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The profit incentive which drives companies like Chartwells is directly at odds with the mandate to provide accessibly-priced, sustainable, and healthy food to university students, writes Evan Robins. Graphic: Evan Robins

State of Decay: Labour Issues, Corporatization, and Food Security Inside Trent's Food Monopoly

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
August 18, 2023

Note: Both Chartwells and Trent University use the terms “Foodservice” and “Food Service” interchangeably. In the interests of consistency Arthur has elected to use “Foodservice” throughout this article.

State of Decay: Labour Issues, Corporatization, and Food Security Inside Trent's Food Monopoly
The profit incentive which drives companies like Chartwells is directly at odds with the mandate to provide accessibly-priced, sustainable, and healthy food to university students, writes Evan Robins. Graphic: Evan Robins

On Friday, August 4th 2023, @trentfood, the official Instagram account of Trent University’s Foodservices, posted a job listing for Student Ambassadors. The posting was for a “tech-savvy social butterfly,” currently enrolled at Trent, with no prior experience required.

 The advertised responsibilities for the position are largely mundane — “Engage with students on a variety of food-related activations [sic]”; “Assist with creating brand awareness of various programs, promotions, mobile app and student engagement activities”. The posting is essentially for a part-time public relations position, albeit employing students’ peers as opposed to a full time career marketer.

Considering the slim pickings for student jobs, the opportunity seems—as the post says—a pretty “sweet gig.”

Upon closer inspection, however, said sweet gig seems rather sour. 

The Employment Standards Act (ESA) of Ontario is a piece of legislation which serves to define conditions of employment, including worker’s rights, safety standards, and more within the province of Ontario. As part of this mandate, the ESA clearly defines conditions of renumeration and compensation in Ontario—that is to say, how employers are allowed to pay their workers. In defining worker’s rights regarding compensation, the ESA lays out acceptable methods of payment for work as follows: 

“An employer may pay wages, including vacation pay, by: cash; cheque; direct deposit, which includes Interac e-Transfer, into the employee's account at a bank or other financial institution. If payment is by cash or cheque, the employee must be paid the wages at the workplace or at some other place agreed to electronically or in writing by the employee. If the wages are paid by direct deposit, the employee’s account must be their name. Nobody other than the employee can have access to the account unless the employee has authorized it.” (Employment Standards Act 2000, S.O. 2000, c. 41)

In the job posting on @trentfood’s Instagram, the caption specifies payment will be delivered by means of prepaid Visa cards

The use of prepaid Visa cards as a method of payment proves problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which being the fact that it seems to contravene the ESA, which outlines that: 

“An employer shall pay an employee’s wages,

(a)  by cash;

(b)  by cheque payable only to the employee;

(c)  by direct deposit in accordance with subsection (4); or

(d)  by any other prescribed method of payment. 2017, c. 22, Sched. 1, s. 6.”

Given prepaid credit cards are not a provincially recognized or approved method of worker compensation under the current version of the ESA, or the 2017 version to which it attributes “any other prescribed method of payment,” their use would presumably nullify the terms of an employment contract in Ontario, further inviting potentially vulnerable students who don’t know anything about their employment rights or labour law to be exploited.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada further notes that prepaid cards can be subject to a number of otherwise hidden fees, be it to activate the card, to make transactions or withdrawals, or even keep it active month-to-month. The payment structure advertised means the student employee wouldn’t be able to properly exercise their rights to information and protection from fees, with which federally regulated financial institutions are required to comply. 

Even were it legal, the bottom line remains: payment by prepaid card is by no means as good as the same amount in cash. Foodservices didn’t seem to see this as a problem, however—in fact, that student employees would not be paid in any of the ESA-approved methods was listed under the “Benefits” subheading on the posting.

It comes off as either insidious or supremely incompetent that a posting could be made which so clearly eschews provincially-regulated employment standards. Either nobody involved in the drafting of the position knew better (which is concerning in and of itself), or else no one involved had qualms about purposefully breaking well-established labour practices. The buck, as it were, has to stop somewhere, and in this case the options presented would seem to be either Trent, or the company to whom it contracts its catering services.

