French meat packing workers under the knife
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The western region of Brittany has long-enjoyed some of the highest employment figures in France thanks to its strong meat packing industry, but planned plant closures now threaten livelihoods spurring Paris into action.
For decades the “Brittany model” has been touted by many in France as a way to counter the decline of Europe’s rural farm areas. Intense and diverse livestock production, along with a locally-based meat packing industry, has helped France’s western region enjoy relative economic prosperity.
That model is now in trouble, with plans to shut several meat-packing plants, and Paris is scrambling to calm angry workers and farmers.
Gad, a pork slaughterhouse and packing firm in Brittany's far-west Finistère department, recently announced it would transfer or lay off close to 850 workers.
The announcement came amid further bad news about the planned closure of a nearby poultry plant that employs around 100 people and of a Norwegian-owned salmon tinning company that employs 450. The partial closure of Breton poultry giant Doux last year saw 900 workers fired.
These were the kind of ominous announcements that preceded the death knell of key French industries in the past, plunging wide swaths of the northern Pas-de-Calais and the southern Languedoc-Roussillon departments into chronic unemployment to this day.
But Brittany has largely bucked the trend. In 2012, the average unemployment rate in France was 10.2%. In Brittany the unemployment rate last year was 8.4%, closer to that of the United Kingdom (7.9%) and Sweden (8%).
Brittany’s business owners and farmers’ unions now claim the region is facing a full-blown “agribusiness crisis”.
Furious meat-packing workers invaded rail tracks this week, stopping a high-speed TVG train bound for Brest, the main city in Finistère.
Protests have also been organised against France’s so-called “ecotax”, slated to go into effect on January 1. Meant to target large, polluting trucks, businessmen and farmers say the new levy will increase the cost of transporting their products to market and shrink revenues.
The Socialist government of President François Hollande has reacted with uncharacteristic swiftness. Fifteen million euros will be set aside to help the Gad pork plant stay afloat and boost employment in Brittany, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced on Wednesday.
Two days later, the regional chamber of commerce said it would tap into six million euros of its own investment reserves to help find and support a new buyer for the struggling slaughterhouse.
Ayrault also announced that vehicles for agricultural purposes and milk-collection trucks would be exempt from the ecotax, and promised that the government would examine whether other ecotax exceptions could be found for Brittany.
Anger directed at Germany
Much of the anger in Brittany has been directed at Germany, who French meat-packing businesses accuse of unfair social dumping. They say German competitors are employing Eastern European abattoir workers for just three or four euros an hour under the country’s “mini-job” regime.
In a letter to Hollande this week, the French Coordination Rurale farmers’ union, called on the president to “make EU countries, and Germany in particular, listen to reason,” in order to stop a practice they said was, “devastating and contrary to the vision of the founding EU fathers.”
Germany’s “mini-job" workers can earn up to 450 euros per month without paying taxes or having money withheld for pensions. In addition, their employers don’t have to contribute to the social security system on their behalf.
French farmers are not the only ones nursing a gripe with Germany. In April, Belgium sent a letter to the European Commission complaining about the low wages in the German meat-packing firms.
France has yet to file a similar complaint to the EU Commission, but pressure is piling up on Hollande’s government to take further measures.
On Saturday, Breton fishermen joined farmers and truck drivers in a protest against the ecotax that blocked traffic in one of Brittany’s main highways.
“No to social dumping, yes to a European minimum wage,” many of them shouted.