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”.

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”.

Friday, 6 March 2015

A Union?...It's a good idea..

Maryam pauses. Then carries on pushing the pillow into its' crisp cotton case. She doesn't turn around.

“A union”, she says, with what sounds like suspicion in her voice.

I'm done for, I'm thinking, I've gone and blown it, she's going to grass on me. It was way to early to introduce this subject.

After what feels like minutes she says, matter-of-factly, “It's a good idea”.

Relief washes over me.

“But”, she says, flattening the pillow and propping it up against the head board and reaching for another. “You need to be careful. People here, they gossip. You need to be careful about who you talk to”.


“Also, people when they finish they want to to just get home. It's hard to get everybody to stay and meet”.

“Hmm. That's true”, I murmur. Time is impossibly tight and after today with Maryam I'm going to be on my own. Getting to even speak to people is going to be difficult.

She walks past me, not looking at me, dust cloth in hand, flicking it down on to the glossy desk, and wiping across it, flicking it into dustless corners, and moving on around the room wiping, smoothing, adjusting, checking.

                                                   This, 16 times over and over and over....

The conversation's over, so I go out, grab the hoover, and zoom all over the room. Minutes later we're done and with the click of the room's heavy door behind us, we move to the canteen for our 30 minute unpaid lunch break.

The 30 minutes isn't really 30 minutes. Included in this time is: throwing your dirty linen down the chute - and waiting for it to clear if it's in use; emptying your rubbish bag and recycling (glass, plastic and newspapers); waiting for the elevator (sometimes it's five minutes if the other floors are busy); filling up your dwindling cleaning fluids from the big vats on the wall down in the basement; washing your hands; going to the toilet; reloading your trolley with linen (sometimes twice a day); searching for linen in a different cupboard if it's run out; tracking down complimentary slippers or pens or water bottles when they've run out; moving on to other rooms when a guest has a Do Not Disturb sign on the door; and at the end of the day, waiting for the supervisor to check off your rooms - all these other time consuming tasks are all supposed to be magically included in your twenty minutes per room and your 30 minute lunch break.

What this means is that your lunch break is either 20 minutes or you finish late. And you don't get paid for overtime.

I think you can judge a job three ways, as to whether you can find some happiness in it.

One – By desire - you're doing something you want to do. You find it fulfilling and worthwhile and you feel good that you're doing it and telling people that you're doing it. Maybe it's your vocation. Two – Your time – How much time you can reclaim for yourself whilst in it. You don't really want to do it, you're not motivated to do it, but you get to take some time for yourself inside it, to do some of what you Do want to do. Or three – The people. You can't really stand the job, it's really pretty soul destroying and pointless, but, you work with good people and you get to talk to them and interact with them and joke about it all and that keeps your spirits up and gives you a friendship network.

This job. In housekeeping. It doesn't really give you much of any of the above. Ok, there's a sense of completion with each perfectly made room, and the chatter after work in the locker room can be fun, if you understand it, and sure, some people will become friends, but, with the 50% staff turnover and language barriers it's tough, and the lonely, monotonous, terminal cycle of cleaning room, after room, after room, with no time to steal for a break or to check any emails or to sit and rest and daydream for a moment, have a chat by the water cooler or make a tea or go outside for a cigarette, just makes it such a sad slog.

I've cleaned houses before, as have some of the other women here, and there you get around £10ph cash in hand, you work at your own pace and there's no supervisor breathing down your neck. But that's even more precarious than this.

                                                     Oi! Get your mitts off...

We sit down with our plates, piled high with free hot food. It's the only hot meal many of us will get all day. The canteen is small and lowly, and seats about 50. It's a 70s style one counter job with a meat and veg option, a salad bar, two free hot drinks machines, and a flat screen telly on the wall running 24-7.

People on their own are either watching it blankly or staring down at their phones. The tables are arranged in twos, fours and sixes. Supervisors seem to be dotted around everywhere. People sit in their own language groups. If you don't speak the language, it's hard to come and strike up a conversation knowing that the ease and flow will crunch to a halt as you make everyone speak English.

I open my mouth to re-start the conversation with Maryam but she's got her phone out and is scrolling through it between mouthfuls of lasagne. Looking up I spot the agency manager, a besuited, round, Romanian woman, standing at the door, scanning the canteen. Her eyes fall on me and stay there. She strides, unsmiling, towards me....

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Just a quick update - thankyou to everyone who has sent supportive comments. Also, at least 14,000 people have now read this blog since it began! Please do keep sharing. I'm not very good at twitter but if you tweet, you could maybe use the hashtags #LondonHotel or #HotelUnion - thanks and more coming soon (:

I don't really wear gloves but if I did - this is how I'd wear them (: This image is borrowed from a Greek cleaners union which managed to win back jobs and better conditions for 595 women cleaners at the Ministry of Finance this year. Solidarity can win.