Pandemic effects on a toxic system:

The situation of hyper-mobile migrant workers in Germany

by Stefan Dietl and Kathrin Birner

submitted to

XV Global Labour University Conference, March 30 – April 5, 2022


Contrary to what has been sometimes stated, the COVID pandemic has not affected everyone equally. Personal and health risks were much higher in certain social strata. This included a greater risk of the loss of income, less possibilities to work remotely, a higher exposure to potential infections at work and on the way to work, insufficient personal protection, and also a reduction of working and personal rights in some cases.

All of this holds true for hyper-mobile migrant workers in Germany in agriculture and the meat industry, who are predominantly from Eastern Europe and characterized by a high degree of mobility. The term „hyper-mobile“ migrant workers has been used to describe the phenomenon of workers who are sometimes only posted for a few weeks or months before they are sent to another workplace or country (Danaj and Sippola 2015; Berntsen and Lillie 2016). Especially in Europe, this is common in sectors such as construction, agriculture or the meat industry. Both the short stays and the high fluctuation represent an obstacle to organizing such workers into trade unions or improving the working conditions (Birner and Dietl 2021; Gordon 2007; Anner et al. 2006; Greer and Lillie 2013).

The high mobility results from the EU legal framework, and the practices of involved employment agencies, subcontracting, temporary work, and other forms of informality (Dietl 2018; Wagner 2015; Castles 2010). This paper will outline the ways in which hyper-mobile migrant workers are exploited and examine how the pandemic aggravated the already toxic working conditions in these sectors, which heavily depend on the migrant workforce for their profits. We will show how the working and living conditions accounted for a high number of infections, and how the pandemic was used to prolong the work days and increase the workers´ isolation. However, the mass infections, especially at the meat production sites, also drew attention to the situation of migrant workers in an unprecedented dimension. How this has shaped the public and legislative debate, and how it has influenced self-organized struggles and increased unionist organization campaigns will also be part of this paper. We will mainly draw on the extensive research conducted for our book on modern migrant workers and their struggles that was published in March 2021 (Birner and Dietl 2021) which examines the working and living conditions of migrant workers in Germany in agriculture, the meat production industry, construction, logistics and transportation, domestic health care, and industrial services. The book was based on qualitative research, including interviews with migrant workers, counselors, and activists, as well as an analysis of hundreds of case reports by Fair Mobility1, a project that supports mobile workers from Central and Eastern EU members states in enforcing their rights to fair wages and working conditions.

The role of hyper-mobile migration in Europe

Mobile migrant work is a global phenomenon. The ILO estimated that there were more than 164 million migrant workers worldwide as of 20172, of which more than 40 per cent were located in North America and Western Europe. Many of them regularly cross the borders back and forth for work, be it for daily commuting along the borders or for several weeks or months to work on abroad. As mentioned above, we use the term hyper-mobile migrants for this group. In Europe, most hyper-mobile migrant workers come from within the European Union, even though the concrete numbers are not available because many short-term stays are not registered at all.

This type of hyper-mobility is closely linked to the EU migration regime. As pointed out by Thym (2011), the European Union is characterized by a discrepancy between the universal right to free movement for EU-citizens and a very rigid migration regime towards non-EU citizens with often lethal consequences (Davies et al 2017; Schindel 2019). For instance, the International Organization for Migration has recorded 23,682 missing migrants within the Mediterranean since 20143. While the EU external borders are strictly controlled and closed for most refugees – the current openness towards refugees from the Ukraine illustrates this even more, given that it is the first time in its history that the EU enacted the Temporary Protective Directive that allows Ukrainians to stay and have access to welfare and the labor market4 – the internal borders are open to EU citizens. They can travel and resettle relatively freely throughout the entire EU. Employers thus find it very attractive to hire EU citizens for temporary low-paid jobs instead of having to deal with legal restrictions in case of non-EU citizens, or take the risk to lose an undocumented worker because of a random control. An important factor contributing to this arrangement is the economic disparity among EU countries. Germany has a GDP per capita in purchasing power standards of EUR 36.648 (nominal: EUR 42.920), compared to EUR 21.514 in Romania (nominal: EUR 12.480), and only EUR 16.414 in Bulgaria (nominal: EUR 9.815)5. A third of the Romanian and Bulgarian population was considered at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 20206.

This inequality promotes migration, especially in regions in Eastern and Southern Europe that have suffered from the severe economic crises in the last decade. Germany has turned into one of the prirmary destinations for intra-European migration. While more people used to leave Germany at the beginning of the millennium than the number who immigrated, the situation changed after 2010. The net migration gains became positive and rose from 100,000 to more than 400,000 people on average per year, before they have been shrinking in the last years, to 220,000 in 2020, as a report by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees shows7. Two thirds of the immigrants are EU citizens, with Romanians (15.7 per cent) and Bulgarians (8.7 per cent) currently leading. Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria have been the most frequent countries of origin for over a decade, while the following ranks have been changing.

For instance, there was a surge of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Greece after 20108. This period corresponded with the time when these states were hit by the eurozone crisis. In this context it is important to note that Germany exerted a lot of pressure to implement the strict EU austerity policies in Eastern and Southern Europe that also led to a further liberalization and flexibilization of the labor market in these countries (Bsirske and Busch 2018). Trade unions were weakened, and the conditions for collective bargaining were aggravated. The share of workers covered by collective bargaining has been significantly reduced ever since. For instance, while Romania was being supervised by the so-called Troika (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Commission), its collective bargaining coverage shrank by 63 per cent between 2007 and 2017, which equals a decrease of workers covered from 98 per cent to 35 per cent (Sablowski et al. 2018).

