Aramark partnership is immoral

District food service provider utilizes unpaid prison labor

In 2018, the Shorewood School District made the decision to outsource food service management to Aramark, a corporation that works in food service and facility management. I strongly oppose the use of outside contractors within any public system in the first place, but Aramark, especially, is a company that should be fought wherever they rear their ugly head. 

Aramark calls themselves a “corrections dedicated company,” as, while they work in other sectors, they are a major player in the prison industrial complex. This is a racist and classist system that encourages and profits off of higher rates of incarceration. 

Aramark is the largest provider of food services to US prisons, holding 38% of the market share, according to AFSC Investigate. Given their position in these industries, industries that prop up systems which oppress the vulnerable, Aramark is fundamentally a racist corporation. However, their list of abuses runs much longer than this systematic oppression commonly perpetrated by American corporations.

On Good Jobs First’s “Violation Tracker” for Aramark, there are a litany of abuses documented,  Starting with labor rights and the NLRB, Aramark has violated US labor relations laws 40 times on record, resulting in nearly a million dollars in fines. For most companies this is a high figure already, but Aramark is not most companies. 

Second, Aramark has repeatedly been penalized for employment discrimination. They’re already helping prop up racist systems, so why not mix it into their own workplace? They’ve also been found to violate workplace safety and health regulations, which are pretty important to follow when you’re providing hundreds of high schoolers with food every day. But yet again, these issues pale in comparison to the worst human rights violation committed by Aramark — their use of forced prison labor.

[Aramark’s] list of abuses runs much longer than systematic oppresion perpetrated by American corporations.

The 13th amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, but it has a catch. Slavery is illegal, unless it is a punishment for a crime, in which case forced and unpaid labor is completely legal. 

This rivals the form of slavery we Americans often think of — the brutal “chattel slavery” that was practiced all over the world — particularly in the southeast US. However, there are other possible expressions of slavery, where one is not the property of their owner, but are still forced to work against their will. The legal definition of slavery according to the 1926 Convention to Supress the Slave Trade and Slavery defines slavery as, “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership is exercised”. Unpacking this definition is difficult, as it is dependent on what one qualifies as “the powers attaching to the right of ownership”. Some states have outlawed involuntary servitude as punishments for crimes. Some of those states have gone on to sue Aramark for violating those laws, and have forced people in prisons managed by the corporation to do unpaid labor.

In 2019, inmates in Santa Rita sued Aramark in Ruelas vs. County of Alameda for violating the Thirteenth Amendment, which went into effect in 1865 and banned involuntary servitude. The plaintiffs alleged that the program was not volunteer-based because when workers feel ill and want to take a day off, deputies allegedly threaten them with more jail time. Aramark denied these claims and the class action suit is pending as of 2023.

Aramark, like many corporations, operates a prison work program, in which prisoners work for low, or more commonly, no wages at all.  While this is not as brutal as chattel slavery, I, and many others, believe this to be prison slavery. We should not be sending our money to those who profit off of any exploitation of labor, and certainly not those profiting off of prison slavery. 

We should not be sending money to those who profit off of … prison slavery.

As one of the former Student Representatives to the Shorewood Board of Education, when we were visited by Aramark’s representative, I had questions for them. I immediately asked them why, given all their abuses, we should continue to work with them, and not just go the way of other school districts and universities globally who have divested from Aramark. 

Their response was a long, corporate-speak lecture about how the company has multiple branches specializing in different sectors. One quote in particular was extremely outraging. “I’ve been made aware and have read things such as that, but I think…Aramark is a massive global company and with that comes occurrences that are unfortunate,” said the representative.

“Occurrences that are unfortunate.” I will remind you that these “occurrences” Aramark is talking about is the repeated use of prison slavery. The board did not ask any questions about the issue, and made a unanimous vote to continue working with Aramark at the May 24th, 2022 meeting. 

While the situation may seem bleak, there is hope. The Shorewood High School Chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (SHS YDSA), which I am a proud member of, has begun a campaign to get rid of Aramark and instead run our food service publicly. This ensures not only that we have democratic control of the food service, but saves the district money by cutting out the profit motive of Aramark. 

The YDSA has already collected hundreds of signatures for our petition to kick Aramark out, made a public statement at the January 10th board meeting, and has plans to canvas students and community members, making sure suggested solutions are representative of the whole district’s interests.  In the board meeting on January 10th, the YDSA received support from State. Representatives Ryan Clancy and Darrin Madison in this initiative, and hope to expand their coalition even further.

The board will have to review their food service contract this year, and will likely begin to do so at one of their meetings this spring. YDSA plans to protest and make public comments then alongside other concerned students. This is, at the end of the day, our school. If students fight for something together, we cannot lose.