Though itself worrying in isolation, this incident begs several further questions on a much broader scale. Why was this permitted in the first place? On whom does the responsibility fall to ensure the protection of students employed at Trent University? And, just how important is this job, really?

In an effort to answer some of these questions, I submitted a resume for consideration towards this position. At time of publication, I have yet to receive a response from the contact provided. Further, as of publication of this article, the Student Ambassador position has yet to be posted on the student and alumni job board accessible through Trent Careerspace. This would seem to imply the position is not one contracted to the university, and that administration may not even be aware of its existence, as all Careerspace listings are subject to a degree of institutional vetting. 

The Foodservice Student Ambassador listing on Instagram marks its primary contact as Jessica Brooks, the Marketing Execution Manager at Trent University Foodservice, whose email address domain is, significantly, “@compass-canada.com” as opposed to “@trentu.ca.” Further, Brooks is not listed as a contact on the University’s Foodservices site. Rather, the Foodservices site redirects to “dineoncampus.ca,” a domain owned by Compass Canada, where Brooks’ title and contact information can be found.

Itself a subsidiary of the multinational Compass Group, Compass Canada is a corporate group comprised of a number of smaller companies, which together control a considerable portion of the private foodservices industry in Canada. Chartwells—one of their subsidiaries in the education foodservices sector—currently holds the contract for all on-campus foodservices at Trent University, save 76 Sips Café and the Seasoned Spoon student cooperative. Part of the Compass contract includes non-competition stipulations which dictate limitations and conditions for the capacity in which vendors not owned or licensed by Chartwells can operate. Functionally, then, Chartwells exists as a de facto monopoly on Trent University campuses. Aside from a small number of specialized outlets, they remain the only option for students to access catering on campus and through their colleges.

It’s particularly sinister, then, that Chartwells is responsible for this instance of seemingly blatant labour misconduct. Whether it be simple negligence or the belief that employment standards do not apply to them, Chartwells’ ignorance to the terms of the ESA fits the pattern of inequity and labour unrest which has followed the takeover of Trent Foodservices by Compass Canada.

Compass acquired Trent Foodservices’ exclusive contract in 2014, a change that was met with much backlash and a concerted effort from CUPE 3205—the Peterborough branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees for food services and non-instructional staff at Trent University—to oppose the Compass Group takeover. Per CUPE messaging, Compass had initially promised to respect the established collective agreement, but later retracted their promise, instead asking food services workers to “take drastic cuts to their already modest rights, wages, benefits and working conditions.” Despite the best efforts of CUPE members, Compass was awarded the contracts, and business continued as usual (for Compass at least, though it can be argued the experience of most food service workers considerably worsened). 

Despite their being successfully awarded the contract, many students would go on to boycott the foodservice provider, continuing a longstanding tradition originally dubbed the “Boycott Aramark Barbeque” in the fall of 2014, repurposed to contest Chartwell’s newfound grip on the university. The fervour around the acquisition of the food contract would, however, prove far from the final controversy to surround Trent Foodservices under the Chartwells tenure. 

In January 2018, former staff writer Nicky Taylor contributed a piece to Arthur entitled “Rally for Food Workers at Trent” examining the precarity then faced by food services workers. Taylor details how workers were often forced to accept part-time hours—sometimes as few as five a week—meaning they would not be eligible for employment benefits, did not meet the criteria for Employment Insurance when laid off over the summer, and generally had to work multiple jobs to support themselves given the pittance of hours on offer.

The response to Chartwells seems to have been, for many years, an issue on which faculty, students, and unionized staff and labourers were very much united. In Taylor’s follow-up to their aforementioned piece on the 2018 Food Workers strike, they detail a concerted push from local trade unions to support the striking workers. Taylor specifically notes then-TCSA president Brandon Remmelgas’ presence at the strike. Remmelgas and other members of the student body are specifically quoted in support of the CUPE 3205 strike, alongside Foodservice workers, community members, and members of the Amalgated Transit Union Local 1320 (ATU).