At the same time, the German economy flourished. Horn et al. (2017) pointed out that the German trade surplus has worsened the development of the financial crisis that turned into the eurozone crisis. After 2000, the German trade surplus had often exceeded 6 per cent of its GDP, creating a persistent trade imbalance within the European Union. Germany benefits from the system of fixed exchange rates, while countries with trade deficits have no means to adjust. Such an export model could, however, only succeed after the drastic restructuring of the German labor market at the beginning of the millenium that also affected the welfare state. As Butterwegge (2018) describes, the Schröder administration reduced taxes and non-wage labor costs for employers, while social security taxes were raised for employees. The reforms deregulized the labor market, limited the effects of collective bargaining agreements, weakened trade unions and privatized important public services. Unit labor costs in the manifacturing industry dropped significantly between 2002 and 2007, creating a cost advantage over other EU countries (Dustman et al. 2014). This further strengthened Germany´s economic position.

So it comes as no surprise that some of the Eastern European migration flows formerly directed to Southern Europe switched towards Germany in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis. They have been employed in sectors that heavily depend on migrant work, of which the following two will be analyzed in more detail here: agriculture and the meat industry.

At a glance: The role of mobile migrants in agriculture and the meat industry

There are about 1.1 million workers in agriculture, of which approximately 300.000 are seasonal workers (Weisskircher 2021). This makes agriculture one of the most important domains for mobile workers. The different harvest seasons would not be feasible without their help, starting with asparagus in March/April and concluding with grape gathering in October. Hyber-mobile migrant workers are essential for harvesting specialty crops such as hop, asparagus, strawberries and various other fruits, or in viniculture. This form of a specific, timed migration requires an enormous flexibility on behalf of the recruits. They come from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, or Ukraine, and are often posted throughout Europe at different workplaces following the respective harvest seasons.

The meat industry has undergone significant changes in the last decades, and migrant workforce is the backbone of the growing profits in this sector (Birner and Dietl 2021). An increasing monopolization in the meat production and distribution can be observed, forcing smaller manufacturers out of business. The so-called Big Four (Tönnies, Vion, Westfleisch, Danish Crown) dominate the market with a share of two thirds9. They have created large-scale firms for slaughtering, dissection, packaging, and logistics. For instance, Tönnies disposes of more than 16,000 workers, of which 6,500 alone work at the biggest production site in Rheda-Wiedenbrück. More than 720 million animals were slaughtered in the German meat production industry in 202110. The profits doubled within the last 20 years to more than EUR 40 billion in 201911. Clemens Tönnies and Robert Tönnies, the owners of Tönnies, are estimated to possess EUR 2.3 billion each in private assets. About 14 per cent of the German meat production is exported, and the industry has superseded its European competitors. Two thirds of workers at Danish slaughterhouses lost their jobs as a consequence of the German wage dumping (Dietl 2018). This success was only possible through the massive import of migrant workforce from Eastern European countries. Tens of thousands of mobile migrant workers from Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria work at German meat production sites. Some estimate that about 80 per cent of the operations are conducted by migrant workers. Most of them work only for a few months in Germany before returning home.

Hyper-mobile migrant workers both in agriculture and the meat industry are mainly recruited through employement agencies. They are either being posted as employees through subcontractors or sent as self-employed workers. The EU Posted Workers Directive allows to apply the sending state´s labor laws instead of the laws of the destination countries, except for a minimum set of working rights in the host country that need to be observed (Birner and Dietl 2021). Even though the directive was revised in 2018 to extend the working conditions that need to be observed at the destination, the implementation into German laws fell short from the high expectations of unionists12. It is still possible that different standards apply to posted workers than to local workers, and through subcontractors located in different countries it is difficult for workers to understand the legal maze. However, basic working rights exist. This is not the case with self-employed workers who technically work as own entrepreneurs. They have to provide for their own insurance, pay taxes, and are not subject to regulations like maximum hours, minimum wages, paid annual leave, or sick pay. The self-employed mobile workers are often unaware of the nature of their contract, and assume that they signed a work contract.

Never off-season: Exploitation of migrants in agriculture and the effects of the pandemic

The working conditions for hyper mobile migrant workers in agricultre had already been hard before the pandemic, as the annual reports by the Initative Faire Landarbeit13 show. The exploitation of seasonal farm workers already starts in the recruiting process that is usually organized through specialized agencies or subcontractors in their home country. They are promised decent pay at German minimum wage, free board and lodging, social security, and fixed working hours. These promises are not kept from the beginning. Instead, the agency charges up to EUR 500 for the successful placement, and additional fees for necessary documents and the transfer to Germany. The agencies prefer to recruit job-seekers from rural, structurally underdeveloped areas or married couples. After arriving in Germany, the free accomodation mostly turns out as baracks, shacks or containers. Up to ten people are put in one room; there are often poor sanitary arrangements. The Initative Faire Landarbeit has documented cases in which 150 people share one kitchen, two bathrooms and four showers. The migrants permanently work and live together very closely, and there is little contact with the outside world. The farms and the accomodations are mostly secluded from the nearest town, and this isolation is also intended to cover up the working and living conditions of the migrants. If lodging is not available on-site, run-down former hotels or pensions are rented. Contrary to the promises, the seasonal workers are also charged for the room and food at very high rates which are directly deducted from their wages.

