Unionising the room factory

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Socialist Review spoke to Ewa Jasiewicz and Rafel Sanchis of the Unite Hotel Workers Branch about organising in the hospitality industry

What are the key issues that hotel workers face in London today?

Ewa: There are many different departments that make up the hotel team — or what I call the factory. We have this idea of hotels as luxurious and elegant places where people have a good time, and on the face of it this is true.

But behind the scenes is this very strict, micro-managed, pressurised environment, where agency work, casualisation, zero hour contracts, understaffing and poverty pay are the dominant conditions of employment.

Within that machine you have the housekeeping department, which is room attendants — effectively cleaners, mostly women, mostly migrant workers from all over the world, who often don’t speak the same language. Twenty-plus different nationalities. And their work is absolutely crucial to the functioning of the hotel.

If they don’t clean the rooms then the core capital of the hotel cannot be used — guests can’t check in, can’t iron their shirts or have a sleep — the whole thing comes to a halt. So this is an extremely important department, with maybe 30 to 40 people in the average hotel.

With housekeeping, the key issue is intensification of work — with room attendants having to clean maybe 16-plus rooms in a day, cutting their own breaks short to get it done, so they don’t even get the minimum wage.

It’s manual labour, and they suffer exhaustion, injuries and isolation — they don’t really communicate with each other.

And then you’ve got front of house, reception, and they’re under different kinds of pressures. Front of house are the face of any issues guests have and they have to deal with difficult people. They’re on their feet all day, also incurring health and safety issues.

Then you have maintenance — a small department but integral; they make sure that everything’s functioning properly. They often have down time but they are responsible for the entire functioning of the hotel.

Then there’s food and beverage — a very lucrative part of the business. Most food and beverage workers don’t know where their tips go because in this country it’s not illegal for the company to take your tips. It’s illegal to use them to top up your wages to the minimum wage, but not to take them.

We are having a big battle at the moment to get Pizza Express to drop their 8 percent “admin charge” on credit card tips.

Food and beverage are also front-facing, dealing with difficult customers, rushed off their feet and mistreated in terms of a percentage of their tips being taken and used to fund what the hotel sometimes dresses up as “staff socials” and equipment, etc — but these don’t belong to the workers — you don’t get to take the coffee machine home with you!

Rafel: Work is intensifying. I think the stress is everywhere. Even if you are not a foreigner, even if you become management. I’ve seen young people start out and they are motivated, ambitious, they think they will reach a good position in hotel management, but after three years they are burnt out.

They are demotivated. If you come from another country and you don’t speak English then you start in another department, for example rooms, and it’s another story. You work very hard and you finish very tired.

A hotel can have more than 900 rooms — it has a lot of staff but it is hard for anyone to tell how many. Housekeepers work for agencies, room cleaners work for another part of the company…

Lately they’ve reduced the staff so everyone has to work even harder than before. People leave; some join the union.

Now that I’m working as a rep I see the same problems in every hotel: harassment, stress, bullying. Issues about the rota — because you’re working shifts and people don’t get weekends.

Managers give themselves the weekend off — sometimes it’s not the manager but the person doing the rota, who tells the people arriving later, “I’m going to be working Monday to Friday; you’re gonna be working the late shift and the weekends and the night shift, and if you don’t like it you can talk to management.”

So it makes people very angry because, imagine — you are working in a department where you are short of staff, and then they give you the weekend shift and then you have one day off and then you have to work nights.

When you work shifts you don’t have a social life. Before, shift workers would work long shifts, but they would be four days on and four days off, so they had a better life; they could organise themselves. They had time to rest and recover and have a proper social life.

Is there a real desire to get organised, or is it a matter of you having to convince people? Is there much organisation already?

Ewa: There’s not much organisation. There’s only a handful of recognition agreements between unions and hotels. People are often very isolated; they can’t communicate with one another because they don’t have the same languages.

Everyone knows they’re exploited — it’s not a mystery — but the problem is partly with the insecurity that migrant workers feel in this country, not really feeling empowered, not having the language skills. But also with the dominant culture that we live in, the culture of individualism. We’ve lost our skills in many ways, of collective organisation, community; we have to learn that again.

You’re told you’re on your own, you have to look after yourself, fight your own battles. You meet people who don’t know what a union is.

Rafel: I can show people straight away what difference a union makes.

When I am helping a hotel worker with a grievance, as soon as the management knows that the union is involved, that there is a union rep who will be in the grievance meeting supporting them, the attitude of management changes. They become more polite. They take the grievance more seriously.

So that is the starting point for people to feel more confident. And then I say to them, can you talk to your colleagues, tell them how the union made a difference to your working conditions, and they do.

