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Do Not Disturb: how London’s top hotels get away with exploiting their hotel maids

Behind the closed doors of five-star hotels throughout the capital, staff face sexual harassment, bullying, and employment abuses.

“It’s like a jail.” This is an unlikely description of one of central London’s top five-star hotels – with rooms beginning at £300 a night, attentive round-the-clock service, and the city on your doorstep. But for a group of invisible people across the capital, such establishments are more of a prison than a palace.

As wealthy guests bed in for a lucrative business trip or luxurious city break, those who clean their rooms and make their visit comfortable are being exploited. Many high-profile global hotel chains employ their London staff via agencies, which break employment law to keep their profits as high as possible. Common employment abuses reported by workers and union representatives include forcing employees to work overtime with no extra pay, being denied holiday days, refusal to pay for sick leave, unfair dismissals, breaking or changing contracts without notice, and even failing to supply a contract at all.

This is at the expense of the welfare and safety of low-paid, often non-English-speaking, room attendants. In London, 69 per cent in the industry are migrant workers, compared with 45 per cent nationally (according to Unite the union).

“Every nationality you would care to imagine [work in the sector],” says Dave Turnbull, who has been Unite’s regional officer for the hospitality sector in London since 1989. “We’re getting quite a few more Greek, Spanish, Portuguese people now. Hotels tend to pick up workers wherever there’s an economic or political situation that makes people move.”

Most room attendants are women, ranging in age from their twenties to their forties.

Those I meet to ask about their experiences wish to remain anonymous, so anxious are they about losing their jobs. For the same reason, they are also reluctant to join a union, seek legal help, or attempt to expose their hotel via the press or a campaign. Less than 10 per cent of the UK-wide hotel workforce is unionised. Around 100,000 people work in the London hotel sector overall, and Unite says it has around 3,500 members in hotels and restaurants in central London.

The industry is referred to as the “Bermuda triangle” for unions, so difficult is it to organise hotel workers. Turnbull finds there is “a complete climate of fear in the industry”.

“Every time they ask for more and more”

“They put you in a jail, that’s it, for their convenience,” says Mary*, 33. She is a supervisor of room attendants at a famous global hotel chain in London, a job she’s had for six weeks. She has been working in various high-profile hotels since moving to London from Spain with her 17-year-old son 18 months ago.

Mary meets me after her shift, during a rainy evening on London’s Southbank, on the condition that I don’t name her or the hotel. But she does tell me that a standard room is £300-£400, and special suites are £2,000 per night.

“They burn us [out],” she says. “It’s too much work, too much expectation. It’s five-star, so, of course, the room should be perfect. But the salary is the minimum wage, and they have to clean one room in 28 minutes. How? There are so many things you have to do in one room that should be perfect. How can I expect this from the girls?”

It is illegal to pay staff on a per room basis, and most agencies ostensibly pay the minimum wage (£6.70 an hour). But to maximise profits, they are always upping the number of rooms, and extras (like cleaning windows or the corridors), each room attendant must clean per shift – making them work overtime for no pay.

“The agency has a big budget from the hotel,” says Mary. “But they don’t give enough minutes for the room attendants to clean. They are giving you 28 minutes per room. It’s around 500 rooms. But sometimes you have 29, 30 per person, per day.”

One of her co-workers recently showed her an old contract they’d kept from when they were directly employed by the hotel a number of years ago. “It was ten rooms per day, maximum 12 in a really bad situation, and they pay eight hours. This is the proper job for five-stars.

“But when they [the hotel] get a franchise, then they get an agency,” she adds. “And all the agencies [I’ve been through] are working in that way. It’s pretty much all the same.”

One room attendant I meet at the same location gives me a day in the life; it tallies with Mary’s experience. Sara*, 34, moved to London from Barcelona last summer. She has been working at her hotel for seven months. Like most hotel workers, she has to get up very early to get to work because she lives far from the centre, and can only afford the bus into town. I speak to her through an interpreter.

“You start at eight in the morning,” she says. “They start with a meeting where they inform you about the extras you have to do that day – clean the ceiling, for instance, or clean below the bed. There are always extras; they don’t pay for them.

“The meeting takes around ten minutes, and this time is counted in our time.”

Sara’s shift is supposed to end at 4pm, after doing 16 rooms. “But if you don’t finish, you have to stay – and they don’t pay you more. You have to finish because if you don’t you’re not going to get your seven and a half hours – they’ll pay you for the 11 rooms you have cleaned in that time. So you are using eight hours to get paid for five, or four and a half.”

