Cambridge students vote to break contract with Veolia

 

Cambridge students vote to break contract with Veolia

58% of students vote to break contract with company implicated in Israeli human rights abuses

Students at Cambridge have voted to call on the University to cut ties with a company implicated in Israeli human rights abuses.

The vote calls on CUSU (Cambridge University Students Union) to campaign to have the University cut ties with Veolia, a company involved in infrastructure projects in Israeli settlements, and employed by the University on a waste disposal contract. The referendum, which closed yesterday, passed with a majority of 58% to 41%: there were 898 votes yes, 637 votes no, and 21 ballots spoilt. While a strong majority was in support, the referendum was inquorate: 7.2% of the student body voted, short of the 10% required.

Students involved in the campaign pledged to continue the campaign to ensure that Veolia’s contract, which expires in September 2012, is not renewed.

Veolia’s activities in the West Bank include bus and light rail services and the Tovlan Landfill site, all serving illegal Israeli settlements. In recent years, the international community has targeted Veolia as a company profiting from the Israeli occupation. Veolia has lost contracts worth more than €10 billion since 2005, including, just a few months ago, a £300 million contract in Ealing, London. The actions against Veolia are part of a broader international campaign following the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israeli companies and institutions. The Cambridge campaign against Veolia received letters of support from Palestinian lecturers and students, a group of 30 Cambridge academics, and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.

Daniel Benjamin, a student involved in the campaign, said: “With this vote, Cambridge students make a strong statement against Veolia’s criminal actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We won’t stop fighting until Veolia is off campus, but this vote itself is a fantastic show of support in the broader campaign for Palestinian human rights through boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israeli companies and institutions.”

Owen Holland, a student involved in the campaign, said: “The impressive turnout shows significant student support for the campaign. We are concerned with a number of irregularities in the vote, such as lies in the ‘no’ flysheet that went uncorrected, a lack of ballot boxes in colleges, and a number of students who found themselves unable to vote online. Though the referendum did not meet the threshold to become CUSU policy, we will be campaigning to have CUSU adopt it anyway and push the University to drop its contract with Veolia.

Contact: cambridgebds@hotmail.co.uk

Rebutting the arguments by the ‘No’ campaign

The following text looks at the arguments of the ‘No’ campaign on a point-by-point basis in an attempt to expose falsehoods, insinuations made in bad faith and sleights of hand. Sections of the ‘No’ campaign’s flysheet are quoted, and then de-bunked.
About Veolia Environment
- Veolia “operates in 77 different countries, in every continent around the world”, etc.

The opening section of the ‘No’ campaign’s flysheet seeks to create the impression that Veolia is a healthy and successful multinational business. What the statements fail to point out is that Veolia has recently had to announce a $1.15bn write-down, which is forcing the company to withdraw from over half of these 77 countries. Their stock has fallen by around a half in the last six months alone. See the article in the Financial Times, August 4th: ‘Veolia to halve its global presence’. As well as being beset by an accounting fraud in the US, grassroots boycott activity is having a real impact on Veolia’s international business interests. It is not quite untrue to say that Veolia operates in 77 countries, but it certainly does make certain economies with the truth. We argue that if the number of countries is taken to be a relevant argumentative plank, it is relevant solely because the company is being forced to move out of half of those countries, thus the ‘No’ campaign’s flysheet makes erroneous use of this data. Similarly, if the number of employees [“More than 317,034 employees”] is relevant, then it is most relevant that it is now forced to substantially reduce this number. Similarly, if its revenue [“Veolia Environment recorded revenue of €34.8 billion in 2010”] is relevant, then it is most relevant that ‘Veolia] were in the red in 2010’ (see, Wall Street Journal), thus Veolia made financial losses.

-    “Diversity and Equal Opportunity – Major focus of Veolia Environnement with their ‘Diversity & Equal Opportunity 2008-2011 Concerted Action Plan’ through 3 aims:

1. Equal Treatment – ensuring non-discriminatory access to employment;

2. Day-to-day management of diversity – providing staff with tools to help select hiring criteria. A system to process employees’ discrimination complaints has also been set in place;

3. Minimum social standards – defining its own labour standards consistent with its values.”

Whilst the ‘No’ campaign seem content to uncritically reproduce Veolia’s public relations propaganda, unfortunately, we find ourselves obliged to draw attention to the ways in which Veolia contradict their own professed values.

   Firstly, a discriminatory advertising campaign was used by Veolia to recruit workers on the Jerusalem Light Railway. In preparation for turning the Jerusalem Light Rail project operational, Veolia published a classified advertisement for employees. This advertisement specified that “completion of military service” was a requirement for a wide variety of positions that do not require military service such as operation and control workers. This requirement is a known discriminatory practice in Israel, as it automatically disqualifies all Israeli citizens exempted from military service, including Arabs, Ultra-Religious Jews and married women.

   The job requirements also state that applicants must speak Hebrew as mother-tongue. This advertisement, as should be clear, specifically excludes and discriminates against Arab Israeli and Palestinian job-seekers, who do not speak Hebrew as mother-tongue.

