The sub-contracting of housekeeping services by hotels to recruitment agencies has led to the exploitation and abuse of staff, a parliamentary reception has been told.
Kevin Curran of the hotel workers branch of the Unite union said that in some hotels, housekeepers were expected to clean a minimum of 16 rooms during their eight-hour shift. If they are unable to complete the quota – often without taking any breaks during the day – they are expected to stay on to finish the job with no extra pay. As a result, the workers who are largely being paid minimum wages are, in effect, working for less than the minimum wage.
“We are very anxious to spread the word about what is happening in the hospitality industry,” he told the meeting, which was hosted by Labour MP John Cryer. “We also want to engage in a dialogue with the hotels, but they won’t talk to us.”
Curran said a typical working day of a housekeeper – usually a woman – working in a central London hotel, began at around 4.30am or 5am as she was unable to afford to live any closer to her job. After working longer than her contracted hours – in order to complete the 16 rooms – she will often go on to another job before the journey home, by which time the children will be in bed.
“It is a dysfunctional existence in which she is unable to engage with her family or local community and has no opportunity to learn or develop her skills,” he explained.
As a result, she ends up suffering from ill health, with back and shoulder problems as a result of the physical work involved and also mental health issues because she is unable to spend any time with her children.”
A survey carried out by Unite showed that 84 out of 100 housekeepers were taking painkillers before they went to work. Many also said they believed that they would be unable to carry on working beyond the age of 50 because of the stress of the job.
Also speaking at the meeting, Joanna Ewart-James of Staff Wanted Initiative (SWI), which was set up prior to the London 2012 Olympics by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Anti-Slavery International, explained why housekeepers are so vulnerable.
“Many of them are migrant workers who often lack knowledge of their rights, have little cultural awareness and a language barrier,” she said. “The agencies exploit their lack of knowledge.”
Ewart-James told the meeting that SWI has produced a simple set of guidelines for hotels to help them identify and deal with any issues of exploitation by the agencies. The Scrutinise Engage Ensure (SEE) leaflet has been sent out to 1,600 hotels within the M25.
“We have already seen some results from this, but we believe hotel workers need a stronger voice and be empowered through the unions to ensure workers can secure redress when violated. There is also a need for better staff protection and reform of the employment agencies.”
Curran said that the difficulty of the issue is compounded by many hotels being owned by one company, whilst being managed by an international operator, and the mind set of hoteliers that they are not employing the housekeepers directly and therefore not responsible for their welfare.
“We are very keen to talk to scrupulous employers who want to see a change,” he added.
Neill Wilkins of the IHRB confirmed that all the major hotel companies had been invited to attend the meeting, but they all declined, except for Whitbread, the operator of budget brand Premier Inn.
Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), said that the BHA advised members who use agencies to supply temporary staff for housekeeping and similar tasks “to ensure that the agency is not setting unrealistic work target for these staff which have the effect that pay per hour actually worked falls below the relevant National Minimum Wage.”
By Janet Harmer
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