of the initial Covid-19 wave, Strato noticed that distrust towards migrant workers in the meat industry grew because some Germans viewed them as vectors of Covid-19. “Official offices and institutions just closed their doors,” she told me, “and for people who didn’t speak German, it was difficult.” In some small towns, community members even wanted migrants to return to their home countries.

In other words, essential workers suddenly came under increased suspicion. This reversal echoed an earlier period of migration. In 1961, Germany signed a recruitment agreement with Turkey, part of a policy that saw millions of foreign people invited to work in what was then West Germany between 1955 and 1973, with the expectation that they would eventually return to their home countries after a period of years. Many Turkish migrants and their descendants, however, decided to remain. Then and now, Turkish migrants living in Germany took up positions in all sectors of the economy—engineering, hospitality, construction, textiles, and the food industry. By 1984, people of Turkish descent comprised 31 percent of all foreign workers in Germany, but some no longer felt welcome here. Speaking to the New York Times that year, Ehmet Tutkoli, a Turkish-born worker in West Berlin said:

We were invited in by these Germans when they had a need for us. They made full use of us to build their economy, and now they want to kick us out. They are making life extremely unpleasant for us here. There are anti-Turkish marches, our women are molested, our children are abused and beaten up. What kind of a life is this for us?

Foreigners have long been a integral feature of German society, toiling away in the essential work of building and maintaining the country’s infrastructure—despite the perception of some Germans that they do not live in an immigrant country. In Quakenbrück, another small town in Lower Saxony, approximately fifty percent of the population has a migrant background. Of the 14,000 residents, 5,500 are immigrants themselves, with Romanians making up the largest group. Most of them work for the neighboring meat-processing plant, with some living in collective accommodation provided by the company. When I traveled to nearby Oldenburg, I didn’t shy away from the city center. Perched near the riverbank, I saw a Black woman and her six-year-old child speaking a non-German language as the child appealed for a toy. When I took the public bus, two young men spoke Arabic, joking about a video game they were playing. Here, absorbed into the ecosystem of Lower Saxony, doing everything from nursing older adults to metallurgy work, migrants were, above all, visible.

The fact remains that these workers are treated as less-than by German employers.

In 2022, Germany faced a deepening labor shortage, with experts citing the country’s aging workforce and decades-long low birthrates as contributing factors. As of June 2023, there were some 630,000 vacancies in need of filling, a huge increase from 2021, when there were 230,000 openings. These positions were mostly in IT, management, teaching, and health sectors. Since then, the state has decided to take action. In summer 2023, the German parliament approved the Skilled Immigration Act, a bill that aimed to attract skilled workers in order to relieve the shortage. Overall, the bill will make it easier for non-EU immigrants to acquire work visas in Germany by lowering the minimum German language skills and accepting a wider number of non-German degrees and certificates.

But it is not clear how the law will impact so-called unskilled workers, or those employed in sectors that are underpaid, such as agriculture. The fact remains that these workers are treated as less-than by German employers, even as the meat industry makes overtures to asylum seekers. In 2022, soon after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Tönnies announced their attempts to recruit Ukrainian refugees to work in their factory. While the morality of this particular policy was questioned, the lure of relying on cheap migrant labor has remained potent in Germany. 

As I was leaving Olufemi’s Wagenplatz in late July to head back to Berlin, I saw an orange cat dozing ideally on an outdoor table. Across from him, there was a random assortment of bicycles, water jugs, and a clothes hanger. From a distance, rain clouds were approaching; I wanted to catch the bus before the storm. As Olufemi walked me to the stop, we talked about Nigeria, his sister, and travel. As we said our goodbyes, I asked him about the hardest part of his job.

“It’s cold. Everything is cold, even with the gloves.”

Before he cycled off, I asked him how he was going to spend his Friday night.

“A work friend is coming over for drinks,” he said.