Monday, 16 March 2015

Between the sack and the sanction

The agency manager breaks into a phoney smile and sits down opposite me. Maryam barely looks up from her plate and phone.

“So, X, how are you liking it here?” she says to me in a heavy, lilting, Eastern European accent.

“Yeah it's, it's great” I half stammer.

I mean really what am I supposed to say to that? It's like a work camp. That's what other room attendants have called it and I haven't even barely started yet.

A recent study by a major UK union found that out of 100 housekeepers they surveyed, 84 said they used painkillers every day before coming to work.

I smile brightly.

Gina's own smile falls but her eyes stay on mine. “Because, you see, your English, it's very good. Why do you not do another work? Hmmm?”

Hot black burning coal pupils of suspicion are boring into me.

Keep smiling...

I shrug. “I, I think this is fine for me”.

“You could do, a, reception work? Or..?” Trailing voice, steely eyes...

“I just like to get the work done and get out. It's easy”.

Such obvious bullshit.

“Because you've done this before yes? Cleaning houses”.

I nod, “Uh huh”. No lie there. “You know, this is harder, much harder, but, it suits me”.

“And, you're using the gloves, yes?”

“Oh, er, yeah yeah”.

I f-ing hate gloves. I can't use them.

“Ok”. A lingering look. “Ok X. If you need anything, let me know”. And with that she gets up and leaves.

The implication in that little interaction, is that this job is for people who can't speak English. This job is for people who are not 'educated'. This job is for people who are vulnerable. It's got a price tag because you have, and you'll accept poverty wages because you haven't earned the right to earn more. You can be like a machine. If you can't communicate, all the better, we just want your body. And you won't talk back, literally.

                                                       Are they the lucky ones?

I look up at the pin board of the Works Council or whatever it is, in the canteen. It's the typical body that hotels and other business will set up to keep unions out. There'll be staff jaunts and charity fundraisers, a suggestions box and employee of the week, and maybe even a Which Animal Are You? - Melinda is a Dolphin! (snap of dolphin with a young woman's face) for example. There's snap after snap of people in matching t-shirts with smiling faces and thumbs up. I shake my head. 

“Who gets to go on these trips?” I ask Maryam.

“Not us” she says. “It's people from the Admin, or reception. They don't ask us from housekeeping”.

                                               ....a party that you actually pay for yourself 

It's common for the big hotels, despite their soaring profits, the fact that London has the most expensive hotel rooms in Europe, after Geneva and Paris, to actually make staff pay for their own social events, such as the staff Christmas party. Usually this comes out of a 'restructuring' of the Service Charge. One major hotel right now is taking 30% out of Food and Beverage (F&B) and Kitchen department employees' service charge, to pay for National Insurance Contribitions, equipment, admin and a 'social fund'. There's no transparency about how this is all calculated. I thought we were already paying NI? Is this a tax dodge? Why are workers paying for their own equipment? Do we get to take it with us if we leave? Why are we paying for our own socials - what if we can't make it or we don't drink? Feels like a deeply anti-social move on the part of the company...

“Do you get a Christmas bonus?' I ask Maryam. She snorts. “No. You can win employee of the Month, and you can get £30 for that. But no, there's no bonus”.

                                                 Think I'd rather have a pay rise actually...

I look around the canteen. The quiet eating. The steady TV.

The London hotel business is booming. PwC consultants estimate occupancy rates in London will hit a 20-year high of 84 per cent this year. The average room rate is now £144 per night. An estimated 6,000 new rooms are set to open in the near future — taking the hotel business' estate in the capital up to 136,000 rooms.


Meanwhile, since 2010, London homelessness has increased by 79% according to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Rent hikes, the housing benefit cap, benefit sanctions and the Bedroom Tax have shown thousands of people the door, out of their communities and into the peripheries or even over the edge. Those on the streets could be us. Out of the 742 officially recorded rough sleepers in the Capital, 46 per cent are UK nationals; 10 per cent are Polish nationals and 11 per cent are Romanians. According to their figures, the number of homeless people in London in 2013-14 also included 134 Irish people, 413 Africans and 107 Portuguese, and six people from the Australasian continent. 

