On Tuesday, May 17 Western Washington University announced it had a new food vendor, Aramark.
The news came after the university cut ties with global food giant Sodexo following on-campus protests and reports by the Human Right’s Watch, transAfrica forum, and University of Washington professor Angelina Godoy that Sodexo had violated basic workers’ rights. But UW itself is undecided as to whether it will renew its own $3.4 million contract with Sodexo, which ends in June 2012.
And the students are angry.
Interim president Phyllis Wise “is valuing a corporate relationship over those with the students,” said UW sophomore and Kick Out Sodexo Coalition organizer Morgan Currier. The group formed seven months ago to get the company off campus as well as send it a message. “We know what you’re doing to your workers, and we’re telling you it’s unacceptable,” said Currier, who urges the university to sever the contract with Sodexo rather than simply forgoing renewal. "It’s the only way to hold the company accountable for its actions.”
Sodexo is accused, among other things, of serving rotten food to its workers, forcing overtime without pay, banning unions, paying poverty wages, requiring that female job applicants take pregnancy tests, and firing women in favor of white males.
Currier and fellow students from around the nation took a trip to the Dominican Republic this past January to speak with management and witness working conditions. They report learning that the company frequently hires those on parole and threatens to send them back to jail if they quit. But it was the account of a woman who got stuck in a fridge during a shift and was later threatened by her boss to keep quiet that motivated Currier most, she said.
With the evidence against Sodexo mounting, Currier and fellow students are confused as to why the contract hasn’t yet been made void. UW is the last public university in the state that holds a contract with Sodexo, something Currier finds “embarrassing”.
Wise declined to comment directly, but associate vice president for media and communications Norman Arkans said that as a responsible business partner, the university needs to make sure the accusations are reliable before taking extreme measures such as terminating a contract. This summer, said Arkans, the school plans to look into legal actions taken against the company to examine issues and how they were solved. "We’re in the position of trying to be a judge," he said.
Commenting on Western Washington’s decision to break bread with another vendor, Arkans said that it had nothing to do with student protests, but instead was simply an economic decision. And about UW’s student protesters who’ve been arrested during sit-ins, he had this to say: "They’ve had the courage of their convictions; you have to respect that."
The school plans to take bids this fall during an "open, competitive business process". Sodexo may choose to compete.