In recent weeks, the work conditions in food production industries in Western Europe, which run on the sweat and toil of an overwhelmingly migrant workforce, have come to the international media’s attention, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. While we can only rejoice that publications with a wide readership such as the Guardian or Deutsche Welle are paying attention to workers’ rights closer to home, it is somewhat disheartening to notice that, as usual, public opinion is concerned with disenfranchised workers only when their issues threaten to impact the more privileged classes – in this situation, the risk of contagion. The meat packing industry, which most people would rather not think of at all in normal circumstances, was lately front page news as a result of two similar Covid-19 infection scandals in Germany and Ireland.
I have been working for the past year as a union organiser with meat plant workers in Munster, in the south of Ireland, and this account of what I’ve learnt and experienced while supporting these workers’ struggle should be read as a counterpoint to the Covid-19 centred reporting, by highlighting both the chronic, long-term abuses in this sector, and the obvious blind spot of these media reports: how the workers fight back.
Health or dignity?
Certainly, in many plants across Ireland hundreds of workers got sick with coronavirus due to insufficient protection in the workplace. It might then come as a surprise that there were no such problems in the plants where the workers we support are employed. But at what cost? These companies’ response to the pandemic, while efficient in terms of public health, was appalling in its disrespect to the workers’ dignity. In one pork plant, on the first day of lockdown, the women’s lockers and toilet doors were bolted open to the wall without warning, so that the female employees wouldn’t have to touch the doors and thus not spread germs, according to management. However these facilities open into the main hallway, and even though there was a workers’ health and safety committee (a previous union victory), it was never consulted as to the suitability of these measures. The women felt humiliated and dehumanised, being forced to change – in this work you’re often covered in blood at the end of the day – in full sight of all passers-by, all in the interest of “health and safety”.
During this same period, cleaners’ workloads doubled in the meat plants, as everything had to be constantly disinfected, but the pay stayed the same. In a chicken plant, the factory boss gleefully played doctor and ruled who had to self-isolate or go home through arbitrary decisions, without consulting any medical professional (he sometimes asked for advice from the veterinary technicians). He did this because he knew full well that his employees could not get tested or diagnosed, as they had no GPs or social security, the result of the dubious contracts they have with the work placement agency who employs them. When employees were sent home on vague suspicions of Covid, they were not paid and could not access the special Covid-19 illness benefit either, as it was the boss and not a doctor who had deemed them ill.
A shining example of how this sector treats its workforce was the transformation of the workers’ smoking area to comply with social distancing rules in one of these plants. While previously this area had been a simple rain shelter, allowing for informal socialising during breaks, it was recently divided into small booths by means of wooden planks – while work on the production line went on elbow to elbow. The involuntary result of this makeshift adaptation was that the smoking area has now acquired an uncanny resemblance to the gates through which the pigs are brought to the slaughter. The workers were offended, and would not smoke there any more – and, they joked, “if we go in, who knows, the bosses might stun us like the pigs!”.
From all these examples we can see that the new coronavirus is not the biggest problem in these workplaces – but the constant humiliations and disregard for workers’ rights. For a very long time, the bosses were used to having a workforce who could not defend itself. Most workers are either Eastern European (Romanian, Moldovan, Polish, and to a lesser extent Ukrainian, Hungarian or Slovak) or non-European (mostly Brazilian, lately East Timorese and Chinese too), and they speak little English, even after years spent in Ireland – it’s not easy to learn a new language when working 50+ hour weeks in an exhausting physical job, with non-English speaking colleagues.
The big trade unions might not have shown enough interest for these workers for too long, and often the unions had no representatives who could communicate with the workers. It did not help either that many workers themselves initially saw these hellish jobs as temporary short-term sacrifices, before they moved on to something better or went back to their home countries, while in the meantime years and decades passed. Thirty years of neo-liberal propaganda in Eastern Europe has also made many Eastern Europeans suspicious of collective action and has led them to trust individual solutions more than collective struggle, to disastrous results. On top of this, the meat plants are often situated in remote locations, far from urban centres where there is more political organisation, and close to small towns where the local population has been indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the sudden influx of foreigners. This has also much delayed the emergence of an organised struggle.
But one of the main factors in the disempowerment of meat packing workers is the influence of the work placement agencies, which bring them to Ireland and often control much of their lives here. I will dwell a bit longer on one of these agencies, which fully deserves to be named and shamed, as its treatment of workers illustrates all the worst practices in the sector. This agency, AA Euro Recruitment, originally a British company which now has branches in many European countries, recruits mostly Eastern European workers (from Romania, Poland, Croatia and Slovakia), promising them secure, permanent employment in Ireland, with the suggestion that, if they do well at work, they will eventually be directly employed by the factory. In fact, this never happens, and direct employment is the fundamental demand of all the unionised meat workers I know: they correctly identify the agency as the main facilitator of the abuses they suffer.