However, they only learn about the total amount of deductions at the end of the stay, as the employers hold back a large part of the wage until then. Wage deductions not only occur for for food and accomodation, but also for protective clothes or tools and supplies, even though those have to be provided by the employer. Nevertheless, the most common way of wage theft is the violation of minimium wage laws. The employer´s records only show a part of the total number of hours worked for which compensation is granted. The missing hours are denied or declared as unpaid overtime. This is a frequent scenario in which migrant workers seek support from the legal advisory centers such as Fair Mobility. Employees are often required to sign blank timesheets in advance which are later unilaterally completed by the supervisors. Instead of ten or 12 hours worked, only five or six hours are put down. Another wide-spread way of wage fraud is to introduce a piece-rate pay with unrealistically high goals. While fixed pay rates per units can be legal if they are paid on top of the minimum wage level, it is not allowed to undercut the minimum wage, as it is practiced by corporate farmers.

To sum up, wage theft, long working hours, few days off, isolation from any other settlement areas, and poor lodging conditions have long been characteristic for the agricultural sector. It is therefore interesting to see how the COVID-19-pandemic has affected the situation.

Remarkably, the importance of hyper mobile migrant workers was never as visible as in the first phase of the pandemic. After Hungary and Austria closed their borders in March 2020, German corporate farmers were freightened to lose their migrant workforce, especially in sight of the upcoming asparagus season. In 2019, 130.000 tons of asparagus had been harvested, worth of EUR 845 million. This produced hectic reactions on behalf of the German government, the corporate farmers and the media who declared the asparagus harvest the „litmus test“ for food security in times of COVID14. The Secretary of Agriculture, Julia Klöckner, eventually prevailed and organized the transfer of 80.000 mobile workers to Germany for the purpose of working in agriculture. This operation was nick-named „asparagus airlift“15, as special flights were arranged in April and May 2020 when most of the normal air traffic had been suspended.

Despite these desperate efforts to fly in seasonal farm workers, their working and living conditions were never of any concern in the process, neither for the corporate farmers nor for the politicians. The German government promised to enforce strict infection protection measures to the migrants imported by the airlift. However, the quarantine rules designated for them only prohibited the contact to the German population, but were not applied among them. Accordingly, they were not allowed to leave the farms for two weeks after the arrival, but they were working, eating, and living without any distance to their co-workers in the meantime. On the contrary, the already close quarters became an additional source for the potentially deadly infections, together with the crowded flights, and the lack of social distancing at work. Some employers took advantage of the „quarantine“ and put up shops with overpriced necessities and daily goods, since the mobile workers were not allowed to leave the farm even for shopping basic goods.

At the same time, the pandemic was used to worsen the working conditions in an attempt to alleviate the situation for corporate farmers. After massive lobbying by employers, the laws restricting the maximum hours worked were temporarily suspended for seasonal workers, allowing up to 60 hours per week and 12 hours daily without any special permits (Birner and Dietl 2021). The required break of at least eleven hours between two work days was reduced to nine hours. Another change extended the period of time in which it is not mandatory to make short-term workers subject to social security contributions. Instead of 70 days, it was extended to 115 in 2020 and 102 in 2021.

Safety at work was not enforced by government officials, and many reports documented by Fair Mobility and other networks show that employers hardly provided disinfectants, masks, or other forms of health protection. For instance, the workers were put on crowded busses to transfer them from the farm to the fields. It thus comes at no surprise that the agricultural businesses became COVID hotspots. In many cases, operations had to be suspened temporarily upon ordinance from the public health authorities.

On April 11, 2020, the first seasonal farm worker died after contracting a COVID infection. The 57-year-old Nicolae Bahan had come from Romania to Bad Krozingen in Baden-Württemberg for working in the asparagus harvest, together with his wife16. He first noticed a cough and nose-running, but was not sent to see a doctor. The COVID infection was only confirmed after his death. This did not stop farmers´ associations to spread rumours about the overweight and an assumed heart attack of the deceased worker. Even the Secretary of Agriculture, Julia Klöckner, repeated this false claim on TV five days after the death.

Crowded and dangerous: Working in the meat industry during a pandemic

As in agriculture, the working conditions in the meat industry had already been hazardous in pre-pandemic times, and were aggravated by the same laws mentioned above that watered down the working rights even more.

