Many questions have been asked about the outbreaks of coronavirus in and around several German abattoirs. The first answer was that cramped living conditions for migrant workers were the main reason behind the outbreak, which has resulted in whole districts being quarantined.

However, researchers have found that low temperature within the buildings and poorly-filtered recirculated air have been the main drivers of the outbreaks.

The worst hit meat processing plant, in which 30,000 pigs are killed every day, the giant Tonnies abattoir, has seen most of its workforce infected. Almost all of them are from Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.

Most of the 2,000 people who have contracted coronavirus in the Gütersloh area of North Rhine-Westphalia work at the plant, which employs 7,000. Now, whole communities have been fenced off and guarded by police and private security staff. Many of them don’t understand and are desperate for explanations.

“We’re European as well. We have rights. You can’t put us behind a fence,” one Bulgarian man shouted to a BBC reporter. Another said: “I’m so upset. I’ve got my family at home in Bulgaria. We normally send money over to them. They are waiting for the money to come.”

Volker Brüggenjürgen, a worker with the Caritas charity and head of the Green party on Gütersloh council, has accused the firm of “systemic exploitation”, saying that migrant workers have been forced to work in cramped conditions for many years and given “10 minutes to eat”.

He visited the plant a month ago and claims that there was no sign of any social distancing inside, he told the BBC. “I saw the canteen and I saw the cutting belts. Even on May 15 people were working normally,” he said. “They were standing right next to each other while dismantling the meat.”

The developing situation is being observed closely elsewhere in Europe. In the meantime, long-term sub-standard working conditions and crowded housing at the plants has brought hope that improvements may now be made.

PHOTO: Local volunteers take food supplies in trolleys to hand over the fenced-off worker housing at the Gütersloh abattoir