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On Sodexo, What Do We Believe?

By Alex Zavell and Ross Gordon Posted: 04/14/2011
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Emory’s stated mission to “create, preserve, teach and apply knowledge in the service of humanity” is both inspiring and progressive.

Mission statements, however, are more than just pieces of paper. Mission statements create a framework that guides policy decisions and sends a strong message to the outside world.

In his 2004 inaugural address, President James Wagner eloquently and persuasively articulated the unique value of Emory’s mission:

“Emory, when our commitment to see the world through others’ eyes is strong, when we hunger and thirst to transcend our self-centered worlds, we will be drawn together and the world will be drawn to us. Doing so will make Emory a destination university. We will be an internationally recognized scholarly community.”

Fulfilling our mission statement, however, means more than simply acknowledging that we agree with it in the abstract. Maintaining the integrity of our mission requires action in addition to words. It depends on our willingness to make choices — choices which may not be easy — to ensure that our actions remain consistent with our institutional and personal principles.

Emory’s mission statement is ambitious, and fulfilling it is no easy task.

Practical constraints prevent the Emory community from attacking every injustice in the world, and there will always be disagreement over what precisely it means to serve humanity.

But we must not allow these constraints to make us cynical when it comes to improving our community.

The difficulty of eliminating suffering on a global scale should not lead us to neglect taking action to prevent injustices that we have the immediate ability to affect.

In particular, Emory’s decision to contract Sodexo to provide campus food services contradicts every one of the core values our mission statement claims to uphold.

Sodexo is a company which has been identified by several independent human rights organizations as systematically violating the rights of its workers.

It is a company that perpetuates a disrespectful work environment as well as a lack of health care and low wages on our campus and in the lives of our campus’ food workers.

Countless articles in the Wheel document the personal stories of Emory Sodexo workers who have had their dignity violated and welfare harmed as a direct result of Sodexo’s corporate practices.

We must ask ourselves how can we justify our continued relationship with an entity such as Sodexo in light of this continually increasing body of evidence against their way of conducting business.

Our Code of Conduct proudly foregrounds Emory’s pledge to create respect for the welfare of others and “to protect the community from the influence of those who do not embody these values in their conduct and to protect the integrity of the University and its property for the benefit of all.”

Yet when it comes to Sodexo and its treatment of workers on our campus and globally, the Administration has not acted to protect our community from its influence. “The employees in question are not Emory employees, and Emory does not control the labor policies of its contractors,” it claimed in the Wheel last year.

We have control over who we bring onto our campus to provide our food.

We have the power to change the low wages and poor working conditions that force Emory food workers onto government assistance.

There are real and feasible alternatives that can be adopted immediately as long as we show the will to do so.

Students and Workers in Solidarity has consistently advocated for the termination of the Sodexo contract and the creation of a Labor Code of Conduct that would ensure any future subcontracting company is held to higher standards.

Yet in nine meetings with the administration over the past year and a half we have been met with only denial and obfuscation. To the extent that the administration has acknowledged the first person testimony of workers on our campus, the response has been that the issues “are a Sodexo problem” and “not an Emory problem.”

The administration’s stance on the issue and our community’s tolerance of that position raises serious questions with which we as a community must honestly grapple.

Are marginal costs savings really worth associating our community with a known violator of human rights?

Is Sodexo, which is able to post billions in annual profits precisely because it is willing to treat its workers so poorly, really the type of “principled business” President Wagner was referring to when he said, “[in] business, the primary goal must not be about personal wealth, but instead about generating wealth and the proper stewardship of that wealth throughout the world?”

Can we really claim to be committed to the wellness of humanity at large if we allow ourselves to get so caught up in our personal lives and in study of distant global problems that we overlook our ability to resolve critical problems right in our own community?

Are we comfortable with accepting Emory Sodexo Manager Joe Mitchell’s assertion that the claims of Emory students and the personal testimony of Sodexo workers at a recent campus event were “misinformation” and “lies,” despite not attending the event in question?

These are questions that we must ask ourselves on the individual level. These answers will give us a great insight into the character of the University and of ourselves.

This insight will morally matter more than any written mission statement or public speech ever could.

Alex Zavell is a College sophomore from Oakland, Calif.
Ross Gordon is a College sophomore from Chicago, Ill.

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