Sara says it is common for her work to be delayed by being given a high number of long-stay rooms (which require far more cleaning), guests checking out late, Do not disturb signs making her wait to clean, and guests breaking the rules by smoking in their rooms. These circumstances are outside of the room attendants’ control, but force them to work unpaid overtime.

“Every time they [the management] ask for more and more,” she says. “They don’t lose. They never lose.”

“The number of rooms they require to do fluctuates and there’s constant pressure to increase the productivity rate,” confirms Turnbull. “If it’s £4 a room, if you can get a chambermaid to do three rooms in an hour, obviously your mark-up on paying the minimum wage and getting your profit is a lot higher than if they were doing two rooms an hour.”

The employment lawyer Maria Gonzalez-Merello has long been representing agency workers who don’t speak English and have difficulty standing up for their rights. She tells me about a case she had in February 2015 in which a hotel worker’s contract had been changed without notice, resulting in unpaid wages.

She and her colleague John Samson tell me over email that, “the position of agency workers is fraught with difficulty and uncertainty. This is compounded for foreign language and low-paid workers”.

They point out that under the Agency Workers Regulations 2010 (amended in 2011), temporary workers are entitled to basic pay and working condition rights after 12 weeks of work.

“However, because they are not permanent employees they do not get the much wider rights to which direct employees are entitled,” say Gonzalez-Merello and Samson. “There is a big gap and employers exploit that situation and many have now become ‘hirers’ of agency labour to avoid the obligations under these wider rights. It represents a fracturing of the workforce and workplace rights.”

“You are a piece of dirt. The guests are kings”

As well as contractual breaches, room attendants face bullying, racism and neglect from their superiors. A group of hotel workers write anonymously about these experiences on a blog called Maid in London.

Cristina*, 35, has written for the blog. She moved to London from northwest Spain last April. She worked as a room attendant at an internationally renowned hotel in London for four months before leaving to work in a bar instead. I speak to her via an interpreter.

She describes how the management uses room attendants’ zero-hours contracts to “punish” them, if they complain, make a mistake, or arrive late.

“Several times, I got to the hotel – which took me more than one hour – and they told me ‘I don’t know if there is a job for you’,” she sighs. “You complain, and you aren’t given any work. It’s control they have over us.”

Mary, who has to wake up 5.30am to get to work, is often told at the last minute that there is no work for her. “I was on my bus, and we start at 8.30am, and they called me at 7.29am when I was on my way to work ‘oh, you are off today’. This is normal.”

She also describes two instances in the past month of room attendants reporting being sexually abused by guests while cleaning a room. Nothing was done by the hotel management to protect either woman.

“They are still keeping the girls in the hotel, with nothing happening,” she says. “One of the guests is still in the room! The guest is still sleeping in the hotel. And the girl had one day off, and when she came back, she was working on the same floor. She did a report and everything and they put her on the same bloody floor.

“That’s it. You are a piece of dirt. The guests in there are kings.”

Both Mary and Cristina say they have been sexually harassed by guests – asked for massages or “extra services” when they’ve finished cleaning.

In sexual harassment and abuse cases, Turnbull says hotels “will always protect the guest over and above the member of staff. Particularly the five-star hotels who have rich clientele. They will do anything possible to smooth things over, and make sure they don’t take a big issue with a guest.

“We quite often get – if somebody’s in the union – large sums of money being offered to the person to keep quiet and go and not say anything, rather than deal with it. They always insist on confidential settlement agreements in that situation. But it’s very rare for the guest to be challenged or banned from the hotel.”

He says there is “institutionalised bullying” in the hotel sector – but blames the hotel chains rather than the agencies. “The hotels are invoicing by the room. That’s the root cause of the problem.

“Hotels will claim they do ethical audits and all this stuff, but it’s the contractual arrangement that they’ve come to with the agencies that's the root cause of this problem. And they shouldn’t be trying to get away with saying it’s not their fault, because they’ve caused the problem.”

In New York’s five-star hotels, Hotel Employee Action Teams (HEAT) have helped improve the lot of hotel workers. A city-wide agreement protects their employment rights. Pay rates are about two-thirds higher than in London, according to Turnbull.

But it will take more than union organising to achieve this in London. The employment lawyers I speak to say it is ultimately down to the government to strengthen regulation of agencies:

“Until Parliament legislates to change the position, the courts have declared themselves – with some very limited exceptions – unable to create such rights, however compelling the arguments in favour of protecting agency workers.”

*Names have been changed.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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