Low pay, long hours, broken dreams: working at Europe’s biggest meat exporter | Meat industry

In October last year, Lucian Roșu found himself unemployed and homeless in Boxtel, a town in the southern Netherlands. “I went to the railway station and slept there in the cold and the rain,” he says.

A few hundred metres away, on the other side of the train tracks, was the headquarters of one of Europe’s biggest meat companies, where he had worked a few days before on the production line.

The 30-year-old Romanian thought it would be the start of a better life. Back home Roșu had worked in security and at a porcelain factory, but the jobs were low paid – his home country has the highest share of the working population at risk of poverty in Europe.

When he spotted an advert on Facebook from Dutch temporary employment agency FlexWork Payrolling looking for meat plant workers, it seemed like the opportunity he had been seeking. It promised €1,800 (£1,500) a month and affordable accommodation provided by the agency. FlexWork hired him and organised his transport to the Netherlands, where he was placed at a plant owned by the global meat company Vion, which reported €4.9bn in revenues in 2020, supplying pork, beef and meat products to more than 100 million consumers a day.

But things unravelled in the days leading up to that night at the station. “It was all different from what they [the agency] told me over the phone,” Roșu says. The hours were longer and the work was not just packaging; he was constantly shifted around. The rent was more expensive than he had been told and he shared with 10 other workers in accommodation that he says was damp, mouldy and full of bugs. A promised weekly advance for groceries never materialised. So, hungry and without money for food, Roșu says he handed his ID to someone in his house as security for a €50 loan.

Only three weeks into the job, he was fired. Roșu says he was spoken to with derogatory language and dismissed after leaving the production line to ask a colleague when the next toilet break would be. Roșu, who wanted his outstanding pay, phoned the agency and says he was told that if he did not leave his accommodation promptly they would “break his neck”. He was not paid, and instead, he alleges, he was hit by the FlexWork employee and his bank card was taken.

A Vion spokesperson said they did not have enough information to confirm Roșu’s version of events, but the company only works with accredited agencies that follow guidelines. “If problems occur in the working environment we have a system of reporting this internally. We are in contact with our people on the work floor, and with the agencies on a daily basis, so we can find out the facts and find a solution.” Last year, Vion cut ties with an agency after a video surfaced of an employee punching and kicking the head of a worker.

A former FlexWork hire, speaking anonymously, says “Romanians are afraid”, explaining many of the workers had little schooling, lacked information about their employment situation and sometimes did not receive contracts. “Some people don’t know how to read or make a complaint and claim their rights,” they say. “They are vulnerable, especially because the agencies do not inform them about their rights.”

Last year, Roșu was one of 20 FlexWork hires that complained to the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) alleging the agency had not paid their full salaries, in some cases for several weeks of work. According to the FNV, some were physically threatened by agency staff, evicted and had to sleep under bridges, and had not received payslips. The Dutch labour inspectorate has fined the agency and ordered it to pay salary arrears, but said it couldn’t share personal information regarding Roșu’s case.

FlexWork said it disagreed with Roșu’s claims, saying they were false and that this was confirmed by an inspectorate investigation, which found he was paid in full. The company said it only hired workers who can read and write, and individuals are required to do a test beforehand, and that if they do not pass the test, they cannot start working. It also said it supplies contracts in Romanian as well as interpreters on factory floors, so that employees know where to go if they have problems. It added: “We are always ready to support our employees.”

Last year, the Dutch labour inspectorate recorded the case of seven Romanian workers brought to work in an abattoir through an agency. They were allegedly asked for €300 each for monthly rent to share a room, and had their passports confiscated until they paid back travel expenses. Only one of the workers could read and write, and one had learning difficulties. When the workers refused to stay in the accommodation, they were evicted. After spending a night on the streets they went to the police. An agency employee, waiting outside the station, allegedly told a worker “if you don’t come out your head will come off”.

The booming success of the Dutch meat industry

The Netherlands is the largest meat exporter in the EU, with most going to the UK and Germany. The value of the country’s meat exports has almost doubled in the past two decades. The booming meat industry has been supported by a steady supply of migrant labour, with the Netherlands home to the fastest-growing flexible labour market in Europe, with almost 40% of workers either on temporary contracts or self-employed.