The meat industry in 2020 was characterized by a large number of subcontractors, so that most of the workers at the large production plants were not directly employed with the meat producer. Data provided by the Federal government suggested that at least 63 per cent of employees were posted through subcontractors and 7,5 per cent through labor leasing17. Only management and administrative staff was directly employed with Tönnies or Westfleisch, which means that the main companies were not responsible for the working conditions of the tens of thousands of subcontracted or self-employed workers on their produciton sites. This resulted into relentless exploitation of the workers, as many reports by Fair Mobility have documented over the years. 16-hour work days, six days a week, in poorly ventilated, ice-cold buildings were no exception. The slaughtering process had to be carried out at a rapid piece-rate. Many could only endure the hard physical work by taking painkillers. Serious work accidents such as bruises, cut of fingers, or bone fractures were common. Fair Mobility has documented many cases in which these accidents were caused by the lack of safety provisions and the high work pressure. Such accidents often led to lay-offs, and the injured workers were left alone with the consequences and the costs for medical treatments. The injuries are rarely reported to the Workers´ Compensation Board, and invesigations on the causes of the accident hardly take place. This is also contributed to the intransparent web of subcontractors mentioned above that were dominant until 2021. It was often unclear who bore responsibility for an accident caused by negligence or the lack of safety measures. Dozens of subcontractors were operating parallely so that it was also hard for the authorities to determine individual responsibility if they investigated.

An inspection of 30 meat production firms with 17,000 employees conducted by the Ministery of Labor of Nordrhein-Westfalen in 2019 shows the dimensions of the pre-pandemic health hazards and wage fraud. 9,000 statutory violations were filed18, ranging from „infringement of working time regulations, including shifts with more than 16 hours“ to „inappropriate lodging“, „safety hazards“, „noise-related damages“, „manipulated safety equipment“, „barred emergency exits“, „dangerous handling of hazardous substances“.

Like in agriculture, the workers were subject to excessive wage fraud through timesheet manipulations or unbased wage deductions for equipment that has to be provided by the employers. Overprized charges for housing under deplorable conditions were common as well.

These poor living and working conditions were ideal for the spread of COVID-19. Meat production sites became hotspots during the pandemic. Hundreds of workers got infected in spring of 2020 at Westfleisch in Oer-Erkenschwick and Coesfeld, at Müller Fleisch in Pforzheim, at Vion in Bad Bramstedt. 1,500 infections were reported for Tönnies in Rheda-Wiedenbrück alone. Thousands of workers were quarantined at the beginning of the pandemic. While the catastrophic working conditions were publicly discussed for a short while, the following measurements did not prioritize safety at work or in the accomodations. Instead, the massive lobbying of the major meat production companies resulted in the labeling of meat production as a whole as „production sites of sytemic importance“, like agriculture. Under the state of emergency, this status watered down basic labor laws to the detriment of the workers, especially the working time regulations. What had been practiced illegaly before, suddenly became legal. This stimulated the production as never before. At the end of March of 2020, the owner of Tönnies bragged publicly that COVID presented an unprecedented chance for the sector, because he was now able to put his workers on additional 16-hours-shifts at the weekend on a legal basis19 . Health care measurements were rarely provided and not enforced by the authorities for a long time. A workplace health and safety inspection was eventually conducted at the Tönnies production sites by the end of May of 2020. „Serious violations“ of the mandatory health care provisions were documented, including the absence of any facial masks20. Nevertheless, the business went on as before, leading to thousands of infections among workers in the meat production industry. Taking care of the sick and quarantined employees was, however, left to the public. In several cases, the housing areas of the migrant workers were barred and put under strict surveillance, allegedly to protect the spread of the pandemic21. In fact, they were basically detained in their poor living areas. A basic supply of food was provided with public money. The meat production firms were not charged for any of the costs. On the contrary, they were later even reimbursed for the temporary suspension of the operations upon ordinance from the public health authorities22. Not only refused the companies to acknowledge their responsibility for the massive outbreaks of COVID infections because of the poor sanitary conditions, they even blamed the migrants themselves for the spread of the virus. The head of Müller Fleisch was quoted that Romanians were very convivial by nature and liked to socialize and entertain23. Once again, those mostly affected by the dangerous working and living conditions during the pandemic were scapegoated for the high infection rates in the area.

The invisible become visible: The struggle for better conditions in agriculture

The „asparagus airlift“ in spring of 2020 was highly debated and helped to „make the invisible seasonal farm workers visible for a moment“ as the sociologist Stefan Sell noted24. Many debates accompanied the desperate attempts to organize the entry of the migrant workers. It was very controversial that the borders were generally closed and strict rules of movement were in place but at the same time special flights with hundreds of passengers were organized in the interest of corporate farmers. Students, artistst, and restaurant workers who had lost their jobs during the pandemic registered on a platform „“ to help out in agriculture but even though more than 50,000 people signed up, the airlift was underway.

As noted before, the high public attention for the „asparagus airlift“ did not result in stricter health measurements or better working condititions for the hyper-mobile migrant workers. On the contrary, the coroporate farmers used the situation to successfully lobby for „alleviations“ for their businesses, i.e. less restrictions concerning maximum working hours, mandatory breaks, days off, and little safety controls at work or in the accomodations. However, there were attempts by non-governmental organizations to put the working conditions on the agenda and reach out to those who were supposed to be airlifted. For instance, Fair Mobility had suggested to provide the seasonal workers with information on basic working rights in Germany and the pone numbers of the free hotline of Fair Mobility for questions about workers rights during the Corona crisis in Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian before their departure. At first, the Ministry of Agriculture seemed inclined to carry out this idea, but it was never implemented25. While the government clearly set its priorities on the support of the employers, there were also activities by civil society actors to reach out to the migrants. Activists from unions and Fair Mobility attempted to hand out the information themselves at the airports where the mobile workers arrived in Germany. They also tried to offer information before the departure through organizations in the countries of origin within the „Fair Working Conditions“ network, which includes trade unions and union-related advisory centres in Croatia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Hungary26. Digital networks that exist among some mobile migrant worker communities were used to spread the word as well as direct contacts. On-site visits had already been difficult in the past, and became almost impossible with the corona restrictions that made it even easier for corporate farmers to isolate their workers from unwanted information. Similar to pre-pandemic experiences, activisits were more successful with approaching the workers while they were at the fields, even though there was limited time until the supervisors would find out and chase them away. However, these were the only ways to reach out to workers as the Ministry of Agriculture had not been cooperative. Fair Mobility documents many cases in which workers sought advice during that time because of poor living conditions, lacking health protection, or wage theft (Birner and Dietl 2021).

