Migrant Labour and Workers' Struggles: The German Meatpacking Industry as Contested Terrain


  • Peter Birke University of Göttingen
  • Felix Bluhm University of Göttingen




This article summarises results of a project whose aim was to analyse the role of migration within the current recomposition of the working class in Germany. We focus on the example of the meat industry in the Oldenburger Münsterland, a region that is experiencing a strong economic boom based on the expansion and modernisation of industrial work. The exploitation of migrant labour, composed of “newcomers” to the industry with both European Union and refugee backgrounds, is a pivotal feature of that boom. Most research on migrant labour focuses on legal frameworks and labour market dynamics. By focusing instead on the labour process, we are able to examine the connections between exploitation, resistance and collective organisation among migrant workers. We show that the experience of migrant workers is not one of complete powerlessness and subjugation. We contrast workers in two sub-sectors, slaughtering and packing on the one hand and industrial cleaning on the other. Although both of these activities are similarly low-wage and migrant-dominated, we find variation in the ability of these workers to exercise power. The importance of skill and the need to avoid turnover gives workers in slaughtering and packing some levers of power, despite their vulnerable immigration status. This power has even instigated a shift towards some formalisation of these jobs on the part of management. In contrast, the different labour process has prevented industrial cleaning workers from accessing the same levels of power, despite sharing a similar labour market position to their co-workers in slaughtering and packing.

KEY WORDS: Migration; refugees; labor unrest; trade unions; subcontracting; meat industry

Author Biography

Felix Bluhm, University of Göttingen

Sociological Research Institute