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Workers from German meat packing plant with huge coronavirus outbreak claim grim conditions

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Berlin — A massive coronavirus outbreak at a meat processing plant in northwest Germany has led authorities in two districts to impose new, temporary lockdowns on businesses and residents. More than 1,500 of the 7,000 workers at the "Tönnies" meat packing plant in the Gütersloh district have tested positive, and all are now under strict quarantine. 

Workers now come forward with claims of harsh working conditions and poor accommodation that, aside from raising questions about fair treatment, appear to have fueled the outbreak of the deadly disease.

Guetersloh Region To Go Into Lockdown Following Over 1,500 Confirmed Covid-19 Cases
A translator speaks to residents of apartment buildings that house workers and their families from the Tönnies meat packing plant, who are all under quarantine following a COVID-19 outbreak among workers, June 23, 2020, near Guetersloh, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty

Around 3,000 Romanian and Bulgarian contract workers from the Tönnies plant live in the town of Rheda-Wiedenbruck in Gütersloh, along with about 3,000 more in the surrounding area. A Romanian worker has now accused the Tönnies group of failing to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

According to German news outlet SPIEGEL, the company installed a thermometer at the plant's entrance before the outbreak, but there was initially nobody there to operate or monitor it. The Romanian employee says workers "simply walked past it," without checking the reading. The company provided staff to operate the temperature check station just two days before all employees were put under quarantine amid a sharp rise in infections.

Another Romanian worker, who has since left the plant, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle the conditions at the facility were "very cold and damp, and the conveyor belts moved very fast. I heard colleagues crying at night in our accommodation because they were in such pain; their hands were completely swollen." 

Guetersloh Region Shuts Schools As Coronavirus Outbreak Worsens, 7,000 People In Quarantine
A Member of the German armed forces stands in front of the Tonnies meat packing plant during a coronavirus outbreak at the facility in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, June 19, 2020, near Guetersloh, Germany. Sascha Schuermann/Getty

"It was particularly bad when we were sick," the worker said. "The foremen would yell at us that we shouldn't bother bringing them sick notes."

A seasonal worker from Poland told German daily Merkur that when he contacted his manager, who was a subcontractor for the Tönnies plant, to call in sick with coronavirus symptoms, he was told he'd still have to show up unless he could prove he had COVID-19.

German labor unions and advocacy groups say the Tönnies group isn't to blame alone for the conditions, citing subcontractors who provide accommodation and other services for the workers. 

"There were sometimes 10, 12, occasionally even 14 people in one apartment," the Romanian worker told Deutsche Welle. "The buildings belonged to the subcontractors. One Romanian subcontractor, for example, had taken out a bank loan, bought a whole building, and rented out the apartments to workers. But it just isn't fair to cram so many people into one apartment." 

Guetersloh Region To Go Into Lockdown Following Over 1,500 Confirmed Covid-19 Cases
City employees deliver food and water to residents of apartment buildings that house workers from the nearby Tonnies meat packing plant who are under quarantine in the town of Verl following a COVID-19 outbreak among workers, June 23, 2020 near Guetersloh, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty

Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a professor of virology at the University of Hamburg, said the crowded living conditions for the employees of the Tönnies plant undoubtedly fueled the outbreak.

The conditions had already driven many Tönnies workers to leave Germany before the quarantine was implemented.

Three employees who returned to Bulgaria have been placed under quarantine, according to the mayor of the town of Beliza. The three were tested for COVID-19 in Germany, but they never got their test results.

"We are fine," one of the men said on Bulgarian television. "We came back because we were afraid."

The outbreak has brought significant scrutiny on the food company. Thomas Kuhlbusch, head of the crisis committee for the Gütersloh district, told local media that the city had been left with "zero trust in Tönnies."

The owner of the plant, Clemens Tönnies, has said he was "sorry" about the outbreak linked to his company. "I'm taking responsibility for this," he said, adding that he would, "do everything to lead this company out of this crisis."

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