TransAfrica Forum accuses Sodexo of labor abuses

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, January 24, 2011

Global food service provider Sodexo is coming under fire for alleged labor abuses detailed in a report released last week by human rights organization TransAfrica Forum. Among the litany of charges, Sodexo, which has 380,000 employees in 80 countries, is accused of paying sub-par wages, denying employees breaks and withholding overtime pay. The company denies the allegations.

The report is the latest effort in a campaign against Sodexo that has in the past two years drawn a host of labor organizers, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and activists, such as Human Rights Watch.

"Sodexo is the 21st largest corporation on the planet; those kinds of corporations have to lead the way on human rights and worker rights," said Nicole Lee, president of District-based TransAfrica. "Our goal is for them to change their practices so that other companies follow suit."

TransAfrica became involved in the campaign shortly after actor Danny Glover, a board member, got arrested last spring at a protest in front of Sodexo's U.S. headquarters in Gaithersburg.

TransAfrica and its partners interviewed Sodexo employees in five countries-- the United States, the Dominican Republic, Guinea, Morocco and Colombia. One of the company's cafeteria workers at Tulane University in New Orleans, for instance, complained of still making $7.42 an hour after 40 years on the job. A chief complaint across the globe was a hostile climate toward joining or forming unions, with employees allegedly being threatened or fired.

In a detailed statement, Sodexo disputed every charge lobbed against it, writing, "Neither Sodexo nor any local government authority has corroborated the allegations in the TransAfrica document, which have been made by a very small number of workers."

The company noted that Glover has been an active participant in what it considers a "smear campaign" led by the SEIU.

"This campaign," wrote the company, "seeks to force Sodexo to recognize the union without allowing its employees to exercise their right to vote for or against union representation." The statement went on to say that Sodexo's workforce in the United States is more than 15 percent unionized, more than twice the national average.

Still, the company has been involved in several domestic labor disputes in the past year. Food service workers in Pennsylvania, for instance, filed a class-action suit against Sodexo last month for forcing them to work off the clock, while employees at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., walked off the job in protest of low wages in October.

"There is a systemic problem in the management of Sodexo; these are not isolated incidences," said Lee, who will be in Paris this week to protest at Sodexo's annual shareholders meeting. "The way to hold the company accountable is through public pressure."

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