By Jacob Atkins
WASHINGTON – Over the past year, a social-justice movement has been brewing at American University, thanks to Carlos Vera and his Exploited Wonk campaign.
Recently the first-generation college student made campus-headlines after denouncing American University‘s partnership with Aramark: the multinational corporation subcontracting a predominantly Spanish-speaking housekeeping staff.
“It’s called a moral obligation,” says Vera. “That Latino worker cleaning two buildings could be my mom or my grandma.”
At 6-years-old Vera left conflict-ridden Colombia for Los Angeles where he joined his aunts who worked as cleaners upon arriving to the United States in the 1980s. So when Vera enrolled at AU in 2011 as a political science major, he naturally gravitated to the housekeeping staff, many of whom are Salvadorian women speaking little to no English.
Realizing how susceptible housekeepers are to maltreatment due to such language barriers, the 21-year-old serves as a liaison for Aramark workers with grievances to make against their employers.
“While I made some friends, I felt most at home with the workers,” says Vera. “Once I started building those relationships, that’s when I started finding out that they weren’t being treated correctly.”
Overtime Vera began publicizing his findings on the Exploited Wonk website and Facebook page, which provided a forum for these women to be heard. Allegations of sexual harassment and inordinate workloads continue to surface as Vera hears more testimonies from subcontracted workers.
One harrowing story comes from Bianca, who was three-months pregnant when she was forced to clean Bender Arena. The physical exertion contributed to her miscarriage during the middle of her shift.
As the much-anticipated East Campus is projected to open next year at AU, persuading Aramark to hire more employees is one of Vera’s main objectives. The student-activist believes that a larger staff will entail less strenuous work for current housekeepers.
With graduation just around the corner, Vera is also eager to train the next generation of student leaders to ensure the sustainability of the Exploited Wonk campaign.
“Many students come and go, and that’s a big problem with student activism on college campuses,” says Vera. “You work so hard at it, then the senior class graduates, and a freshmen class comes in, and nobody knows anything.”
Furthermore, Vera wants to galvanize the AU administration into caring more about the well-being of subcontracted workers. Unlike other staff or faculty members on campus, Aramark employees don’t receive benefits like tuition assistance or health insurance.
“I think it would be disingenuous to blame everything on Aramark,” says Vera. “Aramark is only a product of the system.”