Because the meat packing sector has a lot of trouble recruiting, Eastern Europeans are often tricked into working in these plants – for several people I’ve talked to, they had been promised easier and cleaner jobs by the agency back in their home countries, and were only told they’d be working in the slaughterhouse once they had moved to Ireland and spent all their savings relocating. If they are lucky (and especially if they are not Romanian), the workers get a contract from AA Euro qualifying them as temporary workers, with an unspecified wage (“will depend on what similar workers are paid”), unspecified work location, and unspecified work hours. Even after ten or thirteen years of working and living in the same place in Ireland, their contracts stay the same, which makes it hard for them to directly challenge fluctuations in pay or work conditions with their managers. In virtually every case, those who work through AA Euro are paid less than those who are directly employed in the factories, even though this is illegal.
If the workers come from Romania, then AA Euro presents them with a special tax dodging contract, which practically transforms EU citizens into undocumented migrants. Simply put, all Romanians employed through AA Euro are forced to agree to the agency opening a company in each person’s name in Poland, and their work in the factories is remunerated through these sham companies, as if each worker were an independent contractor self-employed in Poland. When some workers complained about this clearly illegal scheme, they were told this was the only way to get the job (even though some of their colleagues of other nationalities were employed differently). Even those workers who never signed the paperwork found out that a company had been opened in Poland in their name. This resulted in hundreds (thousands?) of people living for years in Ireland with no social security and no legal existence, as they were insured in Poland and all their contributions were paid there. When people got fired, they could not get unemployment benefit; they never had paid holidays as they were “self-employed”; they had no medical insurance; no right to pensions, maternity leave, illness benefit etc. To add insult to injury, while being self-employed in Poland people were charged huge “accountancy fees” by the agency every month, probably to cover its money-laundering operation expenses. The factory bosses were aware of the scheme for years, and when people protested, they were clearly told that this arrangement was the best, tax-wise, for both the factories and the agency, so they should give up any hope to see it change.
In many cases, much more than people’s work conditions are controlled by the agencies. For instance, AA Euro Recruitment also provides accommodation to many of the workers, sometimes for years. The properties are rented at prices much higher than average, and often belong to the factory owners, who rent them to the agency, which in turn sublets them to the agency workers employed in the factory, so that most of the money they earn goes back to their bosses in one shape or another. Their rent and bills are directly taken from their wages, and they are never presented with any proof of the cost of the utilities. Even when people live for years in agency accommodation, their rental contracts give them no rights: they can be evicted within 48 hours for any reason and are not allowed visitors in their home. Throughout this pandemic period, when all evictions have been suspended, the agency has been evicting workers on a whim, especially in a bid to intimidate those who have unionised. The conflation of landlord and employer in one entity puts the workers in an extremely vulnerable position: if they lose their job, they also lose their house and vice-versa; often surprise inspections of the house will result in disciplinary measures at work, or trouble at work will lead to homelessness.
But despite what the agency and the factory bosses have said for years, AA Euro Recruitment has not been untouchable. In one pork plant in West Cork, Romanian and Moldovan workers started unionising with the Independent Workers Union, galvanised by one worker’s spectacular protest in front of the factory last year, to oppose his unfair dismissal. Their sustained campaigning has led to the factory ceasing the collaboration with the agency, in fear for their reputation, and directly employing the workers, while offering them some compensation for the losses they incurred in the years they were “invisible citizens” in Ireland. We hope to see this in many more meat plants, where the bosses still find it convenient to let the agencies do their dirty work.
Nevertheless, even if the agencies were gone tomorrow, the workers would have more power, but the dehumanisation they are subjected to would still remain. This is evident in management’s attitude towards work incidents and injuries, which can only be accurately described as systematic gaslighting. There is a huge body of research showing that the meat packing industry has one of the highest rates of work injuries all over the world, and there are many medical conditions directly associated with the heavy lifting and repetitive strain specific to the production line (for instance, carpal tunnel syndrome or hernias). In the past year, I’ve met dozens of young men who now have long-term disabilities due to injuries or work-related illnesses, sometimes after only one or two years of employment in the meat plants.
There is no concern for workers’ long term health, as they are seen as a disposable work force, and once they get ill they are expected and pressured to go back to their home countries and stop bothering their employers with their problems. Task rotation, which would support the workers’ well-being, is unknown of. Very quickly, your right hand stops working after 6000 identical movements for ten hours every single day; your back gives in after lifting 40 kg crates day in, day out. When a worker is good at a certain task (or simply willing to do undesirable work that others refuse), he will be assigned to it until his body stops working. In one chicken plant, the six men in the killing area have to kill 45000 chickens a day. One of them was told he’d only do this job for a week while replacing a colleague – in the meantime the colleague never came back and he’s been doing it for two years.
When workers get ill and disabled, they are punished for being less efficient. Their injuries also indirectly lead to disciplinary action, as management holds them to unattainable standards: for instance, they have to bring medical certificates within 24 hours of any absence, even though management knows that many of them speak no English and need translation to go to the doctor (if they even have a GP). These workplace rules, while always enforced with the veneer of accountability, are simply part of a strategy to coax inconvenient workers into leaving the company and hopefully the country. At work, management systematically deny and cast doubt on all worker complaints and experiences, down to their perception of their own bodies. The speed of the production lines is surreptitiously increased and the workers are accused of being too slow – only to be slowed down again when there’s an inspection. The quotas agreed upon are slyly doubled: a butcher might know his daily quota is 240 crates of chickens, but from one day to the next the crates he receives will be packed with 40kg of meat instead of the normal 25kg. I have heard several accounts of workers collapsing in tears at work due to the unbearable workload.
