German labor minister pledges to better protect migrant workers

German labor minister pledges to better protect migrant workers

German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil said he would use his country’s EU presidency to push for stricter enforcement of protections for migrant workers in the wake of a scandal in German slaughterhouses that has exposed severe exploitation of workers, many from Eastern Europe.

Heil, whose government has faced criticism for not acting sooner on reports of widespread abuse of migrant workers, said in an interview with media that Berlin would focus on using existing laws and better coordination between EU capitals, rather than new regulations.

He added that he would coordinate a “European action plan” in the coming weeks with his counterparts from across the EU to improve conditions, after Germany takes on the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1.

“One doesn’t always need to invent new laws, because the best rules are useless if they aren’t being enforced,” said Heil, a senior Social Democrat who has been labor minister since 2018, during a wide-ranging interview in his office. “Our goal is to apply existing European and national laws to more effectively protect workers.”

Outbreaks of coronavirus in a number of German slaughterhouses have brought to light the poor conditions in which many of the workers are forced to work and live, described by many critics as “degrading.” Heil pledged to outlaw temporary contracts and other loopholes used by employers and their subcontractors in the meatpacking industry to circumvent Germany’s existing worker protection rules.

“This sector, to put things in drastic terms, is experiencing something like what the nuclear industry faced after Fukushima,” Heil said, referring to the Japanese nuclear disaster of 2011 that prompted Germany to accelerate its withdrawal from atomic power. “In other words, the broader public, parts of which ignored what was going on, has become much more aware of the dangers that have long existed. That creates political momentum for fundamental reforms in this area.”

Heil said Germany would rely on the recent reform of the EU’s posted worker directive to ensure income equality for all workers in Germany, regardless of where they come from. He also said Germany would take up the cause of Europe’s truckers, a long-suffering group whose labor rights have been overlooked for years.

“There are very practical things one can do to make their job easier, for example by making sure that those who can’t afford to spend the night at a truck stop have the opportunity to shower and take care of their personal needs,” Heil said.

A further priority for the German presidency in terms of social policy would be to push for an EU-wide agreement on minimum wages, Heil said. He added that he hoped the Commission, which is putting together a formal proposal, would present it by the EU’s October summit.

A failure to address social friction in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic would further fray Europe’s cohesion, he warned. Minimum-wage levels in the EU range from less than €2 per hour in Bulgaria to about €12 in Luxembourg. The aim of the planned reform is to narrow that range.

Heil said the coronavirus should serve as a “wake-up call” for Europeans to strengthen the EU’s “social dimension.”

“If we neglect it, the acceptance of further EU integration will recede,” he said. “To ignore Europe’s social problems is to strengthen Europe’s enemies and the friends of nationalism.”

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