So even though we are not recognised in the workplace people feel more confident. I think the companies need permanent employees who feel appreciated by management — and the union can help make this happen.

But management don’t recognise this — they think they can just fire you and ten more people will come to fill the job.

What other methods of organising are you using to overcome the lack of organisation and confidence, the lack of knowledge about unions?

Ewa: Unite Hotel Workers’ Branch has a number of elements. One is support for individual members. We run a regular advice surgery which happens every Monday. This is unique because usually workers have a rep at work, but if they don’t have a rep, who do they go to?

The advice surgery for two hours every Monday means workers know they have a port of call. We’ve got a really active branch chair and secretary who work really hard, and we have regular branch meetings that people can come to, so it feels like a community.

The specific form of organising that we’re using comes from Unite Here, which is an American union. In terms of the model we use, we’ve got the branch and the activists, and part-time organisers like myself, who work for the hotels, and we have to keep our heads down so people don’t know we’re organisers for Unite.

With Unite Here they’d have two organisers on one hotel; we have two organisers for the whole of London!

The Unite Here model aims to set up hotel employee action teams — workplace committees, in a sense — but the difference is that it’s about workers who want to organise in a particular hotel chain coming together with other workers who are in different hotels but the same brand, and when they meet every month they share ideas and they don’t feel so isolated.

We are building their confidence, developing them as workplace activists, leaders.

If you try to organise just in your own hotel it is a struggle. But when you see there are other workers, like you, who want to do something it gives you that bit more confidence and you can share tactics and strategies.

So we collectivise grievances — we say to workers, if you’ve got a problem at work the likelihood is that other workers will be facing the same problem.

So rather than try to pursue it separately, which is what the employer wants you to do, to keep you isolated, let’s come together with a collective grievance.

If there is a big campaign people feel stronger, more consolidated and confident to come forward. That way we can really put the pressure on, like we have done in the Park Plaza Hotel dispute.

If the women there hadn’t been so united and really ready and up for a strike, and if we hadn’t got that big story in the Observer, we would never have forced the employer back to the negotiating table — and not just WGC, the agency, but Park Plaza itself.

We use the mainstream media, which we have good links with, and social media as well.

We’re always responding to what the industry is doing, so on waiters’ day we had our own protest about what it means to be a waiter; on workers’ memorial day we had a protest highlighting the health and safety issues faced by cleaners — 90 percent take painkillers before they go to work.

Rafel: Polish employees send home for Polish painkillers because they are stronger!

Ewa: Yes — painkillers, Red Bull for breakfast… It’s difficult when you have meetings with people — sometimes you think, am I going the right way here? But they say no, I’m just exhausted!

With the social media, it’s not an organising tool but it is an amplification tool, and it’s been a way in to other unions for us. For example, BFAWU, the bakers’ union and their Fast Food Rights campaign — we’re working with them; we’re supporting each other’s protests. We’ve got common ground and their methods are similar to ours. Also United Voices, a new union, which is organising the cleaners at the Barbican and Sotheby’s. Protest really works. Brand damage really works.

Amplifying also the voices of the hotel workers themselves is important. Look at the Maid in London blog, an anonymous blog by a hotel worker (maidinlondonnow.blogspot.co.uk). It’s also a forum for other workers to share their experiences, and it exposes the brands, the hotel chains.

When people come here from other parts of the world do they bring with them different traditions of organising?

Ewa: Yes, some of the older Polish workers have experience from Solidarity in the 1980s. Some of the younger workers from Hungary are quite anti-union because they have a bad experience of unions at home. It depends where they come from.

Do you feel like you’re making progress with the union?

Rafel: Yes, yes. We are gradually winning recognition agreements. We can see the confidence of workers growing.

What campaigns do you have coming up in the next couple of months?

Ewa: We are campaigning over Pizza Express’s practice of taking 8 percent of the tip if you pay it by credit card. It’s the company’s 50th anniversary and this summer we’re encouraging people to go for “Meals of Justice”.

You go to Pizza Express for a meal with your friends, and when you go to pay the bill you stand up and make a speech to the restaurant letting everyone know about the 8 percent tax and that you are leaving your tip in cash, and let’s have a round of applause for the waiting staff and the hard work that they do.

It can happen everywhere — and it can really lift people up. We’re talking about precarious workers, casualised and working for low pay and on poor contracts.

Rafel: Hotels make a lot of profit! Hospitality is the fourth biggest industry in this country. The rooms in London are very expensive and most London hotels are full all year round.

People are paying £150 per room, and there are hundreds of rooms. You can take a calculator and see that the hotels are able to pay the living wage.

Facebook: Hotel Workers Branch
Twitter: @HWUnite