Head-to-Head: Should We Boycott Aramark Over Direct Provision Ties?

 
 

Following the launch of a campaign to boycott any on-campus food-suppliers affiliated with Aramark, Gavin Tracey and Rory Clarke discuss the necessity of the campaign and the true nature of Direct Provision. Gavin’s argument is first with Rory Clarke’s rebuttal, followed by Rory’s argument and Gavin’s rebuttal.

 

FOR

Gavin Tracey argues that solidarity is key to what is a human rights issue in which our campus should not be complicit.

People who come to Ireland to seek asylum do not have it easy. We keep them in a legal and social limbo known as Direct Provision, where they are kept in shoddy accommodation while their application is considered. This is a long and arduous process that can take years, with many who have entered the system conceiving and rearing children in the time it takes for their application to be accepted. Only this year has the working ban been overturned, and the standard of living remains deplorable. Direct Provision is a complex system, with many different locations around the country holding asylum seekers, and some aspects of their care are tendered to private companies.

One such company, which supplies the food to some direct provision centres, is Aramark. Aramark is an American food mega-company, with over 270,000 employees, worth somewhere in the region of $10 billion. In 2014, the Irish Refugee Council reported that residents of the Lissywollen Direct Provision Centre in Athlone went on a hunger strike, due to the poor quality of the food. No provisions were made for any of the residents’ dietary needs that they may have due to their religion, resulting in them being unable to eat some meals. In a site where over 60% of the residents are children, this is completely unacceptable. In an open letter to the management, it is highlighted that some of the residents were told: “You have come to Ireland, you have to eat Irish food and if you don’t like it, go back where you came from.”

So, where does UCD come into all of this? Aramark supply food to much of UCD, including Chopped, Subway, the main canteen, and the Sutherland Café. By purchasing food from these places, you are directly supporting the very same company that saves a few quid by cutting corners and allowing children to go hungry. We, as a student body, should not accept this.

Trinity College have launched a similar campaign to remove Aramark from their campus. By working together, protesting and boycotting shops and cafés that are supplied by Aramark, we can stand in solidarity with those who are trapped in direct provision. Is it going to solve all of their problems? No, but it is a step in the right direction. It is a signal that these enormous multinationals cannot act with impunity. What does it mean for us? Walk an extra minute to your nearest Student Union shop perhaps. Just ask yourself if you can happily line the pockets of a company that has and continues to underfeed children just because you want a Subway or a Chopped. You do not have to join the picket, but by acting together, we can make a difference. To posit any sort of argument to the tune of “it will not make any difference” is to directly ignore the suffering of the most vulnerable in society.

What it all boils down to is a question of complicity and solidarity. We know, beyond all reasonable doubt that the same company we UCD students buy our food from, is complicit in profiting from those who have nowhere else to get their food. We do, however, have other options, and we are the lucky ones. It is very easy to say that it is not Aramark’s fault, that they would be replaced by someone just as bad, but that would be ignoring the issue at hand. This is not the only problem with the direct provision centres by any means and shouldn’t stop protesting here, but rather use it a stepping stone for further action. And surely no one could object to that?

 

REBUTTAL by Rory Clarke

It is true that one person, or even a hundred could “walk an extra minute” to their nearest SU shop without any effect. The same cannot be claimed, however, if a campus-wide boycott took place. The queues in our SU shops are already long and off-putting. To expect them to deal with the inordinate demand a boycott would precipitate is simply impossible.

Students should not simply “stand in solidarity” with these people, to symbolically “signal” that we disagree with their treatment. We can do better. If one wanted to truly help those suffering one should campaign against the government, who oversee 100% of direct provision centres, rather than Aramark, who control less than 10% of them.

The example of religiously mandated dietary needs not being catered to is contrary to Aramark’s commitments and policies. This is an isolated event and is not condoned by Aramark who, amongst other considerations, shift meal patterns for Ramadan and serve Halal meat.

As Tracey puts it Aramark are saving “a few quid by cutting corners and allowing children to go hungry.” While this is an exaggeration (Aramark provide three meals plus snacks a day) it also highlights that the market for direct provision contracts is competitive. If Aramark asked for more money to provide better quality food they would simply be undercut by rivals.