In the years since, however, solidarity among the student body appears largely absent, with apathy having seemingly set in. In the 2021–22 school year, under then-President Wendy Walker’s tenure, the Trent Central Student Association—the group representing the collective interests of students and serving as union de jure—repeatedly accepted sponsorships from Trent Foodservices to promote the launch and operation of the BOOST app, as detailed by Arthur in a February 2023 article. These advertisements, at least some of which are specifically acknowledged as paid promotion, ran largely on the TCSA’s Instagram account in the form of posts, stories, and reels encouraging students to download the app and offering discounts and opportunities to win “Trent Cash” for those students who interacted with and promoted these posts on their own accounts.

While the TCSA have seemingly stopped accepting sponsorship from BOOST—and, by extension, Chartwells—it is worth noting that on the day of the Student Ambassador position’s posting they saw fit to repost it to their Instagram story, as did several of Trent’s Colleges. As an organization representing the advocacy interests of their members, which presumably include ensuring they are being equitably treated in the employ of the university or its subcontractors, this would seem to oppose the TCSA’s mandate. Seeing as all undergraduate students are by default members of the Association, and so by definition the prospective hire should be a TCSA member, is the TCSA not compelled to speak out against—much less repost—a position whose conditions of employment are demonstrably unethical?

Such exploitative corporate practices are the very things from which the trade union movement was conceived to protect labourers. Forgive me for thinking, then, that the difference is night and day between a union ready to take up arms against the conglomerate exploiting wage workers on their campus, and the contemporary organization enjoying the spoils of its dowry from the very same corporation it was directly antagonizing so few years ago.

While it has been a subject of much discussion in recent years, the functional food monopoly at Trent is not a new phenomenon. The current period of Chartwells as its primary steward if anything only marks a more recent period in this history. The centralization of Trent University’s Foodservices began in earnest during the mid–late 90s, when the university began to pivot away from a decentralized collegiate catering model, and the exclusive catering contract was acquired by Foodservice conglomerate Aramark. 

Even during Aramark’s 15+ years as holder of the exclusive catering contract, students and Trent community members challenged the food monopoly administration had curated. The Seasoned Spoon Café’s origins are as a product of the OPIRG Food Issues Group (FIG) explicitly contesting Aramark’s dominion across campus food services, and. What started as a Stone Soup project—something akin to a potluck on a much larger scale—would begin to more closely resemble the Spoon as we know it today after student organizers officially elected a board of directors and incorporated the Seasoned Spoon Café in a dedicated space within Otonabee College’s former Cat’s Ass Pub.

For most of Trent university’s existence between 1964 and the late 20th century, every residential college held one such pub. The Cat’s Ass served what was, for the longest time, the only East Bank residence building in Otonabee. West Bank, meanwhile, played host to Lady Eaton’s Crawpaddie, and the Ceilie in Champlain College—the only Symons campus pub still in operation today. Both downtown colleges equally had their own comparable institutions. The Trend, located in Catherine Parr Traill’s Wallis Hall, is still around today—though it no longer serves alcohol. Peter Robinson College’s Jolly Hangman was condemned near the end of the college’s life, being memorialized by a sign which hangs above the bar in student co-operative Sadleir House’s event space, “The John.” As Trent’s foodservice centralized in the 1990s, however, the college pubs were slowly phased out of existence, replaced with the cafeteria modely we know today. 

Did you know Otonabee college used to have its own pub? For the longest time, neither did I. It’s only in working for Arthur and becoming passionate about issues such as this that I’ve begun to glimpse a memory of a thriving Trent far before my time here. The campus pubs are merely one such example, albeit one I wish to extend serious consideration in a future project. I’d recommend subscribing to our newsletter, The Courier, to stay abreast of whenever I get around to writing that. Photo from Theresa Bickle via mycommunity.trentu.ca

All of this context is useful in historicizing this process of gradual decay, context which is necessary should one wish to untangle the knot woven at the centre of these long standing controversies. For all of its callous ineptitude, this Foodservice job listing debacle is merely the latest in a string of decades-spanning incidents wrought by the centralization and privatization of Trent University’s Foodservices; a symptom of a festering rot at the centre of the institution. While just one of many disturbing moves from Trent Foodservices and her parent company in recent memory, this position in particular feels emblematic of just how pervasive this rot has become; that a job listing whose central conceit is a convoluted, unethical method of compensation could be posted with barely anyone seeming to take notice.