   Given the existence of this advert, it is untrue to claim that Veolia “[ensure] non-discriminatory access to employment”, despite the fact that the company might profess such a commitment to equal opportunity in its public relations material.

   Secondly, the claim that Veolia abides by minimum social standards looks dubious in the light of a long report on Veolia’s corporate activity, compiled by water NGOs that have criticised the role Veolia has played in the privatisation and rising prices of water supply in developing countries. We feel that this report undermines the veracity of Veolia’s claim to abide by minimum social standards.

   Finally, with reference to Veolia’s claims about labour standards, it is ironic, to say the least, that all 58 of the Jerusalem Light Rail operators are currently on strike protesting against their working conditions. The Hebrew article reports they all went on strike stopping the operation of the JLR. The strike is against Veolia Connex. Is this perhaps what is meant by Veolia’s claim to “[define] its own labour standards consistent with its values”?

Where has this referendum come from?

-  “Similar motions targeting Veolia Environnement have been put forward at other universities and county councils. The motion failed to pass at the LSE and Edinburgh University, as well as the Edinburgh County Council mainly due to the 2006 Public Contracts Regulations Act which makes it illegal for councils to consider contracts based on their political or ethical connections.”

It is not, in fact, illegal for councils to consider contracts in such a way, or to vote, for example, to boycott Veolia. Indeed, a number of councils including Dublin, Swansea and Tower Hamlets have all voted to do so, legally. It is not illegal for councils to make decisions based on political or ethical issues, if the issues are considered to constitute grave misconduct. The law gives the provision for councils to exclude under grave misconduct, under the Public Contracts Regulations 2006, section 23 in page 36: “Criteria for the rejection of economic operators”. Then under subsection (4) [thus Section 23(4)] in page 37: “(4) A contracting authority may treat an economic operator as ineligible or decide not to select an economic operator in accordance with these Regulations on one or more of the following grounds, namely that the economic operator—” Then under subsection (e) [thus Section 23(4)(e)] page 38… “has committed an act of grave misconduct in the course of his [or her] business or profession”. See page 36-38 of the 2006 Public Contracts Regulations.

Needless to say, the above councils considered Veolia’s services to the Israeli illegal settlements as an act of grave misconduct, given that they involve violation of international law and UN resolutions. In particular Veolia is involved in the construction and operation of the Jerusalem Light Rail. In April 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council specifically declared the Jerusalem Light Railway to be “in clear breach of international law and relevant UN resolutions” (Resolution 13/7) and the UK government concurred. Given that it is not illegal for councils to consider contracts based on their political or ethical actions, as demonstrated above, we ask that this section of the ‘no’ flysheet be removed or appropriately amended.

All that said, the 2006 Public Contracts Regulations is irrelevant to universities. Not only are there no restrictions on universities to refuse a company complicit or aiding and abetting war crimes, but it is their right to do so and as charities (the University of Cambridge is an exempt charity subject to regulation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) under the Charities Act www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/secretariat/charity/) they have ethical obligations.

Furthermore, it is considerably disingenuous to raise the example of Edinburgh County Council given that Veolia did not win the contract, after a concerted effort from boycott activists. ‘Edinburgh County Council’ does not, in fact, exist. The body in question is Edinburgh City Council and Veolia was excluded from the bid. This article in the Scotsman makes clear the significance of boycott campaigners’ activities to Veolia’s loss of the bid. We feel that the flysheet ought to be amended to reflect the reality of this situation.

Email correspondence with Palestine solidarity activists and SU sabbatical officers in both Edinburgh and LSE has confirmed that no motion concerning Veolia has ever been put to either SU. We also draw attention to the fact that the University of London Union (ULU) recently voted to “institute and campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in support of Palestine.” Last night, this policy led to another vote being passed to boycott Ahava; a similar motion has been passed by KCL.

-     “BDS campaigns for the One State Solution which would see the destruction of the State of Israel as the only Jewish state, according to Omar Barghouti founder of BDS.”

This is factually untrue. ‘BDS’ does not campaign for a single, bi-national, secular state in Israel-Palestine; rather, as the name suggests, BDS activists campaign for measures of Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions to be levelled against the state of Israel. To conflate the tactic of BDS activism with a more complicatedly historical and ideological line of thinking about how to resolve the conflict in Israel-Palestine is both misleading and erroneous.

   The full text of the BDS call can be found on the BDS movement website – where no mention is made of the one-state solution. The following is also noteworthy: the BDS call does not originate with a single “founder” – Omar Barghouti – as the ‘No’ campaign suggests; the movement originates in a founding document signed by hundreds of different Palestinian civil society groups, trade unions and campaigning bodies. The link just cited provides a full list of these organisations, as well as the BDS movement’s statement of aims, which makes no mention of the one-state solution.

-     “Although this motion is not explicitly anti-Semitic, the wider BDS movement is, targeting Jewish Israelis rather than Arab Israelis.”

BDS is not anti-Semitic: the movement does not ‘target’ individuals – be they Jewish-Israeli or Arab-Israeli; rather, it aims to isolate and hold to account particular institutions or corporations which are complicit with the state of Israel’s crimes against international law. The Boycott National Committee unequivocally condemns all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.

