By Maria Sheahan
BERLIN (Reuters) - Police searched more than 40 homes and businesses in five German states early on Wednesday as part of an investigation into foreign workers being illegally brought to the country to be exploited in the meatpacking industry.
Police want to question more than 80 foreign workers, mostly from non-European Union eastern European countries, including Ukraine and Belarus, a spokesman for federal police said.
Germany's meatpacking sector has come under fire this year for the widespread use of sub-contracted migrant workers from eastern Europe, as cramped accommodation and poor oversight were blamed for accelerating coronavirus outbreaks.
In response, the German cabinet passed a new law in July compelling meatpackers to employ staff directly in industrial abattoirs rather than sub-contracting.
At the centre of the investigation are two companies, IRC and Berkana, suspected of having brought workers to Germany illegally, possibly using forged documents, for meatpacking jobs, as well as 10 individuals with Russian or eastern European roots, the spokesman said. He did not name the suspects.
During the raids, police seized cash and other valuables worth 1.5 million euros ($1.75 million), the sum they estimate the companies made illicitly by passing on to workers only a fraction of the money meatpackers paid for their services.
"We have a minimum wage in Germany, but we have to assume that foreign workers don't necessarily know that, and that they receive much less than that," the police spokesman said.
IRC Czuprynscy in Poland said it was not possible for the company to send anyone to Germany with forged papers, while declining further comment. Berkana had no immediate comment.
The raids focused on the town of Weissenfels in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, where Germany's largest meatpacker and exporter Toennies has a factory.
A Toennies spokesman said there had been no raids at any of its offices or factories. He could not say whether IRC and Berkana were subcontractors of Toennies.
(Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski and Matthias Inverardi; Writing by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Michelle Martin and Barbara Lewis)