Besides the individual support through projects such as Fair Mobility, there was also collective resistance in the spring of 2020 to wage theft and the poor living conditions. One of the best-known examples of migrant workers´ protests took place in the agricultural sector, at the asparagus farm in Bornheim near Bonn. In April 2020, several hundred mobile migrant workers arrived predominantly from Romania at the farm in Bornheim for harvesting asparagus and strawberries. What they did not know was that the owner had filed for bankruptcy, and that an insolvency trustee was in charge of the business. A few weeks later, the trustee decided to stop the asparagus harvest the following week because he saw little chances for profit with all the restaurants closed due to COVID-19. The word was spread among workers that they would soon be dismissed and probably had to leave at their own costs. In addition, the payments that were due these days fell short of the agreed-upon amounts. Instead of EUR 2,000, only EUR 100 or 200 were given out in some cases, not enough to finance the trip home or guarantee a living for the following months. The workers felt betrayed, and decided to go on strike on May 15. Over 200 of them refused to board the busses that were supposed to take them to the fields this morning, and they assembled at the farm to protest the wage theft, the poor living conditions, the threatening premature end of their contracts, and the risk of losing their accomodations. The protest quickly made the headlines, not only regionally but also in Romanian media27. A local support network instantly emerged with activists who helped to organize legal advice, food, translations, and rallies. A lot of these support activities were borne by the anarcho-syndicalist union FAU Bonn28. Meanwhile, the trustee had called the police and also tried to separate the protesters and their supporters with the help of a private security firm. He argued that the money given out the day before was just a partial payment, and that there was no wage theft in place. Another round of payments was announced on May 18. The workers insisted that their lawyer could be present. However, the payments differed greatly again, from EUR 500 to only EUR 5 in one case. They were still not complete or correct, so the seasonal workers decided to continue their struggle.

The following day, they rallied in Bonn in front of the trustee´s office and to the Romanian consulate. The Romanian consul invited a delegation of workers and supporters in, and promised his support. He also informed the Romanian Secretary of Labor, Violeta Alexandru, who was in Germany on visit to the German Secretary of Agriculture, Julia Glöckner, exaclty at that time. Violeta Alexandru came indeed to Bornheim one day later to talk to the workers on strike. She confirmed the consulate´s support for the return journey, and also promised to look for job alternatives in cooperation with the German Farmers´ Association. The same day, the trustee announced another round of payments. However, he did not want to hand them over at the farm because of the large group of people assembled there. Instead, the workers were divided into groups of ten and taken to secret places in the middle of the fields where they received cash. They could take along their lawyer, but other supporters were prevented from accompanying them by the police. This time, most workers had received a large part of the stipulated payments, even though there were still discrepancies. They decided to end their protest, and either return home to Romania or accept job offers at other farms that were arranged through the Farmers´ Association. Unfortunately, the promised support from the consulate for the return trips was still not underway, but the supporters´ network had raised money for the journey home. Some of the workers continued to fight for the outstanding rest payments with the help of the FAU while they were in Romania and settled in 202129. Overall, the self-organized struggle in Bornheim can be considered a remarkable example for breaking the isolation and successfully fighting for their rights. It is important to note that it was closely followed by Romanian media and also in other Eastern European countries. The Initiative Faire Landarbeit assumes that the low turnout at recruiting Georgian workers in 2021 correlates with the bad reputation that the working conditions in German agriculture now have30.

Today, the broad public attention for the situation of hyper-mobile workers in agriculture has disappeared. Instead, the protection of potentially infected workers has been even more twisted: Quarantined workers are not allowed to leave their homes except for goint to work in sectors such as the food production. Anja Piel (DGB) called this „work quarantine“ a „sad climax“ of the carte blanche given by the former Secretary of Agriculture to corporate farmers so that these can ignore basic working rights.31

However, one of the issues especially affecting hyper-mobile workers in agriculture is tackled in the coalition agreement of the newly-established German government: The new government proposes to implement mandatory health insurance for mobile workers from day one. That would be important, given the fact that there is an extended period of 70 and in 2021 more than 100 days in which mobile workers are not subject to social security contributions, including the health insurance that is usually equally paid for by the employer and employee. This leaves many hyper-mobile workers with only short stays in Germany without any coverage. Any changes here are more than necessary, yet the details of the new plan are unclear at the moment. It will also be important to observe how the new Secretary of Agriculture, Cem Özdemir, a member of the Green Party, will set his priorities with regards to corporate farmers and the 1.1 million workers in agriculture, including the 300,000 seasonal forces. Additionally, it is important to note that several civil society organiziations have become more aware of the issue. The authors of this article have been invited to dozens of (virtual) talks on their book by unions, NGOs, or university courses, often with a focus on agriculture.

