Stock image: Getty
Show Hide image

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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Ukip needs Nigel Farage to stand in the Stoke by-election

Despite becoming a global political celebrity, the party's former leader has been waiting 25 years for this moment to win a Commons seat. 

When Ukip's 20 MEPs - back at school today in Strasbourg to elect a new EU President - wave (no fists please) at each other today at lunch across the various dining rooms of the EU Parliament, their main subject of interest will not be the eight candidates they will be voting for by secret ballot to replace bearded German socialist Martin Schulz.

For the record, these eight MEPs include four Italians (the favourite is centre-right 63-year-old Antonio Tajani, a former Italian air force pilot and EU insider regularly seen at the best tables of VIP watering holes like the Stanhope Hotel in Brussels), two Belgians, a Romanian and, yes, a Brit. Thats's 66-year-old Jean Lambert of the Green Party. But nobody in Ukip really cares. The party has the worst attendance and voting record of any political party in the EU - ranked 76 out 76.

Electing a new EU president today in Strasbourg is not nearly of so much concern to Ukip MEPs as the upcoming by-election in Stoke - not the least as quite a few of them (especially representing the Midlands) will be thinking of standing. The central Midlands seat of Stoke Central is a dream seat to have come up for Ukip just as Theresa May is setting out her 12-point "clean Brexit" plan stall.

Ladbrokes still have Labour 4/5 favourite with Ukip 9/4. It's worth a bet as the stakes are so much higher for Ukip if they lose. If they do, many will ask whether Ukip really can supplant Labour in 2020? 

With the prime minister making it clear today in her Lancaster House speech that her government want a hard Brexit, this presents a potential dilemma for Ukip. If the Tories deliver a clean Brexit with no membership of the single market, or EEA, then does the purpose of Ukip "holding the Tories' feet to the fire" over Brexit become less relevant? 

If Ukip alternatively wishes to re-invent itself as the new working class party of the north and Midlands, it will need to show that it can beat Labour - now at its lowest ebb under Corbyn - in key seats like Stoke. Ukip know this and are very good at their by-election ground game with veteran by-election campaign managers like Lisa Duffy as good as any strategist. In Stoke, expect a full expeditionary force of Ukip's colourful and Falstaff-like army of by-election activist troops - arriving by train, coach and foot - to campaign and out manoeuvre Corbyn's New Left Red Army. 

Stoke Central is probably the most important by-election for Ukip since Heywood and Middleton in 2014 which became a watershed moment for the party. Even Ukip was taken off-guard by the result. Without much cash and without campaigning with the full Ukip army zeal, they lost by just over 600 votes and got a recount. 

Looking back, Heywood was a pivotal moment in Ukip's short history. It was the moment the party realised that its future lay not so much in persuading Disgusted with Dave of Tunbridge Wells to vote for Nigel, but rather with disaffected Labour voters wanting something down about immigration that they saw was changing the very face and identity of their local towns, estates and cities. 

But can Ukip really win Stoke? Well, they really have to try as this is their best chance they might get for a while. Which means that the really interesting question being asked by Ukip MEPs today to Paul Nuttall is "Are you running?" The deadline for candidates on the party's Approved Candidates List to put themselves forward is 4pm on Wednesday 18 January.

So far Nuttall's official line - as told to the Daily Express - is that he is not ruling out standing. As a no-nonsense northerner himself (a working class boy from Bootle in Merseyside who played "junior", not professional, football for Tranmere Rovers), Nuttall would appear to be an ideal working class candidate to empathise with the voters of such a socially dispossessed pottery town.

As Chris Hanretty, a political scientist at East Anglia University wrote in the Guardian: "If Ukip doesn’t win, or doesn’t run Labour close, that calls into question its ability to win parliamentary would suggest that the referendum, far from being a staging post on the road to supplanting Labour, might signal Ukip's peak." 

Ouch. But Hanretty has a point: if Nuttall stands and fails to win in a working class Midlands seat where 69 per cent of the electorate voted to leave, it does raise issues about how much impact can make on the Westminster electoral landscape should there be a snap election in the next few months as a result of repeated constitutional challenges to Article 50 (the Supreme Court ruling is expected to be announced this week) and legal challenges such as the Article 127 challenge brought by the pro-EU pressure group British Infuence, now postponed until February.

This case revolves around the claim that Parliament must be consulted not just over the UK's exit as a EU member but also (and separately) its exit from the European Economic Area (EEA) – and by definition from the Single Market. In her speech today, Theresa May made it clear that the UK will be leaving the Single Market, so this challenge is unlikely to go away. All this political jousting and legal posturing is likely to make for quite a political circus when the Stoke by-election date is announced (usually within three months of an MP dying or standing down). Should Ukip not win this by-election prize fight - or give Labour a very bloody nose and lose by a few hundred votes as they did in Middleton and Heywood in 2014 -  it would certainly be damaging for Ukip. 

Not the least if the party's leader and chief general (an MEP commander for the north west) chooses to stand himself. But Nuttall is faced with a tricky dilemma. If he stands and loses, the idea that that UKIP is the new party of choice for working class former Labour voters in the North and and Midlands may not look so convincing. Yet if Nuttall doesn't stand and the party puts up another strong candidate who goes on to win like deputy chairman Suzanne Evans (born in the Midlands) or West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge (who has a strong personal following in the Black Country and industrial Midlands), then Nuttall's own position as leader of a party with two MPs could be frustrated. 

So it is going to be an interesting day for Ukip in Strasbourg that's for sure. Ukip is a strange party in that two of its most senior and high profile politicians - deputy chairman and Health spokesman Suzanne Evans and the respected former Ukip mayor candidate Peter Whittle (culture spokesman and excellent film critic for Standpoint) are not even MEPs although Whittle is proving to be an adept member of the London Assembly.  

