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.