   For the ‘No’ campaign to make such a large claim, without evidence to substantiate it, is both underhand and defamatory. It is a scare tactic designed to intimidate people with the spectre of the idea that this referendum is tainted with anti-Semitism, when it is clearly not. It is a referendum to decide upon whether the University should cancel its contract with Veolia, a French multinational that runs buses to illegal settlements in the West Bank. To target this company is not to target individual Israelis – be they Jewish or Arab.

   Moreover, if the BDS movement really were anti-Semitic, why would so many Jewish organisations be willing to put their name to it? Please look at the websites of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Boycott from Within and Jews for the Boycott of Israeli Goods for further evidence on this.

   The only logical way in which the ‘No’ campaign’s claim that BDS is anti-Semitic could be substantiated is as follows: ‘All Jews support the state of Israel, ergo any attempt to target the Israeli state, or institutions and organisations which support it, is necessarily anti-Semitic.’ This is patently not true because not all Jews support the state of Israel; but, by insinuating this, the ‘No’ campaign lays itself open to charges of anti-Semitism because it seeks to exclusively identify the global Jewish Diaspora with the state of Israel. In light of this, we respectfully ask that the ‘No’ flysheet be amended in such a manner as to acknowledge that not all Jews support or acknowledge the state of Israel, because not all Jews are Zionists.

-     “It is the moderates on both sides of the conflict that are the biggest victims of BDS.”

To suggest that BDS hurts the “moderates on both sides” is dubious, to say the least, when one considers the full extent of the support which the BDS call has received from Palestinian civil society. The full list of groups can be found here: <http://www.bdsmovement.net/call>. It is a very long list. Here, the ‘No’ campaign disingenuously invokes a non-existent ‘silent majority’ amongst the Palestinian community who, so it is claimed, would oppose BDS because it is apparently contrary to their interests. Once again, this claim is made without any evidence to back it up. Who are these moderates? Where are they? What statements have they released professing their opposition to the tactic of BDS? Do they, in fact, exist? If so many Palestinian ‘moderates’ oppose BDS, why does this tactic have such widespread support amongst the Palestinians?

-  “BDS ended the historic cooperation agreement between Israeli & Palestinian Trade Unions, [about] which the General Secretary of the Palestinian Trade Union [sic] said [the following]: ‘the agreement removed key obstacles to future cooperation and the full respect of the rights of Palestinian workers.’” etc.

There is no ‘Palestinian Trade Union’, so it is a little unclear what reference is being made here. It is, however, more than noteworthy that the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions is one of the major signatories of the BDS call – to refer to that document, again – as are many, many other Palestinian trade unions. If BDS has ended the “historic cooperation” between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions, this is because Palestinian trade unionists decided it would be in their interest to terminate this ‘co-operation’, which began to look increasingly like a form of co-optation.

   The UK Trade Union Congress also recently voted to review its relationship with Histadrut. The labour movement in Israel, including its trade union organs, is widely recognised as being complicit with the colonialist Israeli state apparatus.

If the ‘No’ campaign maintained any actual links with the Histadrut they would know that it has lodged a labour dispute with Jerusalem Light Rail, because it does not allow is drivers to unionise (story here). The Histadrut claims that Veolia Transportation SA, one of the owners of the railway’s franchisee, CityPass, has worsened the work conditions and even fired some train drivers after they joined the Histadrut and set up a workers’ committee.  See here.

What you should do now

- “Note that CUSU does not have a foreign policy. Foreign affairs are matters that fall outside of its remit and CUSU can’t represent its members with such a diverse student demography and opinion”.

To suggest that Veolia’s contract with the University is somehow ultra vires or off-topic as a legitimate subject for students to think about is misleading and erroneous. The University’s contract with Veolia is not a matter of “foreign policy”, as the flysheet claims; rather, it directly concerns the entire University community because of the way in which the administration has chosen, without our consent, to employ a corporation which is actively facilitating Israel’s breaches of international law. This is not a matter of the British State’s foreign policy, or its attitude to the Israel-Palestine conflict; it is a matter of the University’s commitment to ethical conduct in the prosecution of its administrative affairs. CUSU may not be able to represent its members on “[f]oreign affairs […] that fall outside of its remit”, but this is quite clearly not a foreign affair; it is on our very doorstep.

 -   “If you are interested in the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, look out for campaigns promoting peace, co-operation and dialogue – building bridges not boycotts!”

Catchy slogan, hey? It is very hard to build a bridge over the top of an apartheid wall though.

Bin Veolia!

CLICK HERE TO VOTE NOW

This is the Cambridge Campaign to Bin Veolia.  From 21-24 October 2011, Cambridge students will vote on the question: “Should CUSU call upon the University to cancel its contract with Veolia, an environmental services company?”

PUBLICIZE THE REFERENDUM ON FACEBOOK:  https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=212834655450289

VOTING OPENS 21 OCTOBER AT http://www.cusu.cam.ac.uk/elections/

Contact us: cambridgebds@hotmail.co.uk