Outbreak at German slaughterhouse reveals migrants' plight

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Julian, Romanian worker who stands behind the fence that was set up at the entrance of a housing of Romania slaughterhouse workers in Rosendahl, Germany, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Hundreds of the workers were tested positive on the coronavirus and were put on quarantine. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

COESFELD – Big white trailers adorned with pictures of juicy roasts and the wholesome slogan “Straight from the farmer” sit idle in northwestern Germany, their usual pork hauls disrupted by a coronavirus outbreak at one of the country's biggest meat processing companies that has put the industry in the spotlight.

At least 260 workers at Westfleisch's slaughterhouse in the city of of Coesfeld have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, causing alarm at a time when the country is trying to slowly relax the restrictions that were imposed to curb the pandemic.

As authorities scrambled to contain the growing outbreak over the weekend, it emerged that many of those infected were Eastern European migrants working for subcontractors who also provide them with accommodation and shuttle buses to work.

“If one person is infected then basically everybody else that sits on the bus or lives in the shared houses is infected," said Anne-Monika Spallek, a Green Party representative in Coesfeld who has campaigned against the meat industry’s practice of outsourcing much of its back-breaking work to migrants working under precarious conditions.

Among them is Iulian, a trained carpenter from Bacau in Romania’s poor northeast who previously worked for a German courier company . He recently got a job at Westfleisch that promised several times what he would make back home.

The 48-year-old, who declined to give his last name fearing repercussions, said he still must pay his employer rent for a room he shares with a colleague, but he doesn’t know if he will receive pay while he isn't working.

Standing behind a metal fence erected to stop workers from leaving the house they share about a 15-minute drive from Coesfeld, Iulian waited Tuesday for results from a coronavirus test. Residents inside also awaited results from tests taken four days earlier.

“Like a jail,” he said of his current situation. “Like a lion in a cage.”