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Exposing the daily violence of women's hotel work

Employment conditions in hotels are hidden, but activists are going undercover to expose the terrible working practices maids and cleaners endure.

Maid in London
19 August 2015
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I’ve served time in hospitality – years in bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes as well as a short stint in a hotel - but only ever as a bartender, kitchen assistant, deli worker or waitress, and occasionally in room service. Undertaking the role of a room attendant was a first for me. I wanted to do it to understand it because I want to see the hospitality sector here in London - or anywhere for that matter - organised. I want people to be unionised, to have collective bargaining and representation and rights on their own terms, and not those of the phoney workplace committees that go by all kinds of weird and wonderful names, established by hotel management and human resources to essentially keep unions out.

We need hotel unions and, New York City and Finland are great examples, where working in a hotel is a good, dignified, even sought after job. Hotel workers in New York are paid $24 per hour, they can afford to send their kids to university, they have decent, steady contracts with sick pay and good holidays and they’re not worked to the absolute bone. Union density is over 90%. In London it’s about 1%.

The way such high levels of unionisation were achieved in the US has to do with a few factors: the union Unite Here putting in serious dollars to fund organisers (two per hotel I have heard), the support of the pro-union city mayor Bill Deblasio, and the extensive use of salts (volunteers who take jobs in hotels to build organisation from within).

You can call me a kind of salt….

Back in January I walked into the agency with my passport and my details, filled out some forms, and an hour later I had the job and could start the next day. That’s how quick and easy it was, and that shows you just how desperate these hotels are for fresh blood. Because the work is so degrading and intense and the worst paid you can find, staff retention is virtually impossible. The turnover in housekeeping departments is about 50%. Agencies know this, which is why my agency - Omni Facilities Management or ‘OmniShambles’ as I have renamed them - have an illegal clause in their contract which states that if you leave the position before three months probation are up, you’ll not be paid for your first two weeks of work which instead will be labelled as ‘training’. This needs challenging.

I knew that being a room attendant would give me intimate insights into the workplaces I wanted to organise. It would give me an understanding of hotel culture, and enable me to interact on a daily basis with fellow workers, bosses and customers. I would understand the job. And I would use my humble writing skills to try and convey as vividly and evocatively as possible, what the job means. I wanted to make it tangible to those who barely give workers in hotels a second thought, or would care if they only knew how bad it is. 

With any organising strategy, economic leverage is key. This means being in a position to identify and influence and if necessary move the money in the company or industry you are dealing with, to your advantage. This means being able to influence customers, investors, key business stakeholders and owners. This means, if necessary, having an impact on the revenues of a company, through not just workers withdrawing their labour but customers withdrawing their capital, and costing the company. 

Hotels sell an irreplaceable experience – the stay is the product and if you can’t access your stay or you have a disrupted stay, you can’t make back that time or experience. We work to the minute, and people’s lives in hotels play out to the minute. ‘Just in Time Production’ – delivery of services and clean ready rooms – are our daily bread, 24/7. And we have the power to make or break that.

So my blog audience, leverage-wise, is the hotel guests and the industry. But my collaborators, the people I want to see directly empowered and involved in this project, are necessarily other hotel workers, in the same chain, which we will expose soon. 

By encouraging them to write and contribute their experiences I hope to encourage a recovery from the normalisation of the exploitation of the work and the embedded idea that nothing can change. 

The daily violence of hotel work has become normalised for many people in the industry. It began to feel normalised for me too after some time. I started to withdraw and feel despondent and quiet. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer exhaustion from doing such a manual, physical, time-pressured, and intense job. I wasn’t being flippant when I said it was like a full body work-out. You are running. It’s so repetitive you become semi-automatic. You reprogramme yourself to adapt to it. And people expire, their bodies wear out, they take painkillers and drink energy drinks to get through it. The violence of the race to the bottom is played out across overwhelmingly migrant women’s bodies who are coerced into carrying out this labour because they believe - and structurally in many ways they’re right - that they have no alternative.

With other jobs I’ve done, and here is where I feel class power gets most sharply defined, I had more time to myself and was able to have cups of tea, have down-time - sometimes through commuting, sometimes through periods of quiet time to talk to other people, time to eat some snacks or surf the news on the web or catch up on emails, engage in social media etc. Not with hotel work. Not in housekeeping and not in the other departments. 

You can see this intensification of labour happening in casualised factory and warehouse work, cleaning, logistics and haulage too, in jobs where you are timed and every minute counts; where you’re bare labour. The privileges of reading, talking, making calls, having untimed breaks, even tweeting, which workers in cultural, academic, media, NGO and some office-based and local government work have, don’t apply to millions of manual workers. Participation in cultural production or political activism is limited by time, access to the means of cultural production and exhaustion. The difference with hospitality, is that we are urban and we are visible. We’re not stuck in some remote warehouse in a place you’ve never heard of.

Hotel work as we know it in the UK is another world. And it’s a really dark place for many people who have to ‘live’ there. 

But I want it to be exposed and to attract the controversy the conditions deserve. I want people to empathise with the workers. I want to humanise the ‘invisible golden hands’ as room attendants have sometimes referred to themselves. I want workers who do read the blog to feel inspired to share their experiences and desires and to organise, and they do feel heard and empowered when the blog is read by 83,000 people. I want it to grow into a collective voice. I believe in popular cultural production which is politicised and accessible and inspires creativity. I want us – workers - to have as much support as possible when we come to assert our rights to collectively bargain, to win a living wage, sick pay, and ultimately - less work and more time for ourselves. We are building for that moment. 

If hotels are the workhouses of the 21st century then what we need is something akin to the New Unionism response to the industrial and municipal workhouses of the Victorian era. At the time this meant workers who the traditional craft unions said could never be organised (casual workers, Irish immigrants, women, poor people working in unskilled jobs in the docks, the gasworks, the Bryant and May match girls) organising and challenging employers, and working with community and radical groups, before themselves becoming the new leadership of the Labour movement and taking it in a more radical direction. Watch this space.

Read more at: www.maidinlondonnow.blogspot.co.uk or follow @hotelunionnow

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