In meat plants, there’s a golden rule: the production line never stops. For 28 years, Frank Vestergaard has worked in Denmark’s meat processing industry. When he started, he says, workers were expected to slaughter 80 pigs an hour on the line; today, that number has rocketed to 432 animals.
He starts work at 6am and deals with animal carcasses. The pigs are first put to sleep with gas, then the workers slit their throats to let the blood drain out. Vestergaard’s job is to remove any injuries from the carcasses, such as broken bones, which the vets on the line identify. If the gallbladder is accidentally punctured, for example, a yellow fluid can seep on to the meat, and Vestergaard has to remove it.
“We have six seconds per pig for one operation, and then there is a new pig. We do the same over and over again. That is how we earn our money.”
It can be unrelenting for workers, and typically the speed leads to repetitive strain injuries, but Vestergaard says workers at his plant regularly shift around to avoid this. “It’s the law – the government has to protect us, so they say we have to move around.”
Vestergaard works at Horsens meat plant in northern Denmark – the largest and one of the most modern pig abattoirs in Europe, run by Danish Crown, Europe’s biggest pork producer. Throughout his career he has seen the industry in his country transform.
Smaller abattoirs have virtually disappeared as a handful of large meat processors came to dominate the market; robots and new technologies now complete the heavier tasks, saving the workers from potential injury. “They make the work easier,” says Vestergaard. “But you have to remember, pigs aren’t cars – they aren’t all the same. The human eye can see differences, and robots can make mistakes.”
Almost three decades ago, nearly everyone Vestergaard worked alongside was Danish – the only other nationality was Germans, who travelled across the border to work because labour standards were higher. Today, he says, nearly two-thirds of the workers are migrants, many from Poland, including refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Yemen, while about 35% are originally from Denmark.
These shifts mirror trends elsewhere across the continent. Yet Vestergaard’s experience of the industry is different from meat plant workers in many other countries, because he has remained working for 28 years in a sector renowned worldwide for high staff turnover, low pay and exploitative conditions.
Denmark is an outlier when it comes to employment conditions in the European meat industry. Vestergaard and his colleagues are all directly hired by Danish Crown, while in parts of Europe’s meat industry, the Guardian has uncovered a flourishing two-tier system based on cheap, flexible and frequently migrant labour, where the use of intermediaries is commonplace.
While meat companies in Denmark can use workers sourced via agencies and subcontractors, workers must be paid the same wages as directly employed staff, hence there is no financial benefit for companies who source workers from intermediaries.
In Denmark, the average hourly wage in meat plants is EUR27-35 (GBP23-30) for top earners, according to unions, compared with reportedly less than half that in countries including Ireland and Germany. Danish meat plant workers receive pensions, up to 18 weeks paid maternity leave, sick pay, and five weeks paid holidays a year.
‘We have lost thousands of jobs to Germany’
All workers in beef and pork factories are represented by trade unions, according to the food union NNF, and they work under collective agreements. “We have some fine conditions in Denmark compared with other meat factory workers in Europe,” Vestergaard says, “but we have to fight for these conditions. If we don’t stick together, they will take it away.”
Yet Denmark has paid the price for not following other countries across Europe in a race to the bottom.
“We have lost thousands of jobs to Germany,” says Jim Jensen of NNF, who claims the industry has lost two-thirds of all jobs in the past 20 years, mainly to Germany.
German consumers are used to cheap, plentiful meat – from ground pork in bratwurst, sausage meat in blutwurst and schwarzwurst, to thin slices of schnitzel. The country’s meat industry has just emerged from 20 years of highly profitable, low-cost meat production that used cheaper foreign workers, subcontractors and the absence of a minimum wage to gain a competitive advantage. It has made billions for German meat companies, but workers have paid the price.
Germany had a tradition of strong trade unions and a generous welfare system but, as the labour market became deregulated over the past two decades, the core business activity of the large meat factories was undertaken by contractors. Instead of directly employing local workers – who had previously trained for three years under an apprenticeship system – the industry pivoted towards outsourcing labour to intermediaries, which recruited workers in eastern Europe and beyond, paying them as little as EUR3 to EUR5 an hour.
Meat companies had used subcontractors to hire about two-thirds of their 90,000 workers, which saved them money but led to accusations that they were operating a system that treated workers as “wage slaves”. In 2019, German labour inspectors visited 30 slaughterhouses with 17,000 workers and 90 subcontracting companies, and found thousands of labour law violations, including 16-hour shifts, suspicions of non-compliance with the minimum wage, withholding of salary for equipment and misconduct, and below-standard accommodation, which had been controlled, in many instances, by subcontractors.
Low margins in meat driving use of agencies
Last summer, as Covid ripped through Germany’s largest meat plants, thousands of migrant workers were infected, and nearby schools and kindergartens were forced to close. German consumers came face-to-face with the reality of the actual cost of producing cut-price meat: a precarious, low-paid workforce with no sick pay, unable to quarantine and living in dismal conditions.
The situation prompted Angela Merkel’s government to ban large meat companies from using subcontractors and agency workers in abattoirs. The German labour minister, Hubertus Heil, said the new law would mark the end of “organised irresponsibility” in the industry.
“The legal ban on the use of subcontracting in meat production was supported by us as an association. We advocate a level playing field for all our companies,” said a spokesperson for the German meat industry association, Verband der Fleischwirtschaft (VDF). In May this year, a minimum wage of EUR10.80 an hour was agreed for all employees, although according to VDF it has not yet been declared legally binding by the labour ministry.
Introducing a living wage and minimum social requirements across Europe could help to balance working conditions across the industry, says Rupert Claxton, meat director with the international consultancy firm Girafood.
“The margins in the meat sector are thin and we have a labour problem in Europe. Agency work is a way to fill a labour hole in a cost-effective way. But ultimately, meat companies want to retain workers,” he says. “The industry doesn’t mind as long as everyone is on a level playing field; the meat companies are willing to pay a better rate. Denmark is a good example of how it can be done – the government sets high levels of minimum wages and social security.”
But while retailers are unlikely to switch to imports, food service industries – such as takeaways, canteens and restaurants – may be less loyal, warns Claxton. “Go to a pub in Ireland, they might well be tempted to put cheaper Brazilian beef on the menu … How do you address that in a free trade system?”
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