Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Producing more, faster and for less money. That's how Tönnies became Germany's biggest meat processing company. And how Clemens Tönnies became a bill- ionaire. But in June, 1,500 contract workers at the company's Rheda-Wiedenbrück facility caught Coronavirus. Most came from Eastern Europe and lived in cramped, shared apartments like these. So many people live in such a small space. There might be one toilet for ten people. Contract workers get less money and fewer rights. And not just in the meat industry. German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil now wants to change things. We will ban contract work and temporary work in the core activities of the meat industry. The pandemic called attention to contract-worker exploitation in Germany. The town of Verl, near Rheda-Wiedenbrück, at the end of June. Thousands of people from Eastern Europe are essentially under house arrest, guarded by police. Their work at the Tönnies slaughterhouse has been suspended. Around 7,000 employees are in quarantine. A few kilometers away, a relief operation is underway. Rheda-Wiedenbrück residents have made donations for the workers. One of the organizers is Inge Bultschnieder. For over seven years she's been fighting for the rights of Tönnies workers. There's much more than we ever expected. It happened at very short notice. Our idea is to give care packages in solidarity. So the workers see that this anger isn't directed at them, but at others. Over a thousand packages have been collected, containing food, toiletries, and even toys. Plamena Georgieva and Stanimir Mihaylov distribute donations in Verl, where many Tönnies workers live in shared apartments. Mihaylov and Georgieva give support to migrant workers from Eastern Europe. They translate for us. One Bulgarian says he's been a meat cutter for Tönnies for eighteen months. For example, if a veterinarian marks any spots on the pig that are not suitable for consumption, one of his jobs is to cut them off. The man is employed by a subcontractor. He gets the minimum wage, ?9.35 an hour. He hasn't received a paycheck for months. He lives here, in an 80 square meter apartment with eight others. Next door we meet some men and women from Poland. The men are contract workers for Tönnies and also live here in collective accommodation. How many live here? Eight or nine. They're three-room apartments. We want to know more about the Tönnies workers' living conditions. We say we'll give them a camera for 20 minutes so they can take some pictures of their place. One of the men refuses. The other one takes our camera and goes off to take some pictures. But after a few moments he comes back. Another man appears behind him. He doesn't seem to like the contract worker talking to us. The worker is told to give the camera back. We ask who the man is. Is that the boss? Yes. He sends the workers back into the house. He ordered them to leave? It's a shame that happened. Because some of them wanted to talk to us and to tell us what was happening to them. I hope there are no bad consequences for them now. Workers behind fences, guarded by police. How did it come to this? In June 2020, there was a Coronavirus outbreak at Tönnies in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, Germany's largest slaughterhouse. These pictures are from before the pandemic. The ventilation system is said to be to blame for the mass infections, as well as insufficient physical distancing between employees. One of the workers talked about his experiences in a cell phone video. As long as you felt healthy, no one worried that you kept working. They only cared about the money. They didn't care if we died or not. It's likely the employees spread the virus from the workplace to their homes. Many live with three to four people in a single room. So the outbreak grew. More than 6,000 Tönnies workers were tested. More than fifteen-hundred were positive. Locals were also being tested. In June, the district went into lockdown again. And Tönnies working conditions became a focus of global attention. A small village in the south of Romania. Alberto Gogu lives in this house with his family. He literally fled from Rheda-Wiedenbrück in mid-June. As a contract worker at Tönnies he experienced the coronavirus outbreak. He says physical distancing at work was impossible. Even in the canteen it was too crowded. We were told to distance ourselves, but that was impossible. Otherwise we'd have to be standing up. Alberto says that when the first workers got sick, he and his colleagues had to work much more. He was doing up to 12 hours a day on the production line, even when he felt sick himself. I told the boss, I'm not feeling well, I have to see a doctor. She said, You're not going anywhere. Alberto was afraid of catching Coronavirus. He went back to Romania in mid-June. He's spent the last 12 years doing contract work in Germany. But after his experiences in the last few months, he says he's had enough. Thousands of people like Alberto Gogu work at Tönnies, even though the company doesn't actually employ them. Here's how this system of contract work and temporary work functions. Usually, companies have a core workforce. If there's more to do at short notice, temporary workers can be hired. They become part of the company for a limited time. Temporary work is rare in the