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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jan 26, 2011, 7:16 am

On Workers’ Rights, Poor Reviews for Food Service Giant Sodexo

BY Michelle Chen

As one of the world's leading food service providers, known in some circles as one of the “most ethical” multinational firms, Sodexo has set a pretty high bar for itself, with operations in 80 countries and some 380,000 employees. But a report by the advocacy organization TransAfrica Forum shows that when it comes to workplace rights, a day in the life of a Sodexo worker is no picnic.

The report covers employees' struggles in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guinea, Morocco and the United States. Complementing an earlier report by Human Rights Watch, evidence provided by workers and organizers documents poverty wages, injuries on the job,  firings for trying to organize fellow workers, and, ironically, rancid food at the company canteen.

Sodexo has not surprisingly denied the allegations at length on its damage-control website, sodexoresponds.com. The company argues that TransAfrica's campaign feeds into the SEIU's long-running battle against the corporate giant and “seeks to force Sodexo to recognize the union without allowing its employees to exercise their right to vote for or against union representation.”

Sodexo's robust defense of the “right to vote for or against a union” isn't quite as democratic as it seems. Organizers routinely clash with management over the corruption endemic to the standard election process under the National Labor Relations Board (that's the impetus behind the Employee Free Choice Act). For many workers, the iniation of a formal election could unleash massive intimidation and union-busting campaigns orchestrated by management—and that's just in the U.S., nevermind places far more rife with labor abuses like Colombia and Guinea.

Workplace democracy looks different from the shop floor. According to complaints from workers in Colombia, the company has:

  • Threatened union supporters at multiple worksites they would be terminated if they continued to be involved with the union;
  • Interrogated individual union supporters at multiple worksites about their union activities;
  • Told Sodexo employees at multiple worksites that unionization was a futile exercise because Sodexo would never recognize or make any concessions to the union;
  • Told Sodexo employees that unionization would cost Sodexo employees their jobs and its contracts with customers.

Last July SEIU documented a dispute in Pennsylvania that shows how the corporate definition of “voting rights” can cloud the struggle for union freedom.

Under an agreement with the NLRB, Sodexo must remove the discipline it imposed on Genevieve Repsher, a Lafayette cafeteria worker, who charged that she was fired in retaliation for her support of joining a union. Sodexo must also individually notify each employee of their right to form a union, and pledge to not "coercively question" employees or interfere with possible union activity through surveillance, blocking meetings, or removing employees from worksites. …

Many workers and union leaders feel that the NLRB compliance is unfortunately not enough.

"It's an outrage that a company like Sodexo can unleash a campaign of coercion against workers and the only penalty is a mailing and to remove discipline that shouldn't have been there in the first place," said Wayne MacManiman, Mid-Atlantic Area Director of 32BJ SEIU.

The report shows parallels between low-wage employees across vastly different societies. In both the U.S. and the poorer nations surveyed in the report, workers reported that they were paid barely enough to maintain their households.

On top of low pay and sometimes getting shorted on wages, working conditions in Colombia seem to be less than what you'd expect from a premiere global food service firm:

According to worker testimony, the company served food in a state of advanced decomposition (a fact reportedly obvious to workers both from the food’s smell and appearance) and raw or only partially cooked meat. According to workers, the problem is so severe that Sodexo employees often refuse to eat the food; opting instead to spend their limited income on alternative sustenance.

Workers at the Pueblo Viejo mine in the Dominican Republic complained of harsh and dangerous conditions. When injured, workers said they were “expected to return to work quickly and often expected to perform the same tasks that may have caused their injury.”

Racial discrimination emerges in the backdrop of workers' experiences in Guinea. Workers said they were forced to toil in the heat without shade and were relegated to inferior dining facilities, segregated from European expatriate managers.

In response to the allegations about  employees in Guinea, Sodexo argued, “TransAfrica’s document somehow blames the ill effects of widespread malnutrition and an unstable climate caused by ongoing government unrest on Sodexo.”

Of course, to some degree, the inequities in the workplace reflect industry-wide and societal inequities, perhaps beyond the control of Sodexo's management.  In fact, TransAfrica Forum also acknowledges that the company "is merely one example of international corporations taking advantage of marginalized and isolated populations in countries around the world with generally low human rights and labor standards."

But to activists, that's all the more reason for the company to raise the bar on international labor standards by submitting to independent monitoring through an organization like the Worker Rights Consortium. Ideally, TransAfrica Forum wants Sodexo to broker an agreement with the Global Union Federation to “ensure workers have access to the most efficient, effective means of creating and enforcing appropriate standards that comply with established global codes for human and labor rights.”

Sodexo, for its part, touts an extensive platform for "corporate citizenship" and "sustainability." The company claims, “In general, we enjoy very positive relationships with labor unions.” And don't forget Sodexo was recently recognized as “one of the world’s most ethical companies," according to a ranking by the “Ethisphere Institute."

To live up to that honor, the company ought to consult with the workers who labor every day in their cafeterias and facilities, without a living wage or union representation. Their standard for corporate ethics is as basic as can be: nothing more than a recognition of their dignity.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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