‘We’re being chucked out’
The canteen staff can’t keep quiet about the reorganisation plans any longer. They say that people are playing dirty in the Food & Drinks department.
Many employees are over 50 and have been working here for 30 years. But now, their future is uncertain and the RUG is offering them little certainty about what comes next.
In the meantime, their department head has already been named the future contract manager. ‘That surprised the hell out of us.’
The canteen employees fear that students and university staff are being played for fools. Food and drink prices will rise if a catering company takes over operations. Questions about how much the RUG will save due to outsourcing have not been answered.
The staff feel they haven’t been given a fair chance. They have to prove themselves to be good employees, despite the RUG ceasing to invest in them and dysfunctional leadership.
They are eager for renewal, ‘but let a caterer set their policy, and place us on secondment so that we can remain in the employ of the university. Don’t brush us aside’, the staff members say.
Reading time: 10 minutes (1,980 words)
‘We’re being chucked out with the trash, that’s how it feels’, says a spokesperson for the staff members. The staff normally follows the rule – imposed by their directors – that they are not allowed to speak to the UK. ‘But we’re fed up. It’s time that someone knows what is really happening here.’
Last Thursday, the bomb was dropped. The 29 employees of the restaurants and canteens were summoned by department head Tom de Witt Hamer to discuss the pending reorganisation. ‘We told him about all of our frustrations, irritation and anger. That startled him.’
Two of the staff members, serving as spokespeople for the dining services employees, want to tell what’s really going on, but they don’t want to be named in the article. ‘I know how it works. If it doesn’t go the way they want it to, they get you back’, one of them adds.
According to the RUG, the large-scale canteens are out-dated. Even more importantly, they cost the university hundreds of thousands of euros, money which the Board of Directors would prefer to spend on education and research. As such, the dining services are to be outsourced to a large catering company and the staff is to be reorganised.
But people are playing dirty in the process, according to the staff of Food & Drinks, as the department responsible for canteens, restaurants and takeaways is called. They are not being kept informed about the plans, feel that they are being screwed over after years of loyal service and have the impression that the leadership is only concerned about themselves.
Nearly all the dining services employees are over 50 and have worked for the RUG for 30 years. ‘The new caterer is supposed to take us on and give us a contract for five years, plus two if it goes well. But then what? If you are 50 and not highly educated, you cannot find a job. The leaders of the reorganisation say that they want to help us in any way they can. But they immediately add, ‘Don’t count on having a job at the RUG, because that doesn’t exist anymore’. And what will that mean for our pension funds?’
What’s more, they aren’t comfortable with the fact that their own department head has already been named the contract manager of the future organisation. ‘His job is already secured. That surprised the hell out of us. There’s talk of serious cronyism within facilities management (which also covers restaurants, ed.). RUG board member Jan de Jeu co-authored a book about contract management (Facilitair bedrijf de deur uit?, 2002, ed.), his friend Tom de Witt Hamer carries it out, and all of a sudden, he brought on John de Groot as an advisor for the reorganisation process. They’re in a who knows how high pay scale and have no worries, and we’re being booted out.’
It’s also unclear what the plans are for the restaurants. The RUG wants to replace the large canteens with smaller providers, similar to what the University of Rotterdam did with their food court. Instead of one long counter for coffee and sandwiches, students and staff can choose from a variety of vendors: a Satebar, Tostiworld, Has Döner Kebab, Starbucks and Spar under one roof.
‘In December, [department head Tom de Witt Hamer] was still talking about the kebab concept. Now that that’s been shot down, he’s started talking about this fruit and juice concept. But what that exactly means remains vague. And if we suggest that we can keep up with that new model too, we are adamantly told, ‘The catering world is changing. You can’t handle that.’ He says that the Board of Directors wants this to happen, so it’s going to happen.’
The RUG has one particular catering company in mind, the staff members say: it’s likely to be Albron, the company that started the Starbucks in the University Library. ‘But they won’t come straight out and say that. We never know what they’re up to. We are just directed to the information page on My University, but there’s nothing there.’
Played for fools
The dining services staff also fear that students and university employees are being played for fools. If a catering company takes over the restaurants, they think the prices will inevitably rise. ‘A catering company wants to make a profit.’ And the expenses for gas, light, appliances and renovations will have to be paid by the university. ‘Outsourcing to a caterer could not possibly be much cheaper. But if we ask to see the differences in costs, we don’t get a reply.’