meat industry. What's common is contract work. This is when a company hires subcontractors to carry out a specific job, like cutting up animal carcasses. The subcontractor sends its workers to do the job. The original company pays for the work to be done, but doesn't take responsibility for the personnel who do it. They don't belong to the company. The Tönnies site at Rheda-Wiedenbrück works with around 25 subcontractors, who mostly source their workers from Eastern Europe. Of a total of 16,500 employees, only half are employed by Tönnies. The other half are contract workers. That's the system Inge Bultschnieder is fighting against. When she heard about the poor working and living conditions at Tönnies, she decided to act. In 2013 she and others founded a group to help those affected by exploitative employment. She shows us articles about her work. As early as 2014, the group was pointing out contract workers' often alarming living conditions. We laid out the plan of the building with a tarpaulin, and used labels to show what we'd seen. There'd be a bed, and even that might be a bunk bed. So many people live in such a small space. There might be one toilet for ten people. Bultschnieder shows us a cell phone video she made in a flat shared by Tönnies workers. The living rooms are filled with beds, three to four people sleep in a room. The bathroom is completely run-down. Today, many say they knew nothing about the situation. But Bultschnieder and her fellow-activists have been criticizing these conditions for seven years. In 2015, they took their concerns to the highest level. Sigmar Gabriel, then economy minister and vice-chancellor, visited them. He took notes as he heard about the situation. He was so interested. We felt sure that now something would change. When he left our house, we cheered. We said, Now something will happen. She could hardly believe what happened next. Clemens Tönnies took Gabriel on a guided tour of his meat processing plant, in front of the cameras. It was a PR coup for the businessman. The Vice Chancellor was full of praise, despite knowing about the problems at Tönnies. Later he wrote on Facebook. ...it's good that Tönnies sets positive standards in an industry that also has its share of bad apples. 5 years on, Sigmar Gabriel briefly worked for Clemens Tönnies as a consultant — for 10,000 euros a month. And Tönnies, with all his contacts in the political world, is one of Germany's richest people, with an estimated private fortune of up to 2 billion euros. Enough to employ a host of contract workers — whose poor living and working conditions have been known for years — and even a former German vice chancellor. Not every part of the meat industry relies on contract workers. There are still around 13,000 so-called craft butchers in Germany. Herbert Dohrmann runs five of them in Bremen. His family business employs around 70 people. How many of your personnel are contract workers? None of them. They wouldn't be here if I put them on a work contract. And temporary workers? No temporary workers either. A lot of them have been with me for over ten or 15 years. Pork chops from a cheap supermarket might cost six euros a kilo. Dohrmann charges double that. It's not only because of higher wages. Large slaughterhouses have lower costs. Factory farmed pigs are cheaper. It's advertised as regional pork, that's all very well. But look. The certification level is one. That's industrial pig farming, where only the lowest requirements of animal welfare are fulfilled. As president of the German Butchers' Association, Dohrmann says small butchers are at a disadvantage. For example, a government-certified veterinary examination of a pig costs a small business up to 24 euros. Businesses that slaughter several thousand animals a day pay less, according to regional fee scales. At the big industrial places that price is at most one-fifty to two euros. In addition, small butchers pay higher fees for disposing slaughterhouse waste and spend more on electricity because of renewable-energy levies. Dohrmann isn't trying to match the industrial slaughterhouses' prices. But he does want more support from politicians. We don't want special treatment, just equal treatment. Giant slaughterhouses aren't just a threat to smaller competitors, but often to their own workers too. Volker Brüggenjürgen is the chairman of the charity Caritas in the district of Gütersloh. He's witnessed how the Tönnies company went from being a simple butcher's store to Germany's largest slaughterhouse and meat-processor. He says Clemens Tönnies made his fortune at the expense of workers. Tönnies makes most of the profit, of course. There's no question that they've exploited the poverty gap for professional gain. They also profit because if there are blatant violations, it's always the subcontractors' fault. Tönnies always keeps its hands clean. Brüggenjürgen has been advising Tönnies contract workers and their families since 2016. He and his colleagues have held more than 10,000 consultations. He knows the methods used to keep monthly wages low. Technically, the minimum wage is what's on the pay slip, but then there might be 150 or 300 euros deducted for accommodation. Or for cleaning materials or shoes. Whatever they can deduct. Or they increase the rent when people are sick. That type of thing. There isn't much left over from the minimum wage.