Friday, 27 March 2015

A Knife to the throat

There's always a tumult to sign on and gather all our tools in the morning. As soon as the metal shutter of the Housekeeping office cranks up at 8am, everybody wants to grab their tray, get stuck in and get out as quickly as possible.

I spot the new girls by their shy hanging back and their own clothes, not yet given a uniform.

I got mine. A baggy grey tunic with two big pockets that can fit a phone, pen, your room sheet, master key, pantry key and rape alarm.

I meet the only other Brit on the job. We're standing under the rota waiting for our floor sections to be called out.

She's an extremely shy black woman in her late twenties from North West London. She barely makes eye contact.

How long have you been doing this?” I ask her.

Just a couple of weeks”, she replies, looking down. “I didn't expect another English person to be working here”, she says, half smiling, and making just fleeting eye contact.

I know, me too” I say, probably sounding a bit too surprised. “Have you done this kind of work before?”

No, not this kind” she purses her lips into a line, “I've cleaned houses. But this, this is much harder”. No eye contact, but her back straightens up against the wall as if to counterbalance the....shame?

3A” - the Supervisor shouts my section out.

Hey what's your name?” I ask before leaving.


I'm X”.

We part.

Out of the lift and the race is on. I'm searching for my trolley and hoover. Both are tucked away in a linen cupboard and I have to perform all manner of manoeuvres to extract them. As soon as I'm stacked up with towels and linen the top shelf collapses. I struggle to prop it all back for about 5minutes, cursing. The dirty linen sack is knackered and won't stay fixed on so anything I drop in just takes the whole thing down with it.

No, it's more like......



Pushing the trolley down corridors and through narrow doorways is quite a feat. There are maybe 8 duvet covers, 10 sheets, 24 pillow cases, dozens of towels plus all the bathroom and tea tray kits on an average trolley. The wheels are heavy and old and the whole thing veers into walls, but the all-round rubber buffer cushions the blows.

Because I learned with Maryam, I end up knocking and announcing myself the way she does. “Haaus Clean” I say, instead of “housekeeping”. KnockKnock. “Haaus Clean”.

I don't yet have a rhythm. That will come later. For now the rooms are taking me 45mins instead of 20. But they're breaking me in, I've only got five. 

I keep forgetting things and hurriedly clicking back in back into rooms I've just done. A milk, a facetowel, I didn't roll up a towel in front of the shower as well as drape one on the bath side, did I empty the kettle?...

After a lonely lunch, by 2 I'm done. The supervisor, a thin and kind-eyed Latvian woman checks off my rooms and then asks if I'll help Ola, a young Polish woman finish hers. I jump at the chance because it's a new person to talk to, and she clicks me in to where Ola's finishing a bed.

We work on it together. Ola's English is decent but she's shy and speaks it quietly and unassumingly. I'm straight in with the chatting. How long's she been here? (4 years), How's she finding it? (hard - “but I've had harder, 18, 20 rooms in other hotels”).

Later I'll hear from Grzegorz, a Polish chef who knows her and her sister, also a cleaner at the hotel. He tells me they left at one point because it was too hard for them, only to end up begging to come back because the other place was even worse....

I ask Ola where she's from and it's some kind of tiny village.

Poland used to have one of the biggest rural populations in Europe and still does. One third of the whole country is covered in forests. In 1960, just over 53% of the population lived na wsi or 'in the countryside'. Today according to a 2014 European Commission report, 39% out of a population of 38.5million live na wsi. Compare that to the UK where 19% of 81 million live in the countryside. 


Many of the 2.2million Polish workers – or 4-5% of the population – who left for work come from the rural areas. Some 600,000 are here in the UK and Polish is the second most spoken language in England now after English.

In 2004 when Poles could legally work in the EU, Poland's national unemployment rate was 20%, reaching 40-50% in many rural areas. Youth unemployment was 50-60%. In some rural areas, 20% of the youth have now gone.

Today, even though unemployment is 11% nationally, it hits 32% in rural areas. In 2004, the Polish minimum wage was about £1 per hour. Today it's about £2. In terms of state welfare, there is no housing benefit and cash support for unemployed people is only available for six months or up to twelve months if the unemployment rate in your region exceeds 150% of the national average. After that, you're on your own. Or out on a bus to Germany, Norway, Ireland or the UK... Ola and Basia are two out of two million out on their own....

Foodbank queue in Bialystock, East Poland

I look at Ola meekly smoothing down the duvet cover. “I'll do the bathroom if you can finish here”, she says, picking up the bucket.

Later, Grzegorz the Polish chef will tell me more . “X” he starts, “You need to understand where these workers are coming from. Ola and Basia, they're country girls, and they had a choice - to either stay in their village and dig up potatoes, or come here and earn what in Poland, is a big wage. They came here not out of choice, but out of desperation. They have a knife to their throat, and nothing to go back to”.

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