A new law and new hope for the workers in the meat industry

The mass infections at the meat production sites received a lot of public attention, especially in spring of 2020. On one hand, the high numbers shocked the public, on the other hand, they also influenced the indicators that had been established for the public crisis mangement. For instance, if the incidence rates per 100,000 inhabitants passed a certain level, stricter regulations were put in force: less private contacts, the shutdown of restaurants, the suspension of in-classroom teaching. Those measurements greatly varied among the federal states and over the duration of the pandemic. But for a certain period, the high numbers of infections among meat production workers deeply affected the regions in which the companies were located. Many politicians expressed their concerns that the relaxation of COVID rules for the „general public“ was endangered in those regions, and wanted to tackle the problem.

As a side effect, the mass infections led to a public debate about the working and living conditions at meat plants, and raised the need for action. Politicians suddenly started to listen to the complaints by trade unions, churches, and other organizations, that had gone unnoticed for many years before. The Secretary of Labor, Hubertus Heil (SPD), called the intransparent chains of subcontractors the core problem of the meat industry and promised to address the issue32 . He announced to outlaw subcontracting and labor leasing in the meat industry. The Federal Cabinet passed a corresponding decree in May 2020 with key points for an „Occupational Safety Program for the Meat Industry“. It stipulated that hiring subcontractors would no longer be legal for the slaughtering and processing of meat from January 2021 on; these operations would then have to be carried out by own employees. Higher fines up to 30,000 Euros were to be applied in cases of working time violations. The Program also included more workplace health and safety inspections, among other provisions. A parliamentary debate to implement these key points into a law was planned for early fall.

However, the announcement triggered harsh criticism on behalf of the meat industry. „The prohibition of work contracts for the performance of certain activities in meat plants that exceed a certain size is arbitrary discrimination“, criticised the Association of the German Meat Industry33.The employers doubted the lawfulness of a ban of contract work that only applied to their businesses but not, for instance, to the parcel industry like Amazon. Some meat companies threatened to relocate to other countries which caused panic reactions by corporate farmers who feared they could not longer sell their pigs.

The lobbying worked: Soon, the Secretary of Agriculture, Julia Klöckner, suggested to promote voluntary self-commitments instead of legal requirements. The Christian Party (CDU/CSU) withdrew its support for the law project, abandoning its coalition partner SPD on this issue. Not only the interventions caused the turnaround, but also the development of infections related to the meat production plants. Even though numbers of infected workers continued to rise again drastically in fall, this no longer impacted the regional crisis management, as the incident rate was complemented by other indicators. And the effects on the production were also minimized by new quarantine rules: As mentioned above, quarantined workers were then not allowed to leave their homes except for going to work in sectors such as food production, which applies both to agriculture and to the meat industry.

Nevertheless, the public interest for the issue remained high, so that the German parliament eventually passed an adjusted law by December 16 that was to enter into force by January 1, 2021. Companies with more than 49 employees are no longer allowed to hire contract workers for the slaughtering and dissection. Exceptions are applicable for the processing of meat until 2024. A quota for mandatory inspections per region has been determined. The law includes new standards for the accomodations of workers, even if they are rented by third parties.

An interim report by Fair mobility of June 2021 considered the new law a game changer in the industry which could potentially lay the basis to transform the working conditions in the sector34. Despite the short period between the final passing of the law in mid-December, 2020, and its entry into force by January 1, 2021, the employers had evidently started to take preparations before. This suggests that they decided to accept at least some of the changes instead of fighting them. An immediate effect was an enormous change in the status of thousands of employees: Within few days, they were suddenly directly hired by the meat producers and no longer posted by dozens of different subcontractors. They became employees of one company at one location, whose employee numbers skyrocketed from few administrative staff to thousands of workers. Fair mobility and the trade union for food, beverages, tobacco, hotels and catering (NGG) had launched a massive information campaign for workers at the meat production plants. More than 200 meetings took place between September 2020 and April 2021, according to Fair Mobility. This allowed to closely monitor the implementation of the law and inform the workers about the new possibilities that were now opening up: As their fragmentation ended and the insecure status of a posted worker turned into a more stable working relationship, this was seen as an opportunity for a collective agreement and new ways to enforce safety at work through on-site works councils. The chance was taken, and the NGG entered into negotiations about a new minimum wage for the sector. Collective action forced the employers to accept to raise the sectoral standard above the general legal minimum wage of then EUR 9,50. The new hourly wages were set at EUR 10,80 per hour (2021) with several increase steps up to EUR 12,3035. By now, the NGG has entered negotiations about a collective agreement on basic working conditions for the 35,000 employees at meat production plants whose majority works for Tönnies, Westfleisch, Vion, and DanishCrown. The trade union wants to discuss topics such as annual leave, supplemtenary pay, working time, or compensation for the time spent changing clothes required on-site. Negotiations started on March 16, 202236. The next months will show if the workers can transform the meat industry through their struggles – or if the employers will find new creative ways to fight off any improvements.


