Friday, 27 February 2015

“Has anyone here ever talked about, a union?”

I’m 20 minutes late for a Sunday morning, the busiest day of the job. Making hurried apologies I wait around until a new mentor shows up. Her name is Maryam and she’s from Nigeria. She’s been on an agency contract full time for six years. She looks down at our printed rooms sheet and groans. “Almost all Departures”, she says wryly.

Her pace is less frenetic than Adhira’s but she’s just as systematic and thorough. And, bonus, she turns on the radio in every room, Kiss FM or Choice, and Loud, and suddenly the lonely rooms get livelier and we work with a bit of rhythm to our step. I listen to her singing along as I scrub.

One of our rooms is actually like an apartment. It has a living room with a child’s bed in it, a long corridor, two bathrooms, and the master bedroom. There are stacks of boxes of croissants and pastries, bottles of juice and Harrods shopping bags. The dressing table is piled high with freshly bought cosmetics and make up.  A room like this can cost £500 per night.

                                                  No, it's nothing like this....

Nipping downstairs to the locker room, I realise why so much of the linen is marked or lacking altogether. There’s one guy on the laundry chute. One guy dealing with what a former Linen Porter told me is about four tons of laundry hurtling down a single metal chute from five floors into a massive pile every day. He wears a dust mask.

There used to be two porters on the job, but now there’s just one. The guy struggling with it all is from Romania. His eyes are spritely behind his white mask. He must be about 21. We smile and say hi to each other.

When there was the big panic about Ebola, Unions expressed alarm about the potential for contagion should a guest be infected (it could go for any illness – you’re cleaning peoples’ toilets and changing peoples’ beds, regularly turning over sweaty sheets). The Linen Porters handle the whole hotel's dirty linen.

“Did you know what someone doing our exact same jobs, and working for the same hotels, in New York City, gets paid per hour?” I say to him, leaning against the lift frame.

“No”, he breathes, wiping his brow.

“£16 per hour”.

“Really?” he says, his eyes surprised behind the mask.

“Yep. And do you know how?”


“They’re organised. They’re in a union”.

He gives me a look somewhere between incredulous and envious.

I’m about to go further when the lift door opens behind me and I stop. I smile at the supervisor and get in, turning back and giving Radu (as I later find out he is called) a little wave.

The supervisor is blonde, in her mid-forties and from Lithuania. Her facial expressions range from grim to stressed to sick of it all. She’ll enter rooms in a sweep, barely knocking, and catching you off guard (I guess that’s the idea) glaring at surfaces, running her fingers along skirting and telling you, never asking you, what to do and why you're not up to scratch.

I smile at her uneasily.

Another floor up and Adhira gets in and greets her (Elena, her name is Elena). Elena sighs and starts giving out about one of the girls who didn't show up today.

“She didn't come. She said she could not come because she had not money”.

“Someone couldn't afford the travel to get here?” I ask.

“Yes, she said her travel card run out, she has no money for travel until she get paid”.

She rolls her eyes and shakes her head. No sympathy. Just annoyance.

I'm keeping my head down for now because I want to organise. I look at the floor. On £6.50 an hour, it's totally understandable that you won't be able to afford the basics of life because the cost of living in this city is unaffordable on £6.50 an hour. Life on minimum age is not lived, it is struggled through.

The Living Wage is called that for a reason. It’s by no means the answer but it offers some breathing space, and at £9.15 per hour for us here, it would represent an almost 30% pay rise. The lift doors open. We march out stridently on our separate ways.
Back in a room with Maryam, I’m dusting and she’s putting on fresh bedding.

“Maryam, isn’t this job really knackering for the tiny money we get?” I say. She lets out a whistle.

“It’s so hard, sometimes I think to myself, I just cannot go on, I want to find a new job”.

I stop cleaning and look at her back, as she stuffs a pillow into a pillow case.

“Has anyone here ever talked about, a union?”

She stops stock still.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

 Tools of the Trade..

I keep getting everything wrong. When every minute counts, re-arranging the order of toiletries on the plastic disc in the bathroom or slotting the coffee sachets into the exact correct position on the tea tray, folding the duvet just-so, letting no sag creep into your pillows, and placing the hotel pens at just the right diagonal angle on the free notepads can get you feeling a bit manic and obsessive. 

In terms of the tools of the job, for a start there are different sprays for each part of the cleaning process. Your bucket and basin contain a toilet brush in a metal holder, a red sponge for the bathroom and a green one for washing the glasses, mugs and spoons. A kettle de-scaler, powdered sanitizer (for cleaning the crockery and coffee makers), thick under-the-rim toilet cleaner, a more targeted toilet power cleaner (for those stubborn 'explosion' shits you find stuck fast to the sides of the toilet bowl), a chrome and surfaces bathroom cleaner, bedroom furniture polish, and a freshener spray (for those musty, sweated-in and condensation-filled rooms that need desperate airing but the windows only open a few inches). *Gag* spritz spritz...

