OPINION: Leaving Sodexo: What about the workers?

An assortment of dining hall foods are scattered within the silhouette of a chef and his mustache.
(Annie Wu • The Student Life)

For the last few years, students have protested against Scripps College using Sodexo as the food provider for the Malott Dining Commons. However, these discussions have often excluded the consequences on the dining hall workers contracted with Scripps, and their potential rehabilitation. 

When my friend asked, “Hey, want to go to protest Sodexo at the presentation after lunch?” I said “Sure.” Another massive corporation that gives me fish tacos at the cost of human rights — let’s crush them. Before heading out, I did some quick research to brush up on my facts. 

According to a Human Rights Watch report, Sodexo “committed serious violations of workers’ freedom of association at its commercial laundry facility in Phoenix, Arizona.” The same report highlights their acts against their workers unionizing, such as firing union supporters and practicing “threat-filled captive-audience meetings.” 

AFSC Investigate states Sodexo operates private prisons in Australia and the U.K., where a number of significant problems were reported. For example, HMP Forest Bank has more drug and phone seizures than all other prisons in England.

Additionally, the Independent reports that a woman held at HMP Bronzefield was kept segregated from prisoners in an “unkempt and squalid” cell for more than five years. HMP Peterborough prison had humiliating strip searches done on menstruating and transgender prisoners, according to the BBC; the U.K. Ministry of Justice criticized Sodexo for the searches, according to AFSC

Many colleges have dropped Sodexo for these reasons. The very idea of making profit off of incarcerating humans in (at least) questionable conditions is morally dubious. 

As I listened during the Sodexo presentation at Scripps, a firm look of defiance was pressed on my face. I looked around to see students wearing “Drop Sodexo” signs on their T-shirts with the exact same facial expression. 

Ah, unity, I thought. The fresh feeling of activism fueled our drive to do what was right. Our colleges teach us social responsibility and to stand up to injustices that we see. 

But as I looked back at the stage, I felt uncomfortable. A nervous man was stumbling through his speech, our piercing glares and “Drop Sodexo” signs poking through any self-confidence he had. 

He said, “I would like to send my kids to college too, if that’s what they would like.” 

Another employee came up to the mic and said, “We’re trying our hardest to do stuff for the students. I just hope they appreciate that because we’re really breaking our backs. We wake up at four in the morning sometimes and we don’t go home until late at night. … We’re here most of the time, [more] than we are at home.”

If I was fighting against this evil corporation, why did my heart feel so heavy to see sadness on the friendly faces who handed me their (admittedly delicious) fish tacos? I realized that any discussion around dropping Sodexo needs to be focused around the rehabilitation of these workers. 

I asked my friend, “So, what happens to the workers if this succeeds?” 

She whispered back, “I am not sure, but our main goal is getting Sodexo out first. We can manage that later.”

As students active in this protest, we have to take care of the consequences of our actions. Most of our staff are in contract with Scripps, not Sodexo, according to previous reporting by TSL, so the majority would have job security during a transition. 

However, any change in management brings new negotiations, stress and uncertainty for workers. While it is effective to fight these major corporations and show them that what their consumers demand are social responsibility, we must also fight for tangible realities. We must protect our community: the people who often stay until 1 a.m. and arrive at 4 a.m. to provide us with nutritious and delicious meals.

As admirable as it is to stand up to the bigger picture, if we do not take care of those around us, our social justice ambitions may be contradicted. The first priority in this critical decision is to see who will be harmed and how we can help.

Every employee is an individual before they are part of a corporation — working hard and providing their best efforts. To turn a blind eye to the possible implications of this decision is unnecessarily hurting the people who we set out to help. Our discussion needs to shift to center around the comfort of workers during a potential transition.  

Avika Jindel PO 23 is from Singapore. She likes to combat social justice issues, read Murakami and debate with her friends.

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