As we could show, hyper-mobile migrant workers are the backbone of sectors such as agriculture or the meat industry in Germany. The profits are possible because of EU laws that enable free movement and offer legal ways of paying the migrants less than local workers, based on the Posted Workers Directive or self-employment. We could see that the economic disparity among EU countries fosters hyper-mobile migration and opens thousands of opportunities for employers to take advantage of the precarious situation of migrant workers. Isolated, confronted with a legal maze, wage fraud, poor living and working conditions – this is the base for a systematic exploitation that has been in place for many years. The pandemic shed a new light on the situation of workers in agriculture and the meat industry because the closed borders and the mass infections suddenly threatened the businesses. This attention was, however, not turned into a general need for action to improve the situation of the migrants. Both agriculture and the meat industry were declared as „businesses of systematic importance“, and this could be used as a further justification to water down basic working rights. The „asparagus airlift“ and the „work quarantines“ were consequential tools in that logic, and show at the same time, how little the migrants´ health and life matters to the employers and many politicians. However, the unprecedented public interest also opened up new channels for voicing demands that had gone by unheard before and strengthened the determination of migrant workers and civil society actors such as trade unions, the Fair mobility, and others to enter the struggle for more lasting changes. The wildcat-strike of agricultural workers in Bornheim was an exceptional example in which the migrant workers stood up and fought for their rights. Such strikes happen often in other sectors, such as construction, but the effect on future conflicts cannot be underestimated as this was one of the few struggles that received relatively broad attention, both in Germany and in Eastern Europe. While this type of spontaneous resistance needs support when it happens, the example of the meat industry shows the fruits of a long, enduring campaign borne by Fair mobility, NGG and other organizations. Despite huge obstacles, the law to ban subcontracting and labor leasing was passed and entered into force in January 2021. Even though legal holes still exist, the situation has already been used for successful organizing. The sectoral minimum wage in 2021 and the negotiations between NGG and the meat producers are promising steps.


1 See Faire Mobilität. 2022. About us. Available at:

2 See ILO. 2018. „Global Estimates on International Migrant Workers – Results and Methodology. 2nd ed.“ International Labour Office – Geneva: ILO, 2018. Available at:—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_652001.pdf

3 See International Organization for Migration. 2022. „MIssing Migrants Project“, Available at:

4 See European Commission. 2022. „Ukraine refugees: Operational guidelines to support Member States in applying Temporary Protection Directive. Press release.“ Available at:

5 See Statistisches Bundesamt. 2022. „Europa Wirtschaft und Finanzen“. Available at:

6 See Eurostat. 2021. „One in five people in the EU at risk of poverty or social exclusion.“ Available at:

8 See BAMF. 2014. „Mitgrationsbericht 2012.“ Available at:

9 See Interessengemeinschaft der Schweinehalter Deutschlands. 2020. „Top 10 der deutschen Schweineschlachtbetriebe 2020“. Available at:

10 See Statistisches Bundesamt. 2022. „Fleischproduktion 2021 um 2,4 % gegenüber dem Vorjahr gesunken“. Available at:

11 See Ernst and Young. 2020. „Konjunkturbarometer Agribusiness“. Available at: ey-agribusiness-studie-2020.pdf

12 See DGB. 2020. „Heils Umsetzung der Entsenderichtlinie: Versprochen – und nicht geliefert“ Available at:

13 See Initiative Faire Landarbeit. 2021. „Saisonsarbeit in der Landwirtschaft Bericht 2021“. Available at:

14 See Austilat, A. and Grabitz, M. 2020 „So versuchen Bauern, die Spargelernte noch zu retten“, in Tagesspiegel, March 25. Available at:

15 See Austilat, A. 2020. „Wie das Virus die Spargelernte gefährdet“, in Tagesspiegel, March 20. Available at:

16 See Klawitter, N., Verseck, K. 2020. Ein Leben für den Spargel. Verstorbener Erntehelfer mit Corona“, in Der Spiegel, April 22. Available at:

17 See: Bundestag. 2020. „Drucksache 19/23510. Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Jutta Krellmann, Susanne Ferschl, Matthias W. Birkwald, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion DIE LINKE.– Drucksache 19/22712 –Entwicklung der Arbeitsbedingungen in der Fleischwirtschaft.“ Available at:

18 See Ministerium für Arbeit, Gesundheit und Soziales NRW. 2019. „Überwachunsaktion ´Faire Arbeit in der Fleischindustrie´. Abschlussbericht.“ Available at:

19 See: Sell, S. 2020. „Jetzt aber: ´Wir werden aufräumen mit diesen Verhältnissen“, sagt der Bundesarbeitsminister. Und meint die Zustände in der Fleischindustrie. Man darf gespannt sein´“. Available at:

20 See: Landtag Nordrhein-Westfalen. 2020. „Drucksache 1710976. Antwort der Landesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage 4119 vom 22. Juli 2020 der Abgeordneten Johannes Remmel, Norwich Rüße und Mehrdad Mostofizadeh BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN Drucksache 17/10308. Arbeitsschutzkontrollen in der Firma Tönnies: Nach Recht und Gesetz oder nach „Kooperationsprinzip“?“. Available at:

21 See Sädler, F. 2020. „Lass, das ist Kollateralschaden. Tönnies-Skandal.“ In Welt, June 21. Available at:

22See: WDR. 2022. „Corona-Ausbruch bei Tönnies: Land muss Entschädigung zahlen.“ January 21. Available at:

