FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
BERLIN – In Germany it has already become “the Tönnies disaster”. The number of people infected by Covid-19 in the largest slaughterhouse in Europe has risen to 1029, in Guetersloh, in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. But the infection grows hour by hour, as the results of the swabs in progress on the approximately 6500 employees of Tönnies, the company that owns the plant, arrive. So far, last night’s data, almost 6 thousand samples have been taken, but the known results concern just over half. 2100 tests gave negative results.
The plant has been closed since the beginning of the past week, as well as the schools and nurseries of the entire Guetersloh district. The employees and management have all been placed under strict quarantine. Moreover, since many families live in a specific area of the city of Verl, not far from the factory, a red zone has also been created, in which about 670 people live. Since Thursday, the Bundeswehr, the federal army, has also been mobilized.
The situation is very tense. Social unrest and protests are also feared, if closures and restrictive measures are to be put back into force, prospect not at all excluded. This morning the Minister-President of the Land, Armin Laschet, paid a visit to Guetersloh to meet the emergency committee that is managing the crisis and to assess the seriousness of the situation closely. Laschet, who is also one of the three candidates to lead the CDU for the succession to Angela Merkel, has not ruled out restore the lockdown in the entire federal state if the new outbreaks extend. Meanwhile, the Minister of Health of North Rhine-Westphalia has ordered mandatory tests for the entire meat processing sector, which employs about 20,000 workers and is considered particularly at risk of contagion.
The Tönnies case brought to the fore a very serious health and social reality, linked to the meat industry in Germany. “Our confidence in the Toennies firm is zero,” said Thomas Kuhlbusch, head of the Guetersloh crisis unit.
The primary cause of the infection would be the hundreds of foreign workers, mostly Poles and Romanians, who visited families in their countries of origin over the long weekend of 11 June, the first time since the start of the pandemic, where they would have become infected. Upon returning to Germany, many of them traveled together in overcrowded buses for 17 hours. This is at least the version of Clemens Tönnies, the head of the company, who also owns the popular Schalke 04 football team.
But the dirty secret of the group and the entire meat processing sector in Germany is actually the working and living conditions of the Gastarbeiter Poles and Romanians. They are housed en masse in unhealthy dormitories, where no health or safety measures are respected. And paid with wages much lower than the minimum in force in Germany, thanks to the pretense of being hired and managed by sub-contracting companies based in Poland and Romania, which apply local tariffs.
Tönnies makes no mention of all this, refusing all responsibility. Not only. The emergency committee accuses the company of not having provided the complete list of addresses of all employees, thus preventing immediate verification of the extent of the infection and its isolation. On Friday, at least a third was still missing. Only in the early hours of Saturday, the authorities had all the contact details of the 6500 workers available.
The story also has a political aftermath. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized Laschet, who at the first news of the outbreak at the Guetersloh plant had indicated the people responsible for the infection to the Polish and Romanian workers, without referring to the conditions in which they are kept. Laschet then corrected himself. But Maas, with the thought perhaps aimed at relations with Warsaw and Bucharest, invited him to apologize for throwing oil on the fire with “dangerous” statements. And in the meantime, the head of the Green deputies in the regional parliament, Anton Hofreiter, has asked for a boycott of Tönnies products.
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