Katy Lindgren

Outsourcing labor for dining venues formerly run by Texas Athletics allowed the department to profit more than $3 million last year. But reports from human rights groups indicate an unseen human labor cost may be tacked onto the price of food and drinks bought at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

In 2011, 11 universities and athletics departments across the nation ended their contracts with Sodexo Services, a French-based company with 125,000 employees in North America serving 9.3 million meals each day to take in $8 billion in revenue annually, according to the company’s website. Sodexo Services is currently responsible for concessions at all UT athletic events, except for dining at the University of Texas Club at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. UT has a separate contract with Sodexo and paid the company $926,122.62 in the 2011 fiscal year, according to a report of University purchases to the State Comptroller’s office.

The 11 dropped contracts came a year after The Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental advocacy group, released a 2010 report detailing Sodexo Services’ alleged violations of worker’s rights to unionize on several occasions in the United States.

In January 2011, the TransAfrica Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group, released a report detailing findings from interviews with Sodexo workers in the Dominican Republic, Guinea, Morocco and the United States. In the report, TransAfrica noted cases where Sodexo workers allegedly earned as little as 33 cents per hour in the Dominican Republic.

After hearing of the treatment of Sodexo workers in the Dominican Republic first-hand from a former employee, students at the University of Washington decided in November of 2010 to try to get the university to sever its 25-year ties with the company, said UW junior Katy Lindgren. Lindgren said she and other members of the university’s chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops eventually had to stage sit-ins where 50 protesters were arrested to get the university’s administration to finally end Sodexo’s contract in December 2011, after a university committee failed to consider information other than that offered from Sodexo.

“The committee basically just asked Sodexo if the allegations were true,” Lindgren said. “Of course Sodexo came back and said it wasn’t.”

Sodexo has repeatedly denied anti-union sentiment and human rights violations, but in September 2011, they conceded to reform company policy when it settled for $20,000 with a fired worker at Tulane University. The settlement stemmed from a suit filed by the National Labor Relations Board, which alleged the company had violated labor laws.

The allegations against Sodexo stand stark in comparison to the company’s reputation at Texas. Jim Baker, former UT-Austin associate athletic director for events and operations, and recently appointed athletics director of UT-Arlington, said contracting with Sodexo transformed profits at Texas athletics events, netting $3 million in profit for UT athletics in 2011. Baker said prior to contracting with Marriott in 1994, which was later bought by Sodexo in 1998, sales from concessions at University athletic events were barely profitable.

“We were really a mom and pop kind of operation that wasn’t bringing in very much revenue,” Baker said. “The equipment was outdated. If you flipped the wrong switch the breaker would blow. We started looking for ways to make revenue and decided to outsource to people who do this for a living.”

A few years later, concessions were a completely different story, Baker said. Sodexo worked with athletic departments to maximize space for vending during the stadium remodel in 1997, he said and revenue began to pour in.

“They brought professionalism,” Baker said. “They brought data about point-of-sale. They brought expertise.”

In addition to bringing efficiency and profitability to the table, Sodexo also strives to promote community, said Ivan Wagner, manager for Sodexo Services at Texas Athletics.

Last year a range of nonprofit organizations, including church groups and Girl Scout troops, staffed the concession stands to earn $500,000.

“It’s not easy work,” Wagner said. “But if you have a really motivated group that’s willing to work really hard, it is a way to make money you might otherwise not be able to earn.”

Wagner said Sodexo also tries to partner with local franchise vendors as well as national chains to add variety and offer business opportunities to local people.

But even if Sodexo is doing good locally, it is overshadowed by the injustices it serves workers internationally, Lindgren said.

“On our campus we hadn’t had any rights violations,” Lindgren said. “We still wanted to impress upon the administration that it wasn’t enough just to be a leader in our local community, but also good global citizens that recognize the importance of human quality of life. What we’re hoping is that Sodexo will get the message that it must change its labor practices.”

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: UT linked to company faced with labor law violations