Photo credits: Marco_Piunti

The Guardian has uncovered new evidence of a two-tier employment system in the meat industry with migrant workers subjected to sub-standard pay and conditions.

The investigation shows that meat companies across Europe have been hiring thousands of migrant workers through subcontractors, agencies and bogus co-operatives on inferior pay and conditions. Migrant workers often have undefined working hours, zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employed status, no sick pay and live in an extremely precarious state. Moreover, they struggle to understand their agreements and legal rights due to language barriers. ‘You have workers elbow to elbow doing the same work, but under different conditions’, said Enrico Somaglia, deputy secretary general of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT).

EU enlargement from 2004 and free movement of people across Europe brought a vast pool of people from Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Hungary willing to migrate for work opportunities. As the economies of some of these countries improved, the search for cheap labour has extended across the world to countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Georgia, India, China and Armenia. The meat sectors currently has around 1 million workers in Europe, with unions estimating that thousands of workers in some countries are precariously employed through subcontractors and agencies.

More than a year ago, EFFAT sounded alarm bells regarding deplorable working conditions and abusive subcontracting practices in the meat industry – calling for a strong and ambitious EU response. EFFAT formulated ten demands to put an end to the exploitation of meat workers, with three of them considered high-priority: a comprehensive EU initiative to regulate the use of subcontracting, ensuring decent housing for all mobile workers, and the introduction of a European Social Security Number (ESSN).

Unions are now calling for an immediate Europe-wide ban on the use of precarious workers in meat plants, as in Germany where a new law compel meatpackers to employ staff directly in industrial abattoirs. ‘Without a shadow of a doubt, agencies and subcontracted work should be banned’, said Bev Clarkson of Unite Union. EU commissioner for jobs and social rights Nicolas Schmit said that it is up to member states to uphold labour law. ‘EU law is clear: all workers hired via agencies and subcontractors should be guaranteed the same rights as permanent employees. National authorities must enforce these rules’.

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