And the opinions of the students and staff are barely taken into consideration in the new plans, according to the dining services employees. The student factions say that they don’t want fancy food, but rather just simple cheese sandwiches. But talks with national and regional caterers last week were attended by only two students, one of whom works at the services department, according to the employees. ‘So the two of them get to decide what the student community wants. And they’re open to fancier things, obviously. If it were that easy, I could also find two people who are on my side.’
The employees feel they did not get a fair chance. Two years ago, they were told they had to step up. ‘And we did. We put so much energy into improving ourselves. It’s not as if nothing’s happened these past few years.’
At the same time, the RUG decided to stop investing in personnel. And now they are being judged based on a customer satisfaction survey in which the catering locations, meeting and lunch services, dinners, and buffets scored a grade of 6.6. Much too low, according to the university Board, which is using the score to justify the reorganisation. The employees think it is a good score, especially when you take into account that nobody invested in them for years and that they had three different supervisors over the past four years. ‘The supervisors are not in contact with what’s happening on the work floor. We were left to our own devices. But we put our back into it and our reward is being fired.’
The employees also wonder how the services department can focus on the canteens’ reorganisation when half the department is preoccupied with the investigation into the large-scale fraud that has been going on. One of the directors, who is also part of the group leading the reorganisation, has been suspended by the university because of his involvement in the fraud. ‘How can you focus on us when the people in your department are being sent home?’
The cooks, team leaders and service staff are open to innovation. ‘But let a caterer set their policy, and place us on secondment so that we can remain in the employ of the university. We can staff those smaller businesses. That would make everyone happy. But please don’t do it this way, pushing us aside after 30 years. Because that’s what hurts so much. After 30 years of service, we’re being chucked out.’
Last Thursday, they took their concerns to the department head. ‘But we all feel like he won’t do anything about it’, say the spokespeople. ‘We’re all wondering: why is this happening? No one is giving us a clear answer, and in the meantime, they’re rushing the outsourcing through.’
‘Not playing dirty’
Department head Tom de Witt Hamer understands why the employees had such an emotional reaction and vented their frustrations during the last meeting. But he says it was not a case of a bomb dropping last Thursday. ‘It was the second meeting about the future reorganisation. After they were informed about the outsourcing during the first meeting, the employees were able to give the plans some thought.’
Nobody is playing dirty, he insists. The staff feel that the supervisors are only looking out for themselves. They were surprised to find out that their current supervisor has already been named contract manager. But that is not in fact the case, according to De Witt Hamer: ‘The department head is not included in the outsourcing, that’s true. There will be a job opening for a coordinator. It would be unfair not to disclose that the current department head is a contender for this, but that does not remotely mean that he will automatically get the job.’
It is also untrue that John de Groot, director of the Faculty of Economics & Business, had been brought in as an advisor. Because De Witt Hamer does not want to be solely responsible for the reorganisation, he asked De Groot to assist him. ‘It’s true, however, that the project team is working on the outsourcing, and we’ve added an external consultant from Hospitality Consultants, someone who carries the battle scars from catering activities at universities and colleges.
Which businesses or caterers the RUG will be working with has yet to be determined, says De Witt Hamer. The possibilities range from Subway to Yoghurtbar, but those are merely examples. He also says that caterer Albron has not yet been selected. ‘A European tendering procedure, which all market parties can submit their tenders to, occurs under supervision with a strict legal procedure. The ‘winning’ party that submitted the best proposal to the RUG is selected on the basis of objective criteria.’
The market parties that have been consulted so far have indicated that they would rather invest in their own equipment and renovations, rather than have the RUG be responsible for that.
And what about prices? Yes, there will be more luxurious products, and a wider product range. ‘But our market experience teaches us that students and employees are willing to pay a little more for that.’ The caterer and the university will also determine a basic food range, such as the current cheese sandwiches and soups. ‘And those won’t be any more expensive than what they are now’, De Witt Hamer emphasises.
The services department has no rule that employees are not allowed to talk to the UK, says De Witt Hamer. But he does understand the worries expressed by the employees in the article. ‘That’s why it’s our responsibility to ensure the proper support for the employees during this process. We’ll do this by continuing the conversation, supplying as much information as we can, being open to questions, and – should we indeed decide to outsource – ensuring that the transition to a new employer goes smoothly.’