When workers get a diagnosis from medical specialists, the company doctors claim they have no disability, against all medical evidence; when workers require a job which would put less strain on an injured body part, the managers claim there are no such roles, even when the workers specifically identify them. Two weeks ago, one man broke his finger at work in a beef plant, in full view of all his colleagues. When he went to work the next day to claim the sick leave he was entitled to, his manager, who had seen the incident, claimed he had broken his finger at home. The general phenomenon I observed in many injury-related work conflicts is that the plants’ management constantly simulate concern for their workers’ health, all while postponing any reasonable adjustments, casting doubt on all workers’ accounts and documentation, endlessly tergiversating their return to work and thus effectively pushing desperate and injured workers into accepting meagre settlements and leaving the country.
While the previous examples mostly concerned men, there are actually many women working in this industry. They are generally paid less than men, and this is sometimes justified by managers through the fact that they are not doing the “important” jobs in the plant, i.e. their jobs involve less heavy lifting or knife work. However, it is plain to see that the pay gap is simply discrimination. The jobs women do in these factories come with their own risks and difficulties, for instance in cleaning they are exposed to very high concentrations of toxic substances. The extremely cold working environment often disproportionately affects women on specific medical issues. To this I should add the sexual harassment they are exposed to in a male-dominated environment, sometimes from the bosses themselves: one male factory owner in West Cork insists on personally observing the women’s locker rooms on CCTV, “to prevent thefts”. In the same factory, for years, all the women who ever got pregnant were fired, and this unofficial policy only changed, after some struggle, when the workers unionised in February this year. On the other hand, in the collective action I’ve been involved in, it is often women who have been the most determined, even though they are a minority in the workforce. In two different meat plants, it was women who convinced all co-workers to unionise, who have acted as mediators representing their colleagues’ interests in exchanges with management, who have translated and helped everyone with their paperwork, and who were eventually elected as shop stewards.
Victories thus far and the work that lies ahead
Against all these abuses, workers are fighting back and have already had significant victories. As mentioned above, in one pork plant they managed to get rid of the AA Euro Recruitment agency, which had been exploiting them for years. In another plant a wildcat strike last December helped the workers obtain proper Irish contracts with the agency instead of the Polish self-employed ones. Subsequently, they have unionised, and hopefully they will soon escape the agency altogether, as their union has helped them lodge about 400 different complaints against it with the Workplace Relations Commission. Last month, a massive walkout in a factory in West Cork instantly produced results, as the workers obtained a 10% pay rise as a hazard bonus for their work during the pandemic. As the news of these successes spreads, more workers become interested in joining unions and in organising together.
However, engaging in collective action is not without its risks. Often the workers who are seen as active and vocal in the union are bullied and intimidated at work: they might be assigned to more difficult jobs or the factory might refuse to employ any of their relatives (which might expose them to backlash in their social circles). When workers are beginning to unionise, sometimes the managers will try to convince or force them to join a different union, one that they already know is not active in the meat sector or not present in the area, and will thus pose no threat. Some factories, when the majority of the workforce has unionised, will simply try to recruit new people from different countries altogether. Thus, one plant now refuses to employ any new Romanian workers and instead is only trying to hire Brazilians, hoping the different nationalities won’t organise together. Unfortunately for them, the Romanians are already recruiting their new Brazilian colleagues into the union.
Nevertheless, the “divide and conquer” tactics employed by the meat plant managers are dangerous, as workers are often manipulated into believing that it is impossible to find a common ground with their colleagues from other countries than their own. This is achieved through splitting the workforce into teams according to language, by purposely circulating false rumours that some nationalities receive preferential treatment, and by presenting new waves of immigrants as a threat to the older immigrants. Much of the organising work in some of the meat plants has been initially spent in convincing people of different national backgrounds that their problems are fundamentally the same, and that they should not fight along ethnic divisions.
There is still much work to do in these very difficult work environments, and it would probably be very useful if a coordinated effort could be put in place between collective worker struggles in Ireland and in the migrant workers’ home countries, especially in regard to the work placement agencies such as AA Euro Recruitment. I welcome any propositions on how to go about this, and would be willing to discuss it further with anyone who might contact me with an idea for action.
Nora Labo is a writer and photographer. She studied social sciences at the EHESS in Paris and wrote a PhD on 19th century botanical photography at University of St Andrews in Scotland. Life dragged her out of academia, at least for now, and in recent years she has worked on a health campaign in Roma settlements in Paris, sold vegetables on the farmers’ market and did a documentary project in a community centre. At the moment she is doing organising work in meat packing plants in Ireland, with the Cork Independent Workers Union. She can be reached at email@example.com