Photo by James Deeges

Students at both Trinity College Dublin and UCD have been calling for a boycott of Aramark, the company that supplies catering services on the universities’ campuses.

They are doing so because Aramark supplies food to asylum seekers enduring Direct Provision – where they are (however unsatisfactorily) housed and fed, and accorded a measly weekly allowance per adult of just €21.60 to meet their other needs.

How they are housed and fed is part of the problem that the students have with Aramark. A US-based multinational that also owns the company Avoca here, Aramark supplies food at three different centres for asylum seekers.

In 2016, the government paid it €5.2 million for those services. In 2014, residents of one centre in Athlone went on hunger strike because of claims of poor food quality, according to several media reports and the Irish Refugee Council. (Aramark disputes this.)

Similar allegations have been levelled against Aramark’s services to private prisons in the US, prompting students at New York University to launch analogous boycott campaigns there.

Journalist Chris Hedges reports that “Aramark fires unionized workers inside prisons and jails and replaces them with underpaid, nonunionized employees. And it makes sure the food is low enough in both quality and portion to produce huge profits.” (Aramark says this isn’t true, and that it’s created both unionised and non-union local jobs there.)

Aramark aside (for now), the wider problem in Ireland is Direct Provision itself – an inhumane system, akin to prison in many respects, that shovels public money to the accommodation/incarceration centres (some with opaque tax affairs) – as well as to the catering companies, but denies most asylum seekers even the ability to cook their own meals.

Another basic right denied to asylum seekers was the right to work, or at least to be able to do so after a certain time period if their case was still pending. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled this ban was unconstitutional and the government has been forced to amend it.

But the amendment, as Andy Pollak and others have pointed out, is astonishingly mean-spirited: an asylum seeker cannot take a job with a starting salary of less than €30,000 a year, and cannot work at all in specified sectors (70 in total), including childcare, construction, healthcare, hospitality, and sales and marketing.

And a fee (of course unaffordable for most asylum seekers) of €500 to €1,000 is payable for even a short-term work permit. Memet Uludag of United Against Racism describes the new scheme as a “horrific joke”.

The intention clearly remains to keep the system as unattractive as possible in order to deter people from even applying for asylum in the first place. Indeed, that deterrence factor was the explicit rationale for the initial establishment of the Direct Provision regime in 2001 – to make reception conditions more brutal and thus stem the then rise in asylum applications.

An ally of asylum seekers in their outrage at the new work proposals is the Restaurants Association of Ireland, which has noted that qualified chefs in Direct Provision cannot take up restaurant jobs because that is amongst the sectors barred to them. And this at a time when there is a claimed shortage of 8,000 chefs in the country.

Mark Paul, in the Irish Times, has taken issue with the restauranteurs, pointing out that they might not have such a shortage of staff in the first place if they improved their wages and working conditions.

And those concerned with the rights of asylum seekers need to be wary of going too far with such economics-based arguments.

Critics of Direct Provision may highlight the potential economic contribution that is being wasted, and that is true, but what if there was not a shortage of chefs here? Would that justify the denial of work to asylum-seeking cooks? The same argument could apply to those with other skills.

Ultimately, this is a human-rights issue – not an economic one. People should have the right to work and the right to cook for themselves.

Direct Provision is wrong because it violates those rights, not because it denies Ireland a valuable economic resource. As Direct Provision inmate Ellie Kisyombe says, “This is an issue of dignity.”

However, there is one unassailable economic argument in all this – we should not be handing public money to a private company to supply food to people who are perfectly capable of buying and cooking it themselves.

If you want to find out more about these issues, there is a pop-up café operating (on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, between 10am and 3pm) in Christ Church Cathedral, run by Our Table – a refugee-led group campaigning against Direct Provision.

Drop by, say hello, and enjoy some of their food.

[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 15 March at 11.53am to reflect that the UCD campaign is by a group of students and not by the students’ union as a whole.]

[UPDATED: This article was updated on 15 March at 14.24pm to note that Aramark disputes that there was a hunger strike in 2014 at a direct provision centre, and also disputes that it fires unionized workers, saying that it has created thousands of both union and non-union local jobs in the prisons in the US.]

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

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