“I’m really just a slave” – how hotel chains exploit agency loopholes and dehumanise workers

Alenka, like so many others, hopes for a better life but is caught up in a catch-22, valued only for the absence of a smudge on a bathroom mirror.

Jeremy Fox
13 December 2017

In her mid-twenties, Alenka’s days revolve round the physical grind of her job, her insecure employment status, the pitiless supervisors who decide whether and when she will work, and her powerlessness to change things. She is a hotel cleaner, one of the countless women - they are invariably women - whom guests might brush past in the corridor but seldom acknowledge on their way to and from the elevator. Her English is spare but correct; and she is proud of her fluency. She responds to my questions with a smile and a visible effort at cheerfulness that contrasts with the quiet melancholy of what she has to say.

Operating under a well-known brand name, the hotel where Alenka works stands on a crisp, refurbished fringe of central London. Business executives stay there for convenience, and families choose it because - though hardly cheap - it is less expensive than its sisters in the West End.

The staff are mostly Eastern European and many have little English, she tells me - except for a couple of older English women who have what she calls “proper jobs”.

“Proper jobs?” I ask.

“They started working there years ago and were hired as full-time employees. Whereas the rest of us,” She paused for a moment, searching for clarity. “We don’t have steady jobs. We’re all on zero hours contracts.”

I asked if she could show me her employment contract but she said she wasn’t sure she had ever had one. Could she ask the hotel for a copy, I asked?

None of us knows where their office is.

 “I don’t work for the hotel. I work for an agency. We all do, including the housekeeper. We get paid every two weeks but we never get to see anyone from the agency. None of us knows where their office is. They didn’t even see me when I applied for the job. The housekeeper interviewed me. After the interview, she filled up some papers, asked me to sign them and said I was hired. The agency had nothing to do with it.”

Alenka tells me about her work:

“It’s very hard. I have a whole floor to clean by myself. We’re supposed to take no more than 25 minutes for each room. We have to empty the waste bins, vacuum the floor, dust everything, change the bed linen, clean the bathroom and leave it completely dry. Then we have five minutes to go to the next room. Often I have eighteen rooms to clean. Sometimes twenty. But I still have to finish on time. Seven and a half hours is the maximum with half an hour’s break for lunch. So I usually have to do the rooms in less than 25 minutes. They don’t care if it’s tiring, or even if it’s impossible. Whenever the housekeeper inspects the rooms she always finds a speck of dust somewhere so she has an excuse to complain. No matter how hard we work, we never receive a word of praise.”

Last month Alenka finished late because several guests didn’t check out til the afternoon. She explained what happened:

She told me it was punishment for finishing late

“Next week the housekeeper took my name off the roster for four days so I couldn’t earn anything. She told me it was punishment for finishing late. They don’t pay extra for working overtime, they punish you. Productivity is what matters to them more than anything else. They want more rooms cleaned in less time; but the work still has to be perfect. One of the English cleaners has a problem with her back and finds it hard to carry things and to bend down to make beds. She told the housekeeper and the supervisor thinking maybe they could arrange some physiotherapy for her. She might as well ask for the moon. What do they care? If you have a problem, there’s no point in discussing it with the managers because they say it’s nothing to do with them. You have to go to the agency. But the agency says it’s nothing to do with them because the problem is with the hotel and they can’t interfere. I think you call it a catch-22.”

Alenka is paid an hourly rate of £8. At first glance this appears to be 50p over the current minimum wage of £7.50. However, a full eight-hour day includes a half-hour break for lunch for which no payment is made even if, in order to meet her productivity target, the cleaner works through the lunch period. With grim precision, this reduces the effective rate of pay for a full day precisely to the minimum wage.

“They don’t care if we have no time to eat. If we can’t get through the work on time it’s our problem, no matter how many rooms we’re supposed to clean. Sometimes I get to work and then they tell me they don’t need me that day, even though I’m on the roster. It takes me over an hour to get to the hotel and travel is expensive in London, so I end up making a loss. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I hate them. Everybody hates them. Most cleaners don’t stay very long. There’s often a shortage. I only stay because I have nothing else. If I could find another job, I’d take it straight away.”

I asked Alenka what work she’d like to do.

“I don’t know. Anything. Maybe I could work on the check-out in a supermarket. Or a bakery. I Iike baking. I‘m qualified as a phlebotomist in my country, but here they ask for at least six months experience which I don’t have. One day I’ll find something better. I don’t lose hope.”

Alenka is still smiling as we shake hands at the end of the interview; a smile drawn from a well of solitude imposed by the indifference of those who employ her, for whom she exists only in the presence or absence of a smudge on a bathroom mirror or a pillow out of line. She is one of thousands, a replaceable cog in the machinery of exploitation that characterises the working conditions of agency staff in the hotel industry. Her concluding words to me: “I’m really just a slave.”

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