Originally published in German on Solidarisch gegen Corona
Since the beginning of state measures against Corona in Germany in early March, we’ve been hearing it again and again: People from different households are only allowed to meet in pairs. You’re permitted to go out for walks, shopping and work, exclusively. The four letters “work” appear quite innocently in these lists. In March, people got gasping when thinking of frivolous corona parties, and by the beginning of April, people spent days getting excited about dangerous air currents while jogging. At the moment, people on Twitter are scandalizing the decision by the ministers of education to make students take their graduation exams – and rightly so.
The word “work” doesn’t cause a lot of excitement, unless it’s about heroines in hospitals or the thrilling new world of home office. However, well over 60% of workers with a low or medium degree have never stopped working at the company, and well under 20% are actually working in home office. Behind the innocent daily commute to the job lies a reality that is central to the spread of the disease.
Whether in Milan, Madrid or New York: At the hotspots of the pandemic, workers still travel to work in crowded public transport. Once there, they spend most of the day crammed together with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people, usually in closed rooms. This can be a warehouse or a factory, an office or a construction site. They often share work equipment with others, or literally work hand in hand in production processes based on the division of labor.
A gathering of many people from different households, bodies lined up close together, touching. Breathing the same stale air: all that sounds quite dangerous in the current situation, and it is. These are the corona parties of capital, spooky celebrations with guests only turning up cautiously and reluctantly. It is the silent compulsion of economic relations that forces them into the centers of infection every day. Many workers now have to choose between health and income. Or between poverty and illness. That’s ordinary blackmail, but apparently not even worth mentioning in this society.
In Italy, the disease was particularly merciless in the most productive areas of the country. In the US, a meatpacking plant in the Midwest is the largest corona cluster. For weeks, the management did not care about the workers’ well-founded fear of infection and let production continue while aware of a growing number of cases. When the factory finally closed under massive pressure on April 15th, there were 644 confirmed cases among the workers and their families.
The same story plays out in Germany, in a meat factory near Pforzheim. 90 positive cases among workers were reported at Müller-Fleisch in Birkenfeld on April 17th. Barely a week later, 139 of the more than 1000 employees were affected. Many tests are still pending, but production continues. The workers were simply put under “quarantine”, the head of the responsible health office explains in the newspapers: “This means that they can come to work, but otherwise are not allowed to leave their homes”. In other words, nobody minds if they continue to infect each other while working, as long as they keep it among themselves and do not harm respectable citizens. The talk of “their homes” adds insult to injury, because many of the Eastern European workers live in mass accommodations and run-down rooms for fitters. Under these conditions, an uncontrolled spread of the disease is de facto condoned.
The food industry has perfected the exploitation of man and nature. Peter Kossen, a pastor active in this field, reports about service contracts with subcontractors, low wages and extremely long working hours: Often 12 hours for six days a week! In addition, there is a lack of occupational safety, social and linguistic isolation, and poor health: “The total exhaustion of these workers is the norm.”
From capital’s perspective, it‘s rational to let wage earners work as long as possible, as long as supply is ensured. It’s rational to save expenses for spacious workplaces, ventilation and sanitary facilities. It’s rational to turn a blind eye to health protection. In order to make a profit of one or two cents more for each cutlet, the health of the workers is a price worth paying.
If something is to change in the factories, the collective activity of workers is key. In recent weeks, they have protested and gone on strike around the world and across sectors, time and again for better health protection or paid work stoppages. “We’re not animals for slaughter” was a slogan that was used on such occasions in Italy and Spain.
It’s unacceptable that a picnic in the park should lead to moral panic while people still have to come to deadly corona parties in the factories.
Supplementary notes on some developments in the meat industry (May 6th):
The meat industry is increasingly proving to be a Covid-19 hotspot. During an outbreak, workers are rapidly infected with the virus, but meat production in the factories continues. By now, more than 300 workers have been infected with the virus at Müller-Fleisch in Germany. The non-infected workers are compelled to continue to work. The loss of manpower is passed on to the remaining workers: Romanian contract workers report that now they have to sweat away 7 days a week in the night shifts. The cramped working and living conditions of the migrant workers are a constant risk of infection. For the tiny accommodations, which the workers rent from the company, they are charged enormous sums of money. While they receive the German minimum wage, one worker reports that she pays 250€ back to the company each month, for a 10m2 room that she shares with another worker.
These conditions are not specific to Germany. In Valencia, Spain, migrant workers in a meat factory have been on strike since February 25th. They strike for the abolition of their status in fake self-employment. Empty strike funds cause a threat to existence for many of them. This shows how miserable the conditions in the meat packing industry were even before the pandemic.
In the US, 22 meat packing factories have at least been temporarily closed down due to horrendous numbers of infections among workers. In Smithfield Food’s pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at least 700 workers were infected with Covid-19. In the US, too, mainly migrants work in the meat processing plants. After the shutdowns Trump used his authority under the Defence Production Act to get the assembly lines running again. His “Get Back to Work” order of April 28th forces workers back into the dangerous factory halls after at least 20 workers from the sector have already died after contracting Corona. With Trump’s decree and further legal protection shields for the companies, the possibilities for workers to legally fight the dangerous working conditions are massively restricted. Nevertheless, workers in the meat industry across the country are organizing work stoppages and calling for workers to refuse to work unless protection and health care are guaranteed. Several meat factories thus still have to restrict production because of work refusals and a rising number of sick-outs.