Europe map

There were almost 800,000 migrant workers in the Netherlands in 2019; 51% had a direct employment contract, while 49% were employed by the vast pool of recruitment agencies that have flourished, supplying labour across a variety of sectors, including low-wage industries such as construction, agriculture and meat processing. The legal and financial barriers for setting up an agency in the country are low. Since operating licences were abolished in 1998, agencies have tripled to more than 14,000, although the exact number is unknown – the chamber of commerce estimates it is closer to 22,000.

Although there are many decent agencies in the Netherlands there is a group that “deliberately abuse the position of labour migrants”, stated a government report last year, spearheaded by Dutch politician Emile Roemer. It highlighted the lack of regulation and that only 1% of the sector gets checked annually by the Dutch labour inspectorate.

Agencies frequently pop up and disappear again, says Erik Pentenga, from the FNV, adding he has encountered some declaring bankruptcy and opening a new company multiple times – each time leaving workers unpaid.

In the meat sector, migrants – mostly from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland – make up more than 60% of the industry’s 12,000 workers and up to 90% in production roles. Most are hired on flexible – often zero-hours – contracts through agencies that organise transport, health insurance and accommodation. Most workers do not receive a separate housing contract and can legally be evicted if work dries up, they are sick or fired. Roșu says he could not take a day off if he was ill, even during the pandemic: “It wasn’t possible – you could be fired.”

Calls for ban on use of subcontracted workers

The Dutch labour inspectorate says migrant workers in the meat sector regularly face underpayment, long working hours and poor housing, and it aims to increase checks in 2021. A report by Dutch NGO FairWork, which supports victims of labour exploitation, states that “the use of abusive recruitment agencies is widespread in the sector”.

Agency workers in the Netherlands are paid an average of €20,000 a year, compared with €28,000 to €40,000 for an employee, according to FNV estimates. John Klijn, director of the meat sector at the FNV, says the agency system constitutes a type of “legal inequality” that uses migrant workers for the lowest price. “It’s a game, which slaughterhouses and agencies play together.”

The Dutch Meat Association (COV), which represents the majority of large and medium-scale abattoirs, says the industry “strongly depends” on professional agencies to recruit international labour “due to the fact that less and less workers from the Netherlands want to work in slaughterhouses”.

It is legally impossible to escape employer liability, says COV, and not something its members would want. COV says the collective labour agreement for the meat industry that it negotiates with unions every year applies to all workers, along with the high standards in Dutch legislation on working conditions.

“Nevertheless, there is room for improvement and we are working with our government and the unions on further improving the working and living conditions for workers in the meat industry in the Netherlands,” said a COV spokesperson, adding that it is striving to ensure its member companies directly employ temporary workers that have had the same job at the same meat company for more than two years by the end of 2021.

Critics say relying on agencies, not only for work but housing, transport and health insurance, often places workers in a position of extreme dependency. Many arrive in the Netherlands indebted to an agency for transport costs that they have to work to pay off in their first month.

Few official complaints come to light because the process is “extremely arduous” for a labour migrant, says Jan Cremers, a labour law researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Most breaches of employment conditions must be tackled through civil law in long and costly procedures. Many migrant workers face a language barrier and lack support through social networks or the financial resources to pursue cases.

Roemer’s report last year recommended the introduction of mandatory certification for employment agencies. But the FNV argues the Netherlands should go further and follow Germany’s example by banning all forms of subcontracting in the sector. Vion has this year directly hired 3,300 workers at its German sites.

“All parties – from temporary employment agencies to municipalities and companies – must take responsibility and work together,” says the Algemene Bond Uitzendondernemingen (ABU), the largest trade association of Dutch private employment agencies, representing more than 500 agencies, worth 65% of the industry. It added that taking good care of migrant workers is central to a new fair employment code, introduced in January 2021 and mandatory for all its members. It is in the process of extending the length of time workers from ABU-registered agencies can stay in accommodation after losing work.

The morning Roșu woke up at the station, he was called by another agency offering work in a German abattoir, where he says he stayed in dirty and overcrowded accommodation, and his ID was taken until he covered his €150 transport costs. After two months, he returned to Romania and found work on a farm. It is a hard slog and money can be tight: he takes home about €600 a month, less than in the Netherlands. “It’s better for me if I can earn my bread and sleep peacefully.”

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Source: theguardian.com