There is a rather unpleasant smell present in the slaughterhouses in Anderlecht, Belgium. Not the odour of offal, but one of exploitation and social dumping. Some of the women working there earn just six euros an hour.

Anyone familiar with the site of Anderlecht’s the slaughterhouses and markets, locally known as “den Abattoir”, is also familiar with the industriousness of the people of all creeds and colours who come here to purchase their meat. They do so because it is relatively cheap and located in the centre of the international district. The site is managed by a firm known as nv Abatan, while the slaughter lines are operated by two companies; bvba Abaco (for cattle) and bvba Seva (for pigs).

In addition, there are some 45 SMEs present which butcher the beef and pork at rented stalls before selling it on to the public. And these small businesses in particular engage the services of workers from Eastern Europe, such as Romanians. However, this is not always organised in accordance with regulations. At least, this is what two women who actually work in ‘den Abattoir' claim. “There are loads of us. And nobody has a contract. We work on the black. And we are being underpaid.”

The one lady is paid eight euros an hour, the other only six, which is far short of the minimum wage. They wish to see neither their names nor ages published in the newspapers, however. “Yes, we are being exploited, but we keep our mouths shut for fear of being shown the door. There are plenty of others just queuing up to take our places. And we simply cannot afford to become unemployed.”

Ten-minute lunch break

According to Codruta-Liliana Filip of the Romanian Social Democratic Party’s women’s organisation, all the Romanian women involved tell pretty much the same story: they usually have no contract, are sometimes also illegal immigrants, are underpaid, work long hours, are allowed one ten-minute lunch break, and often work weekends, too. There is no mention of them receiving holiday pay, never mind an end-of-year bonus. In fact, their bosses generally even forbid them from speaking their own language.

“I once tried to get in touch with the women selling the meat myself”, Ms Filip admits. “I wanted to invite them to a Romanian cultural event. Their employer appeared in a flash, however, and insisted that I translate everything that had been said, ‘to make sure I had no dishonest intentions’, whatever that means.”

“I work ten-hour days”, says the lady who earns eight euros. “I sometimes work eleven hours on the trot, particularly at the weekend”, the other adds. “I have also worked as a salesperson, however, which pays a little better."

One of the workers appreciates her employer’s predicament. “We are in the middle of an economic crisis. Meat companies have substantial expenses, such as the vet’s fees. If they were obliged to pay us thirteen euros an hour, they might not make any profit at all. And it’s still better than what I’d earn in Romania. You’re lucky to make 150 euros a month there, even if you are qualified. It’s little wonder that we have sought to make a future for ourselves elsewhere.”

Germany, the guilty party

Codruta-Liliana Filip: “There are problems everywhere, the meat processing sector certainly appears the worst. The workers have to endure abominable conditions. The women are the most vulnerable. Belgium has a severe lack of butchers, which many Romanians can help address. They are nevertheless treated very badly."

“I understand their fear of speaking out. They can be readily replaced with others who are prepared to accept the terms imposed. At the end of the day, they are just ‘happy’ that they can afford their daily bread, while also putting a little aside. It is nevertheless essential that we address this issue. Companies that do treat their workforce fairly are facing unfair competition. It is in everyone’s best interest that we endeavour to achieve equal working conditions. Otherwise we are simply condoning social dumping and fraud. The end result of such practices is human suffering.”

“I have no wish to blacken the employers’ reputations. I am not out to condemn them. I am familiar with the difficulties being faced in the European labour market. Belgium has to compete with other member states.” The imbalance in the market, however, is primarily due to the meat processing industry in Germany, which has no minimum wage regulation. “This is not a Belgian problem, but a European one.”

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