Statement by the Mayor of Weißenfels, Robby Risch, on the measures relating to Tönnies
Dear citizens of Weißenfels,
In light of recent events I would like to speak to you today and use this medium to do so. At the same time, I would also like to thank BLK Online TV for getting involved here and also for helping to ensure that citizens of this region are well informed.
First of all: a great big thank you. To all of you for the discipline you have already shown in these times of coronavirus. We cannot predict when there will be a final resolution but it is this discipline that has ultimately helped us to get through this period up until now.
And now to the events in Gütersloh, specifically in the town of Rheda-Wiedenbrück, the site of Tönnies’ head office. Everyone knows that the company also operates a large abattoir in Weißenfels. Of course there are concerns. Of course it makes you think. And unfortunately it is just as clear that there are a multitude of reports – including false reports. For this reason, I would like to take the opportunity to briefly report on how we, that is the district responsible and the town of Weißenfels, are handling this situation. Maybe just one more point: we are seeing positive cooperation. Whether with the public health authority or the Directorate of Civil Protection in Naumburg – we are in close contact and communication. We regularly receive the latest figures. In this regard, I can only thank you.
What has actually happened recently? And why do I even want to speak to you here? Yes, there were the events in Rheda-Wiedenbrück. Several hundred cases were identified in the mass testing carried out by the company Tönnies. The local district then took over. With the current result: over 1,500 employees of the company are infected.
Maybe you have all followed the reports that, for the first time, the district had to get involved. We wanted to avoid this here and so we undertook an intensive exchange of information. This means, we delivered, and the result is something that you in the digital sector know as the Corona app. It is precisely because there are not yet any results, in particular, no nationwide or company-specific results, that we want to be prepared for all cases. We want to know: Where do the employees live? Where is their residence? Who are the contact partners? Who is responsible here on site?
At this point, I would just like to reiterate: there is good cooperation, not only with Tönnies, but also with the contracting companies. We have been in contact with them for three years and to such an extent that we already know a lot about the housing situation. I can also tell you that, for example, additional cleaning staff have been hired to disinfect the apartments. The responsibilities in this regard are known.
I have also held meetings with my colleague in Rheda-Wiedenbrück because, after all, we do not want to reinvent the wheel for this case, but instead we must consider: What worked well? What was reported for all cases? And you know that it is not just the directly affected employees who are concerned but also the population as a whole. And I personally include myself in this. Many people are now naturally worried about the summer holidays. Is it going to be the same for us as for the residents of the Gütersloh region who were suddenly declared to be persona non grata in some areas of Germany, and who cannot even go on holiday?
For precisely this reason, we are carrying out extensive cross-sectional testing there. We are looking for a representative cross-section of the population. But everyone must be aware: a test of this type is always only a snapshot. Everything can be completely different from one day to the next. It is thus important that tests are carried out regularly.
What appears to emerge, however, is that it is specifically the working conditions that cause a particularly high risk of infection. Maybe now everyone will think: that is hard work, that is stressful. Yes, it is a hard job and I believe we are all aware of that now. So why we do leave this work to migrant workers – which is the correct term – from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria?
In these production areas, which are subject to permanent refrigeration for hygiene reasons, the air circulation plays a not insignificant role. Imagine this: you sit in an air-conditioned car and switch the air-conditioning to circulating air. Of course, where many people work, there is also a supply of fresh air. But you can well imagine what happens – maybe you have even tried it out: even if there is only one infected person, there is of course a high risk of infection. At the moment, this appears to be the risk factor, which is why this has happened not just at Tönnies and Westfleisch but also at other food companies.
We have now also resumed contact with the district, we have also pointed out again that these working conditions are not a Tönnies-specific problem. We have large food industries in our region: there are the warehouses and butchering companies in Osterfeld. There is Henglein, the dumpling manufacturer. They may also occur in other sectors, for example, the greenhouse in Zorbau is one place in which the employees work in separate, air-conditioned areas.
Yes – and that’s when mistakes are made. And in my view, it would clearly be one of those mistakes if personalisation is now requested in schools, in institutions – regardless of by whom. Yes, we want to be prepared. Yes, we want to create an app like this. But no, we do not want to put a number on or identify anyone in person. I believe that will prove to be an error in these eventful times, even if afterwards.
What is actually happening here in the town – or specifically at Tönnies? Why for example, is there a press release today to say that a Tönnies employee has tested positive?
But first of all: someone will now say: it’s started! No, I do not think that this is so. It is in fact the case that Tönnies has been implementing internal measures since the start of the corona crisis. For example, since the middle of February, the temperature has been recorded for all employees. As soon as there are any indications of fever or other illness symptons, these employees must see the company doctor or attend the fever centre, which was here in Weißenfels until recently.
Locally we have a high number of permanent staff. Employees who return from holiday must also take a test as soon as possible. They must live in separately rented apartments and, only when the test result is actually proven as negative, in other words, when it has been confirmed, may they return to work, or more correctly, return to employment, at the site. This system has been successful up to now which is why we have not recorded any cases of coronavirus, even within the town.
There were two cases. One was on 10 June. This was the situation: an employee was tested before starting employment. So he was never on the site. And this is still the case today: the employee who applied for work took this test before starting work and is now an infected person. However, he will also not start work.
And as we are back on the subject of tests: I have already said it. Yes, it is a snapshot. And when this mass testing took place at Tönnies between 14 May and 20 May, whereby around 50 percent of employees – almost 1,200 people – voluntarily took the test, I was not the only one to feel uneasy. We had no idea how high the estimated number of cases would be because many infected persons displayed few symptoms or none at all at times.
Probably like many, or like all of us in Weißenfels, I was pleased that this mass testing turned out to be negative. Of course, it was positive for the town. We are following with interest how Tönnies has been carrying out cross-sectional testing on its workforce for several weeks now, from administration to the meat-cutting belt, to avoid a repeat of the situation in which a major coronavirus outbreak can occur.
And finally, one more request: one or other false reports are currently circulating in social media, which is not uncommon for our time. However, what I would vehemently protest is the claim that we discussed an issue at the city council the week before, on Thursday 18 June, that employees from Gütersloh had been sent to Weißenfels to work. In essence that the town, town council, administration are aware – and are doing nothing! Firstly, this was never the issue. Secondly, it can almost be ruled out – I briefly described the procedure at Tönnies – that employees come here from Gütersloh because the company is not on a suicide mission. They know precisely which obligations they have. Not to their subsidiaries to which the meat goes, but primarily to their employees and their families, and also to the region. I can thus understand the calls for a protest event, for example, and for ecological agriculture. But please not with the slogan: a transfer takes place here under the responsible eyes of the administration and the responsible committees even though it causes a risk to health here in Weißenfels.
In this regard, I am, as before, very optimistic that we will make it through this crisis. I would like to explicitly thank the company for implementing its defined measures, at great cost, but also with great discipline. I am counting on the fact that, in the future – and significantly accelerated by the coronavirus – other living and working conditions will be implemented here too. For what very few know is that, before the coronavirus crisis, Tönnies had already enforced an Agenda 2030 – Agenda T30 – which had specifically this goal: the production of high-quality meat under other husbandry conditions, the housing of employees in the form of supervision in appropriate accommodation. This extends to the creation of leisure time or appropriate leisure activities.
In this regard: we do not have the all-clear. At this point, it is quite obvious. Please continue to remain disciplined and trust that we have our eye on the events and, ultimately, on all those responsible, so that we can get through this crisis.