“Decadence”—a word which today we often associate with ideas of abundance and luxury—in its original meaning actually meant “decline”. The word derives from the root “decay,” making decadence literally “the process of decaying”. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this, as even those for whom English is their mother tongue don’t often realize its etymology. The word, as popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche conjures images of rot and decrepitude borne of overindulgence greed. 

I’d argue that’s exactly where we are now.

The current state of foodservice presents a seemingly impossible conundrum. The profit incentive which drives companies like Chartwells is directly at odds with the mandate to provide accessibly-priced, sustainable, and healthy food to university students. As an old film industry saying goes, when it comes to doing things well, doing them fast, or doing them cheaply, you can pick two, but never all three. I’d argue that for what it is, at best Chartwells provides only fast service—experience tells me it’s neither cheap nor particularly good.

What this does is leave individual students and levy groups to pick up the pieces. While initiatives like the Free Market, the Seasoned Spoon, and the TCSA’s One Stop Chop are admirable on their face, they amount to trying to fight a hydra by only cutting off heads. While local non-profits and student initiatives have made a commendable effort to spare students a sliver of the damage caused by Trent Foodservices’ years-in-the-making decline, nothing can change the fact that small scale initiatives fail to address to totality of the issue, or that collaboration with them has made organizations like the TCSA wholly complicit in maintaining this as status quo for spans of the intervening years. It’s here that we begin to get at the heart of the problem. Beyond the ongoing worsening of working conditions and the cyclical striking begot by bad labour practices, beyond even the systematic dismantling of Trent’s pre-existing food infrastructure to be replaced with a multinational corporate monopoly, what unifies every problem plaguing the university’s foodservice is pervasive, if not ubiquitous, food insecurity.

Food insecurity has fast become one of the largest and most defining problems of our collective times. The ramifications of climate change, and impending widespread crop failure and famine aside, we still fail to meet the needs of many, many people even in rich, high-GDP, first-world countries, despite producing more than enough to theoretically feed everyone. 

Nearly 40% of post-secondary students in Canada experience food insecurity. That number rises to a whopping 48% of Trent University students, with 33% being considered “moderately food insecure” and a further 15% being “severely food insecure.” Additionally, 53% of respondents to an April 2021 Trent University community study said the Covid-19 pandemic had made it more difficult for them to access food. 

Where does the blame for this fall? It’s a combination of structural factors—ever increasing inflation, stagnating wages, the undervaluation and underfunding of university education and the lack of workers in traditionally “unskilled” labour and trades. The aforementioned recession equally contributes, though within Trent at least, the red string ties back to Chartwells. The increasing of both Trent University’s tuition and the cost of Chartwell’s various Symons campus menu items, year over year, conspires to create an ever-more expensive climate for undergraduate students. All of the subsidies, support programs, and grocery assistance funds at student’s disposal can’t change the fact that higher education costs more than ever for degrees which see increasingly diminishing returns. So long as that remains the case, food security will remain endemic to post-Secondary education.

By way of conclusion then, I think it prudent to answer a question I raised near the beginning—how important is this position in the first place?

The answer—in my editorial opinion—is not very.

Hiring a student whose job it is to act as a brand ambassador for a tendril of a multinational corporation does little—if anything—to materially improve the conditions of students already dependent on foodservices to stay fed. I don’t begrudge the students who apply for this job—you’ve got to make a living somehow. Still, they won’t exactly be doing what one might charitably consider “productive labour”. This position, like all things under Chartwell’s purview, serves only to further pad their bottom line, in turn only further exploiting vulnerable students by ignoring labour standards in the name of maximum profit efficiency. 

To summarize a very lengthy digression in a very few words: the problems, significant as they are, are themselves reflective of the structures which produced them. If things on the most foundational levels are being done poorly, unethically, or wrong, there may well be something wrong at the top.

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