By Merel Blok
To “go flip burgers” is either a posh insult or a daunting future prospect for many students. Yet, it helps some pay their way through college. Here on campus, the Sodexo Dining Hall provided a handful of international students with a part-time job serving food in the cafeteria. After summer, the student employees came back to an unpleasant surprise.
“I went to see the manager in her office again and again to ask about my work once I got back from exchange. After going to Dining Hall several times, I had to find out that they were firing all students,” explains Franco Grosso Giordano, a former Sodexo student employee.
Sodexo has stopped hiring any student employees in what appears to be part of a larger make-over of the Dining Hall cafeteria, which now has a pizza and burger corner called Swanky Franks and a more elaborate assortment with extra sushi and organic crisps. However, the decision to fire the students seems strange, given that new temporary workers have been seen working in the Dining Hall since. The discussion becomes extra poignant when considering Sodexo’s corporate goals of “supporting the development of local communities” and “offering the most stable jobs possible”, as outlined on their website.
The Sodexo management explains that they now hire professional staff to prepare and serve food. “It’s not that we do not want the students to work here anymore, but they do not fit our new business model,” states manager Timo Bierhoff. To him, the fact that the students lost their part-time job is a “risk you take with being a temporary worker.”
Said jobs were in demand amongst students and both Franco and Alex Budde, who worked there for about a year, look back on it positively. Sodexo had already cut back on student employees in previous years and wanted to lay off all students last year, when Vincent Gerez, former student assessor of the Academic Student Council, tried to prevent it.
“The Management Team told me that if Sodexo were to expand its workforce, it would first have to try to recruit UCU students. However, in the case of downsizing on staff, there were no rules that protected the student employees,” says Vincent, who raised the issue with the university administration on two occasions. “I hope that I helped save some student jobs, but I didn’t have the feeling the university put in much effort to secure the student jobs.”
The decision is a bitter pill to swallow for the former student employees, especially considering how they were informed of the situation. They never even received an official response or a formal notice, given that they were hired externally through an employment agency. Nonetheless, both students empathise with the local management.
“I know it was a decision that came from higher up, the people who work there could not help it. I spoke to the employees there and they said it’s a bullshit decision because they need us,” says Alex.
“Talking to Sodexo is difficult in general,” says Marit van Kuijk, of the Campus Life Forum (CLF). She is aware of the situation and confirms that CLF also did not hear about the decision from Sodexo. She feels the university administration could have done more for the students but decided not to, given the limited time-frame.
Mr. Bierhoff apologises to the students for the way in which they were informed but defends the decision as “business as usual for corporations.” However, Sodexo is advertising for catering jobs at the Utrecht University on their website. He admits they will hire new students for Friday and Sunday evenings because “it turns out to be necessary after all.”
The story fits the bigger picture of a labour market that is becoming increasingly flexible with more temporary contracts and freelance work, often described as precarious labour. Franco and Alex have not found a new job yet. “I looked for a job in town a bit but it is difficult considering the language issue. It’s a pity because this was a great job opportunity for international students. Now, I don’t really know where to look into finding something else,” says Franco. The Sodexo management welcomes the former employees to re-apply for their old jobs.