Sodexo Workers’ Experiences Ignored

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons:  smacks4u
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons: smacks4u

With Emory’s food service contract with the French multinational corporation Sodexo set to expire at the end of this academic year, the two finalists for the next contract — Sodexo and the California food service company Bon Appetit — each presented their case to the Emory community on Monday and Tuesday at Harland Cinema. Both presentations emphasized the respective companies’ commitments to environmental sustainability and quality food. On the question of food service workers, however, both Sodexo and Bon Appetit were largely silent. The food service workers, who are a crucial part of our community at Emory and whose work makes possible everything else that happens at our university.

We find this omission troubling given the scrutiny that Sodexo’s labor policies have received in recent years and especially in the context of Emory’s stated mission “to create, preserve, teach and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.” Fulfilling this ambitious and laudable mission requires more than just talk. It requires action. In the best case, the renewal of the food service contract represents an opportunity for Emory to renew its commitment to justice and responsibility. In the worst case, it represents a betrayal of that same commitment, reducing Emory’s mission to little more than words on a page.

Demands for strong worker protections — including living wages, guaranteed benefits and the right to freedom of association — are sometimes portrayed as little more than naive, youthful idealism. In our view, the opposite is the case. In light of a large and publicly available body of evidence on Sodexo’s labor practices, the real idealism would be to assume that Sodexo’s self-congratulatory claims to ethical conduct reflect what is actually happening.

In 2010, Human Rights Watch, in 19 pages of extensive documentation drawing on examples from three states, concluded that “despite claims of adherence to international standards on workers’ freedom of association,” Sodexo policies include “threatening workers that they can be permanently replaced if they exercise the right to strike for improved wages and conditions” and that “in some instances, Sodexo has crossed the line to anti-union behavior unlawful under both U.S. law and international standards.” A year later, a TransAfrica Forum report found that “Around the world, its workers argue that Sodexo’s employment practices violate their workers’ human right to their own livelihood.” Citing examples from Colombia, Guinea, the Dominican Republic, Morocco and the United States, the report concludes that Sodexo’s business model “keeps workers poor and locks their communities into seemingly endless cycles of poverty.”

Many of these claims have been further documented as realities on Emory’s campus. Echoing Human Rights Watch’s findings, a 2010 Wheel article investigated a series of mandatory “union-related” meetings held by Sodexo on Emory’s campus. One Sodexo employee, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution, suggested that “Sodexo workers at Emory are largely in favor of unionizing, but many fear retaliation and therefore remain mum.” The employee added, “We don’t even know how many hours we’re going to work every week. We all go to work not knowing whether we will go home early or [if] our schedule might change.” At a public Worker’s Forum held at Emory in 2011, another Sodexo employee testified that “There are several pregnant women that I work with who have to stand all day long … It’s like whatever they can get away with, they do it.” According to the Wheel, the panel’s consensus was that “Sodexo offers neither a secure job environment nor a compassionate one.”

In response to student pressure, Emory commissioned a Committee on Class and Labor to investigate labor practices on campus. Its conclusions, released in Jan. 2013, warrant close scrutiny in the context of the ongoing contract negotiations:
“Officials from the six [major Emory contractors, including Sodexo] expressed varying but substantial discomfort with the very idea of our engaging directly with their employees … We could not ascertain how Emory’s contracted employees experience their situations on our campus… The University therefore cannot claim that it knows the status of the contracted workers’ experience. And this lack of direct knowledge, in turn, is a key indicator of the difficulties encountered by a university striving both to implement ethically responsible oversight and to rely on outside businesses.”

Disturbingly, this finding suggests that Sodexo employees who wish to raise concerns about their employment status have few options beyond speaking anonymously, to the Wheel, under fear of retribution.

Over the past several months, Emory representatives have made vague statements regarding the “institutional values and practices” that will guide the contract selection process. The presence of Sodexo in the final round of this process, however, raises serious concerns about whether these values have materially influenced Emory’s decision making. To this point, Emory has failed to follow through on its 2013 commitments to “Make the rationale and process for choosing major contractors more transparent” and develop “measurable ethical standards” and “a minimally acceptable score” on labor and ethical issues. In order to make possible a policy that provides meaningful protections to subcontracted workers on our campus, it is crucial that the Committee on Class and Labor be held accountable to these commitments during their presentation at the University Senate meeting on Feb. 24.

Concerned members of the Emory community should demand what any Goizueta or Emory Law student would demand: we want a concrete policy, in writing, and we want to see it before we sign it. The contractual provisions protecting campus worker’s rights, and ensuring that their treatment by contractors meets the high moral and ethical standards of our community, must be specific, measurable, enforceable and open to extended clarification, discussion and debate by all members of the community, including and especially the workers themselves.

The necessity of such action — and the unacceptability of Sodexo’s presence on our campus — should go without saying for a university that aspires to ethical leadership and service to humanity.

Mike Demers is a College freshman from Merrimack, New Hampshire. Ross Gordon (‘12C) is an alumnus of the College from Chicago, Illinois.