There are different coloured dusters for the different sprays and rooms too. The 'mop' we mop the floor with in the bathroom is actually just a duster, which we swirl around the marble on our hands and knees. We're supposed to use rubber gloves, but many of us don't. They slow me down; my hands overheat and I feel clumsy. Folding the end sheet of the toilet roll into a small 'v' shape and the spare's end into an elegant long triangle gets finicky with taking the gloves on and off, and likewise with folding all the towels into the right neat formation. But the chemicals in the sprays do start to harden and split your skin...

Adhira keeps scolding me. I've put the floor 'mop' together with the room duster and the red sponge in with the green sponge a few times today by mistake. 'You are doing it wrong', she hectors without pausing, eyes and hands everywhere in a human tornado of non-stop cleaning. She's semi-automatic. 

'How many people stay on here?' I ask.

'Too many people leave. Maybe 50% of the people who start, they leave, they cannot handle it', she says solemnly.

She winces. 'I have new shoes on today. They are rubbing'. 

They're a £20 quid pair from Sports Direct she tells me. 'But they wear out so quick, too quick. And my trousers too, here (she points to her knees) from this', and she shuffles along the carpet, around a giant kingsize bed, on her knees, pulling and tucking until all the linen is crisp and taut. 

'We should be given footwear and trousers', I say. 

'They do not give', says Adhira.

On your feet all day, pushing a heavy trolley up and down corridors, laden with dozens of towels, duvets, bedsheets and pillowcases, toiletries, bottles of water and garbage from every room; using hoovers, dusters, corrosive sprays, coming into contact with human waste, wearing out our trousers on carpets and marble floors – it's a no-brainer that the agencies and hotels should provide us with 'Personal Protective Equipment'. (PPE). This is a physical job. We are not sat behind desks. This is like a full body work out, with risks from hazardous substances to boot, and on top of that, we're having to pay for the majority of our own uniform (we don't get t-shirts either, we must provide our own black ones) when we're on minimum wage. All the hotel gives us is a branded polyester overall dress thing with pockets for our printed room allocations, a rape alarm (which I doubt any supervisor could hear properly in these hermetically sealed rooms) and keys.

In a way, Adhira, like many of the other workers here in housekeeping, has come to accept and normalise these sub-standards and abuses.

'Come. We must be faster', she says, dragging the hoover out and moving on to the next room.

Thursday, 12 February 2015


I’m new here. I’m a room attendant – what may have been known in the past as a 'chambermaid' – but basically, a cleaner. 

I work in the Housekeeping department of a luxury Four Star hotel in London made up of 350 bedrooms for the rich, the even richer, and people who managed to get cheap internet deals.

My agency contract guarantees me a wage of £26 per week. No I didn't miss a zero there. That's four hours work at the minimum wage of £6.50 an hour.

I'm expected to clean 16 rooms in a 7.5 hour day with a 30 minute unpaid lunch break that goes in the blink of an eye. That's 20 minutes to: change a double (or Queen or Kingsize) bed, perfectly plump and press four pillows, dust two bedside tables, pictures, a desk, an office chair, a table, clean a hospitality tray and replace tea, coffee, milk, sugar and cookies, wipe and 'mop' a bathroom (with a floor duster), wash any dirty cups or glasses, replace soap, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner and body lotion, fold all towels and bath matt, wash a sink and bath/shower and toilet, polish all chrome and hoover everywhere.


The housekeeping department is all women save for a couple of supervisors and around four young male laundry porters. We're a workforce of around 45 and we're Indian, Nigerian, Sri Lankan, Italian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian, Czech and Latvian. Around 35 of us clean at least 10 rooms per day, covering the entire, five floor, 350 room hotel.

The first three days are training - shadowing and working with a long-term worker.

I had my first day today, trained by a twentysomething Indian woman – Adhira* - who literally seemed to dance around the bed, the room and bathroom spraying, tucking, smoothing, straightening, hoovering and wiping.

She's been doing the job for five years on an agency contract. I learn she has a three year old daughter. I ask why she hasn't been taken on by the hotel direct. She mumbles something about how she had got pregnant so they did not take her on at the time.

I ask her if we're really expected to do 16 rooms per day? 'You cannot do it' she says bluntly. 'It is too hard. Too hard'. She is in a constant state of motion and seemingly exhausted and agitated at the same time. She drinks Red Bull for breakfast.

Some of the rooms are in a worse state than others. Departure rooms are the worst as they require a total overhaul and supervisors will come and check everything afterwards. Occupied rooms which don't need a linen change can be spruced up rapidly without the need to hoover or wipe down too much.

As I fumble along, unused to the pace, Adhira chides me, 'Faster, faster, faster'. I know that's the logic of capitalism but no one had ever said it to me, over me, like that before. 

It's also pretty hard to keep up when half, literally, half of all the bedding we're putting down is marked in some way and needs to be taken off and replaced again, and when your hoover's held together with gaffer tape and the end keeps falling off, it's pretty stressful. But, you have to go 'Faster, faster, faster....

This blog isn't going to be just about how exploitative this work and the luxury hotel industry and the agencies that profit from it are, although you will hear all about that. This is also about getting organised and fighting back. There have been enough stories and exposes, and journos in aprons and hidden cameras all pointing out the victimisation we are subject to. But that hasn't changed very much. Standing up to these empires, together, will...

*All workers' names will be kept confidential