Do you know how much power we have?
I start coming in early so I can share tea with the other maids in the canteen before starting.
I come in around 7.30am and fumble a few cold claggy mini Danish pastries on to my plate, and grab a machine tea.
Looking around the canteen I decide to take a seat with a woman in her late 40s. She's heavily made up, with short plum coloured, slightly punky hair and dark, eye-liner defined eyes.
“Hi, d'you mind if I sit here?” I say brightly.
“Not at all”, she says smiling.
We sip our teas.
It turns out she's Polish. Her name is Dorota and she's worked in housekeeping for a number of hotels in London. In this one she's worked four years on an agency contract.
“Compared to other hotels, this one is good”, she says easily.
I swallow the tea hard.
“I used to have to clean 18 rooms a day. This one is not so bad”.
“It's still a lot though, the 16 a day, and the pay is terrible don't you think? When did you last get a pay rise?”
She laughs. “Never. Yeah, the pay could be better. We work hard”.
“You know how much room attendants get in New York City?” I ask.
“£16 per hour, not dollars, £16 pounds, per hour. In exactly the same hotels”.
Dorota shakes her head and smiles down into her tea. “You don't say”
“It's because they're organised. They're unionised”.
“Yeah. We could do with a union here. But....”, she trails off.
“But people all have to get in to it, you can't just have a few here and there, people all need to join, and I don't see that happening”. She grimaces and looks from side to side to see if a supervisor is about.
“Do you know how much power we have?” I say, staring at her. “Without us this place can't function. Without us, people can't check in, beds don't get made, business men can't come and iron their shirts. We make this place”.
The housekeeping department of a hotel is the single largest department, the worst paid, the most invisible, yet the most powerful.
In this one some 300 rooms get cleaned, deep cleaned, Departure Room cleaned, pull-up cleaned, in whichever way - cleaned, by us every day. The hotels' big capital in the big capital are these rooms, these rent-a-night real estate money machines that we are the cogs for.
A hotel is the sum of its working parts. It is an organism and an experience made up of: The office with managers, the customer service team and accountants; Front of House with receptionists, porters and doormen; the restaurant, bar and kitchen with chefs, porters and waiting and banqueting staff; Maintenance with engineers and electricians repairing and oiling the machine; and then there's us in Housekeeping, with our linen and our hoovers and towels and dusters and replacement coffee sachets and shower gels. You don't see us, and we barely see you, but if we all go out on strike, you'll feel us.
Unlike in a factory, where a few hours out or a whole day on strike can see production made up again, in a luxury hotel you can't make up the lost production. You can't make up for the unmade beds and un-emptied trash cans; the room you cannot check in to. You can't make up for the unhappy experience. The hotel's reputation will take a massive hit.
A strike in a hotel is every hotel chain's nightmare.
There have been walkouts before. In one, agency room attendants hadn't been paid for a month's work. They had called and asked and demanded their pay, for their side of the deal to be kept up but were fobbed off.
So, some 30 cleaners all walked into the canteen at the start of the day and refused to come out until they were paid. Managers were apparently crying. Supervisors were running around all over the place trying to arrange cover and clean rooms themselves. Double pay was promised to those who'd break ranks and go back to work. The women stood firm and were paid the same day.
Dorota smiles. “One time here, three girls were supposed to work on Christmas day. They had stayed the night before, but decided on the day that they weren't going to work. I don't know why, maybe they drank too much but, they left, and with just with these three gone, we had Chaos on all the floors. Chaos.”
I nod slowly.
“I think we need a union here”, I say.
Dorota looks up from her tea and straight at me......