23 See: Klawitter, N. 2020. „Müller Fleisch in Pforzheim: Die Fabrik der Corona-Infizierten“, in Der Spiegel, May 02. Available at:

24 See Stefan Sell. 2020. „Die für einen kurzen Moment sichtbar gewordenen unsichtbaren Erntehlfer sind erneut im medialen Schattenreich – und sollen wieder alle kommen dürfen“. Available at:

25 See Aschemeyer, M.“ Spargelstechen ist ein Knochenjob. Gewerkschafter Dominik John über die Nöte osteuropäischer Saisonkräfte in Zeiten von Corona.“ in ND, May 01. Available at:

26See Faire Mobilität. 2022. „Information centres“. Available at:

28 See FAU. 2020. „Streik in Bornheim“. Available at:

29 See FAU. 2021. „Einigung im Lohnstreit der Arbeiter*innen aus dem Bornheimer „Spargel-Streik““. Available at:

30 See Initiative Faire Landarbeit. 2021. „Saisonsarbeit in der Landwirtschaft Bericht 2021“. Available at:

31 See Piel, A. 2022. „Saisonkräfte schützen!“, in Frankfurter Rundschau, January 21. Available at:

32 See Specht, F. „Arbeitsminister Heil verbietet Einsatz von Fremdpersonal“. In Handelsblatt, July 21. Available at:

33 See: 2020. „German cabinet wants to abolish work contracts“, May 22. Available at:–42027

34See Faire Mobilität. 2021. „Dossier Arbeitsschutzkontrollgesetz“. Available at:

35See NGG. 2021. „Mindestens 12,30 Euro pro Stunde für Beschäftigte in deutschen Schlachthöfen und Wurstfabriken.“ Available at:

36 See NGG. 2022. „Startschuss gesetzt“. Available at:


Anner, M., Greer, I., Hauptmeier, M., Lillie, N., Winchester, N. 2006. „The industrial determinants of transnational solidarity: Global inter-union politics in three sectors“, in: European Journal of Industrial Relations , 12(1), pp. 7–27.

Berntsen L, Lillie N. 2016. „Hyper-mobile migrant workers and Dutch trade union representation strategies at the Eemshaven construction sites“, in Economic and Industrial Democracy, 37(1), pp. 171-187.

Birner, K., Dietl, S. 2021. Die modernen Wanderarbeiter*innen. Arbeitsmigrant*innen um Kampf um ihre Rechte. Münster, Unrast Verlag.

Bsirske, F., Busch, K. 2018.„Die sozialen und politischen Kosten der Austeritätspolitik – Schwächung der Gewerkschaften und Stärkung des Rechtspopulismus“, in WSI-Mitteilungen, 71 (6), pp. 522-527.

Butterwegge, C. 2018. Hartz IV und die Folgen. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Republik? 3rd ed.. Weinheim, Beltz Verlag.

Castles, S. 2006. „Guestworkers in Europe: A resurrection?“, in International migration review, 40(4), pp. 741-766.

Danaj, S., Sippola, M. 2015. „Organising hyper-mobile transnational construction workers“. ETUI Policy Brief No. 11. European Economic, Employment and Social Policy. ETUI, Brussels.

Davies, T, Isakjee, A, Dhesi, S. 2017. „Violent inaction: The necropolitical experience of refugees in Europe“, in Antipode, 49(5), pp.1263–1284.

Dietl, S. 2018. Prekäre Arbeitswelten. Von digitalen Tagelöhnern bis zur Generation Praktikum., Münster, Unrast Verlag.

Dustmann, C., Fitzenberger, B., Schönberg, U., Spitz-Oener, A. 2014. „From sick man of Europe to economic superstar: Germany’s Resurgent Economy“, in Journal of economic perspectives, 28(1), pp. 167–188

Gordon, J. 2006. „Transnational Labor Citizenship“, in Southern California Law Review, 80, pp. 503-587.

Greer, I., Ciupijus, Z., Lillie, N. 2013. „The European Migrant Workers Union: union organizing through labour transnationalism“, in European Journal of Industrial Relations, 19 (1), pp. 5–20.

Horn, G. A., Lindner, F., Stephan, S., & Zwiener, R. 2017. „Zur Rolle der Nominallöhne für die Handels-und Leistungsbilanzüberschüsse: Eine ökonometrische Analyse für Deutschland“ (No. 125). IMK Report.

Sablowski, T., Schneider, E., & Syrovatka, F. 2018. „Zehn Jahre Krise: Regulation des Lohnverhältnisses und ungleiche Entwicklung in der Europäischen Union“. In PROKLA. Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft, 48 (192), pp. 357-379.

Schindel, E. 2019. „Death by ‘nature’: The European border regime and the spatial production of slow violence“, in Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space.

Thym, D. 2011. „Freizügigkeit in Europa als modell? EU-Migrationspolitik zwischen Offenheit und Abschottung“, in Europarecht (EuR), 46 (4), pp. 487 – 511.

Wagner, I. 2015. (No. 521). Posted work and deterritorialization in the European Union: a study of the German construction and meat industry. University of Jyväskylä.

Weisskircher, M. 2021. „Arbeitsmigration während der Corona-Pandemie. Saisonarbeitskräfte aus Mittel- und Osteuropa in der deutschen Landwirtschaft.“ MIDEM Policy Paper 01/21, Dresden.