If Ukip win in Stoke, and Nuttall's name is not on the ballot, this could have political ramifications. There is a significant difference in Westminster powers and patronage in having two MPs in Westminster rather than one (as currently with Douglas Carswell with whom Suzanne Evans worked closely with as a Ukip member of Vote Leave, which was pointedly not the party's official designated Leave camp). With two MPs, Ukip becomes a party as opposed to a one man political solo show. 

If the newly-elected MP were to be, say, Suzanne Evans - one of the party's star performers on Newsnight and Have I Got News For You - Nuttall's power base as leader (no longer an MEP in 2020 after we exit the EU) might be diluted by another senior party member becoming a star performing Commons MP. 

So there is much at stake both personally and party-wise for Nuttall. Should Ukip be defeated in Stoke Central by some margin, this would be picked up by Tory and Labour strategists as offering evidence that Labour might not be wiped out by so many seats under Corbyn should May go to the country in say March or April to settle the Brexit mandate. Polls have been saying that under Corbyn Labour could lose as many as 80-100 seats should Ukip prove (with Stoke) that the party is, indeed, the number one threat to traditional Labour vote in the north and midlands.

Whatever happens in Stoke, the Tories won't win. They will be watching to see how the working class vote splits. This is why it is so improbable that May will attempt to call an 'early election' this year, even if the polls continue to show she would win by a landslide. 

The truth is she can't realistically call an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act even if she she wants to. The Act (one of the worst legacies of the Coalition govt which many MPs want repealed) requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for going to the country - something that not even the most suicidally inclined of Labour MPs will be prepared to do as they will be joining MEPs in being out of a job. 

In the event that Labour take the view that a political blood bath - with Ukip the likely winner in many seats like Stoke Central - is the only way to purge the party of Corbyn, then they will also have to swallow the fact that May (if pushed into an election by troublesome, unelected peers) is likely to spike her election wheel with a manifesto pledge to abolish most of the powers of the House of Lords, as well as booting many of the eldest, most pompous and idle. Such a mandate for radical reform of our largely unelected Lords would hardly be difficult to secure. More blood on the carpet. 

In the event that the Supreme Court rules this week that Article 50 must be signed off by both the Commons and the Lords, any Lib Dem and Labour pro-EU zealots will know that any attempted Kamikaze-style amendments (which could technically delay Parliamentary assent for up to thirteen months) will be met with punitive retribution from Downing Street. 

Ukip only lost in Stoke to Labour's Dr Tristram Hunt in 2015 by around 5,000 votes - largely thanks to disaffected working class voters feeling that their once proud industrial "pottery" city - once a Victorian symbol of industrial creativity and production - had become a symbol of a working class British city in decline. Faced with immigration, housing and other social issues, Stoke voters have felt for some time that the pro-EU metropolitan leaning Labour Party has abandoned them.

Not so Ukip, which is exactly why Nigel Farage chose to stage a major Brexit rally hosted by Grassroots Out (GO!) last April at Stoke's Victoria Hall urging the good people to vote to leave the European Union.

Addressing the packed hall, against his political opponent Tory Chris Grayling MP, and Labour's Kate Hoey (herself a Leaver), Farage drew applause from the Stoke crowd when he said: "This is not about left or right – this is about right or wrong." Farage then started up the audience of hundreds in a chant of "We want our country back." 

In other words, Nigel he knows perfectly well that Ukip can win Stoke. Which leads to the obvious question in Strasbourg today: "Are you going to stand Nigel?" 

Officially, Farage has ruled himself out saying he wants to focus on his international and speaking, broadcasting and advisory career. But as Farage said after picking up the leadership reins after they came loose following the resignation of Diane James: "I keep trying to escape ... and before I'm finally free they drag me back". 

The truth is that in his political heart, I suspect Nigel must be going through a dark night of his political soul over whether he should have stood for Stoke Central. Or still can? In so many ways, he has been waiting over 25 years for this moment. By the time the all-important Heywood and Middleton by-election result came on October 2014 (Ukip share of the vote up 36 per cent), Farage had already committed to standing for the south of England seat of Thanet South - his seventh election campaign to become an MP. Had Nigel stood in the Heywood by-election, he probably would have won. 

All his Ukip parliamentary election campaigns have been in the South, South-West or Home Counties, beginning with Eastleigh in Hampshire in 1994 when he won just 952 votes. But the interesting trend to note is that in his last two attempts to get into the Commons,  he has doubled his vote each time. In 2010 election, standing in Buckingham he won 8,410 votes (almost the same number as I won taking votes of Midland labour voters in North Warwickshire in 2015). In 2015, Nigel got 16,026 votes in South Thanet. 

My point is that had Nigel Farage stood for a solid Labour Northern or Midlands seat in 2015, he may well have won then. Yes, Nigel has said that he wants to get his life back after his extraordinary years as the "Mr Brexit" Ukip leader - apparently now the subject of a Warner Bros Bad Boys of Brexit comedy biopic. 

But as somebody who knows how much the pull of the green leather Commons bench - the true seat of western parliamentary democracy - means to Nigel, I sincerely hope he will re-consider standing for Stoke Central. Yes, he wants to earn money and become a global political superstar. But it will certainly be something to think about as he flies through the night to take up his front row seat in Washington on Friday's inauguration. 

And just think, after what Nigel did for Trump campaigning in Mississippi, how could Donald Trump possibly not campaign for his Brexit friend in Stoke? Now that really would be political theatre.