 

AGAINST

Rory Clarke argues that a campus boycott would not make a difference to a problematic but deeply-embedded government policy.

First of all, we must realise that the argument here is not whether Aramark or any company should support direct provision; it is whether, by virtue of a boycott, UCD students can influence Aramark into abandoning a reported €5.2 million in revenue that comes from these centres.

Direct provision is a government policy, not an Aramark one. Yes, they implement it, and yes they profit from it, but if students’ grievances lie, as they appear to, with the policy itself, a boycott of Aramark in UCD will have little effect. Rather than campaigning against Aramark to end such policies, aggrieved students should focus their efforts on the government itself. In 2016 Aramark received approximately €5 million for their operation of three direct provision centres in Ireland (in Cork, Limerick, and Athlone). While not insignificant this only accounts for around 10% of the government’s outlay on direct provision. If Aramark were to withdraw from their centres it would have little effect on the operation of the scheme. It is likely that one of the other companies that operate some 32 other centres throughout the country would simply take their place. These students would, by a successful boycott (which is by no means guaranteed), achieve only a token victory. A strike against a single operator of the policy is not a strike against the policy itself.

With regards to the complaints about the quality of Aramark’s food, the company’s response is unashamed and direct. While they do provide both Halal and Kosher food, along with certain ethnic cuisines, their priority is to provide facilities for asylum-seekers to live in. They take a quantity over quality approach, a decision which I believe is correct. At this stage in their lives asylum seekers should be more concerned with nourishment, rather than gourmet food. It is an impossible situation. Operating on a tight government budget, what should Aramark do? Should they improve the conditions in centres and be forced to reduce capacity or serve potentially life-saving, if unappetising, food to the masses, in one of the most difficult times of their lives?

From a practical point of view, students need food; the SU shops cannot offer the same standard of food as some of the favourite brands operated by Aramark. As admitted by Aramark off Our Campus campaign member Roisín O’Donnell, UCD “will probably have to see [its contract with Aramark] out.” This reality undercuts the possibility of a quick success. At the very best it would be the start of the next college year before a replacement tender had been processed and successfully filled. If students follow the wishes of this group we would be left without a main restaurant and without the majority of our other food outlets. The extent to which this will affect campus life cannot be underestimated. For a prolonged length of time students would be without access to a diverse range of foods, restricted to the fare offered in SU shops (which will struggle to cope with the exponential increase in demand). This would leave students forced to subject themselves to any price gouging the SU may desire, their monopoly on the market allowing them to dictate prices as they please.

To boycott Aramark would also be to punish their frontline employees, who rely on their campus jobs to survive. It will be these valued members of our schools and colleges that will be the first to suffer. To Aramark the loss of these jobs means nothing; to those on the other side of these spectral P45s however, they can precipitate life crises. To suggest that the myriad of Aramark employees are somehow complicit in the activities of direct provision centres, and somehow deserving of punishment, is frankly absurd. They are completely innocent, just like the vulnerable refugees that these prospective boycotters purport to protect.

 

REBUTTAL by Gavin Tracey

Unfortunately I only have a limited amount of space in which to try and refute all of the nonsense above. Let’s begin with the claim that we shouldn’t boycott Aramark because Direct Provision is a government policy, not theirs. Firstly, no one is arguing that we should only boycott Aramark and do nothing else, however because DP is so nebulous and multifaceted, one cannot simply protest it in its entirety. Take for example the 1984 case of Dunnes Stores workers refusing to handle South African oranges in protest of apartheid. Did this bring an end to apartheid? No, but what it did do was show some sense of international solidarity, a small but clear message that we will not financially support a racist regime.

I do wish to address your more callous comments also. Your stance that you agree with the “quantity over quality” approach, while it may be applicable to livestock cannot, nor should it ever apply to human beings. Providing basic, appropriate and edible food (which is not as nourishing as you claim) is not a massive task for a company who specialises in, you know, food.

Lastly, I have to marvel at the lack of irony in this passage; “For a prolonged length of time students will be without access to a diverse range of foods.” Imagine, having to go without decent food for a prolonged period of time. Shocking.

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