We're so afraid in here. In this parallel universe, just a corridor away from the soft carpets, piped music and meals that cost as much as a week's food for us. Life on minimum wage and zero hours, is like being caught in a crossfire; we're caught between the sack and the sanction. And the space to breathe is getting tighter and tighter. Where can you go? Who can you turn to?

The news ticker-tape on the big screen streams by, repeating: “Terror Alert”.


  1. Found out about your blog via a tweet from @paulmasonnews.

    I don't really use hotels much, but when I do, I feel terrible when I see the tired looking domestic staff. I always keep my room clean and tidy up as much as I can when I leave.

    I really wish you and your colleagues well and hope that you are successful in getting them to unionise.

    Please keep up with the blog too. It's such an important thing you are doing here - giving a voice to the invisible.

  2. Hi. This chimes with much of my experience over the last 35 years in London. I've been lucky enough to get well paid jobs most of my life, but when I go for a temp role the gulf is deep and the suspicion you are held in is horrifying. You are treated as cattle. Yet this is the experience of the thousands of powerless who make London work. The idea of organising representation is guaranteed to get you a place on the secret blacklist that London businesses share. Well done. This is great work, and I dont say that lightly. Would you consider Tweeting these blog posts if you don't already?

  3. Hi there Mark and Zach, thanks so much for your kind comments. I don't have a twitter account, I am not so great at twitter but, I will do it, I will set one up. New blogpost is also coming soon - by Friday. I have been very exhausted. Thanks. All the best, X

  4. Really enjoy the blog. I am a member of the Mary Quaile Club. Mary was an Irish woman who came to Manchester in 1908, worked in a cafe and organised her fellow workers into a union. She worked all her life in her union and other progressive campaigns and was one of the first women to be appointed to the TUC council. We are researching her life for a play and a pamphlet. They will both link up with present day campaigns for better conditons for low paid workers. See our blog Keep up the good work! xLipstick socialist

  5. Amazing! Would love to read it. Please keep me in the loop on it. Big Up Mary Quaile and her legacy!


  6. عملائنا الكرام نحن من اكبر واقدم الشركات في مجال مكافحه كافه انواع الحشرات فلدينا الخبره لذلك والعمال المدربين جيدا في مكافحه جميع انواع الحشرات بافضل المبيدات الاوربيه المميزه والامنه صحيا فنحن نتنافس مع انفسنا والاخرين للوصول الي افضل حذمه باقل الاسعار الممكنه

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    شركة تسليك مجاري بالدمام تعتبر من اعرق واعظم شركة تسليك علي الاطلاق لما يجده العميل من معامله طيبه واسعار رخيصه لا تقبل المنافسه لا تجده في اي شركه اخري مع الجوده والاتقان في العمل ولدينا عمال مهره وفنيين ومهندسين على اعلي مستوي من الكفائه والخبره وجوده لا تقارن في اي شركه اخري معنا انت في ايد امينه اتصل بنا تجدنا اي وقت علي مدار اليوم

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    شركة تسليك مجاري بالخبر اذا كنت تبحث عن افضل شركة تسليك مجاري فشركتنا شركة الكمال من اعرق وافضل الشريكات وهي الاوله في التميز والرقي فنحن من اوائل الشركات في المملكه في هذا المجال اسعارنا لا تقبل المنافسه هي ارخص الاسعار مقارة بالشريكات الاخري عمالنا مدربون علي اعلي مستوي من الخبره والكفائه لدينا معدات والات حديثه للتسليك

    شركة تسليك مجاري بالخبر

    شركة تسليك مجاري بالقطيف هيه الشركة التي تبحث عنها في هذا المجال لانه من افضل واحسن الشريكات لاننا نلتزم بالدقه في المواعيد ونقدم اعلي خدمه واقل الاسعار ولدينا عمال مدربون علي اعلي مستوي من الخبره والكفائه العاليه ولدينا معدات والات علي اعلي مستوي لتسليك المجاري وعندما تبحث عن شركه الكمال تكون شركة الكمال من افضل واحسن الشريكات في مجال التسليك حيث نتمتع بسمعه طيبه بين الشريكات

    شركة تسليك مجاري بالقطيف