Aramark is a giant multinational with its grubby fingers in all sorts of pies, not least the highly profitable Direct Provision system here in Ireland. But now a growing boycott movement against their on-campus canteens has sprung up in universities around the country. Tomas Lynch takes a look.
Direct Provision is the latest in the series of institutionalized living systems to where people considered undesirable by the Irish state have been banished. Under the system asylum seekers arriving in Ireland are kept in centres in isolated locations around the country while they wait for their applications for asylum here to be processed. It is a highly profitable system, netting the companies that are contracted by the state to run the centres a healthy €400 million in state money over the last 7 years.
Aramark is just one of those companies, a company with a vast web of corporate dealings that stretch from operating privately-run prisons in the US, to running Direct Provision centres in Ireland. Rumours suggest that they are now moving into the new market for emergency accommodation (so-called ‘family hubs’) for Ireland’s homeless families. All the while, just around the corner they run fancy eateries for posh people in Avoca.
They run three Direct Provision centres here – Kinsale Road in Co. Cork, Lissywollen in Co. Meath and Knockalisheen in Co. Limerick. Reports from these centres are rarely good. In 2015 residents of the centre in Knockalisheen went on hunger strike after people people caught gastroenteritis from the food. And then a Korean woman committed suicide in the Kinsale Road centre in 2016, as she wasn’t getting enough mental health support. And yet, despite all the bad news coming out of their centres, Aramark still made €5.2 million from them last year.
Lucky Khambule, an organizer with MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers of Ireland) told Rabble about his own experience of living in the Aramark-operated centre in Kinsale.
“That centre that went on strike for 10 days [in 2014], locked out the management for ten days. It’s because of the treatment of the people in a very a dehumanising, disrespectful way, not considering people as human beings.”
Since last September though, a grassroots campaign to kick “Aramark Off Our Campus” has been growing apace in Trinity and UCD. A weekly picket is now held outside Costa Coffee and Gastro in Trinity’s Hamilton building – both franchises operated on campus by Aramark – every Wednesday, to encourage students to boycott the company’s outlets. Stacey Wrenn, a student organizer with Trinity’s Aramark campaign, talks about the strategy behind the boycott.
“We feel that boycott is the easiest form of protest that you can possibly do, just don’t go there, and automatically you’re having an impact. There’s also the tradition of it, we’ve grown up with successful stories of it, when the Dunnes Stores workers were going on strike and they were encouraging people not to buy anything during apartheid.”
Beyond the boycott itself, the aim of the campaign is to raise awareness. As Roisin of “Aramark off UCD Campus”, the sister campaign in Belfield that was launched in January, says “there’s not that much knowledge around Direct Provision on the campus, and that’s the underlying thing – we want people to know about DP, bring attention to it. People asking ‘Why shouldn’t I eat there?’ it’s a good way to get the conversation going.”
Aramark are obviously rattled. When students in Trinity began their picket campaign in January Aramark produced a leaflet claiming to be one of the world’s most ethical companies. “Why are you using slave labour then?” wonders Stacey, referring to Aramark losing a contract to run a Florida prison after they were found to be using prisoners as labourers without paying them. The campaign has edged beyond campus walls, with the Union of Students of Ireland holding a picket alongside MASI outside Aramark-owned Avoca on Suffolk Street in the run up to Christmas. Lucky sees the boycott campaign as putting pressure on one of the pillars that are keeping the institution of Direct Provision aloft.
“There are so many pillars that are holding Direct Provision – the private owners, the Aramarks of this world. We want to channel the campaign where the money goes – let the people know that they are benefitting from running these centres out of the misery of the people.”
As Lucky says, Aramark is not the exception but the rule when it comes to Direct Provision operators. “Our aim is to say to the government ‘Direct Provision is a system that cannot be reformed, it’s a system that is destroying people’s lives.’”
Hopes were raised amongst those in Direct Provision when the Supreme Court struck down the total ban on asylum seekers working while waiting on the results of their application in May of last year. However, these were then dashed in November when the government produced a list of 60 areas people wouldn’t be able to work in under the new system.
Lucky imagines what might replace Direct Provision down the line. “If you can cut down on the profit-makers and make this issue a community-based, community-run system, the communities can be involved. You cut down on these millions that go to the Aramarks and everyone that benefits from that, and let the communities run these community-based projects.”