“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”.
“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.”
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.