Thursday, 30 April 2015

Go Home

I'd put in for four days off in the 'off' book. Had some business to take care of in the North. I asked one of the office managers if it would be ok, and he said it would be, slightly hurriedly and dismissively, but, he assured me it would be ok, so I thought it would be ok.

It wasn't easy, what happened in the North, and I won't go into it all here. But I arrived back in work, Sunday morning, tired and emotional and sort of broken inside. Hauling my self as you do when your body's like a dead weight, into the sad canteen, I sat down and confided in one of my new Polish friends. 

She's a divorcee and mother of one in her early 40s; a veteran of the European hotel industry. Thin and shrewd with large, attentive eyes, she hears me out and then shakes her head sympathetically. 'It's better' she says, 'Trust me. You'll have peace, holy peace'. I nod and sip my tea tearfully. 

                                                      Would this motivate you?...

When I get downstairs to the basement I'm told 'They're looking for you'. 'They' meaning the Management.

'Where were you on Wednesday?', says the main office manager, an Indian woman in her late 40s who I've never seen smile.

She barely looks up from her paperwork. One of the supervisors, Leva from Latvia, is standing beside her staring directly at me, wide-eyed and riled.

'I'd put in the off book that I'm taking a few days off'.

'You don't just write in the book what you want and you get what you want! Do you think that everyone who writes what they want gets what they want? You cannot all have the days off that you want'.


I mean, they guarantee me just four hours per week in my contract, I'm virtually bogus self employed, what do I really owe them? I feel like I'm freelance.

'But I asked the supervisor here and...'

Barked interruption: 'You were supposed to work and you were not here and it created many problems for us'.

'But why didn't you call me?

I might as well have asked them for a warm buttered croissant brought to me on a silver tray.

'CALL YOU? We don't call you, you call US!'

Because I don't like being yelled at, and I'm feeling bad enough as it is, I don't respond. I slink off and wait to sign in at the window.

When it comes to doling out our allocation sheets, rape alarms and master keys, I'm left waiting.

The girls scramble to sign in, grab their sheets, and scan them intently. How many super-suites, how many departure rooms? How hard is the day going to be? Often there'll be rueful groans and sighs. Sundays are the worst. So many departures meaning a much more intense clean and monitoring by the supervisors.

They take their trays and cloths and get going to the lift. I’m last. My name is on the rota and list, and I've signed in, but there is no number of rooms by my name.

'I don't have any rooms allocated' I say once everyone has gone save for one of the office helpers who also cleans the public areas. She's standing next to me.

The office manager shouts from her desk: 'Yes, you have no rooms because we didn't know if you were going to turn up or not'.

'But you knew I was coming, I was on the rota!'.

The response is for both her and the supervisor to start shouting at me at the same time. I can't make out what they're saying. They're just outraged that I'm talking back to them, questioning them even.

'I can't hear you when you're both shouting at me?', I say firmly, 'Can you stop shouting at me? This is abusive behaviour'.

Well that goes down like a bomb.....

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


I’m seeing bathroom taps in my sleep. It's the repetition of the work. I'm being broken in. 

First it was five rooms a day, then 10 and now up to 11 and 14. Because the hotel is quiet, they're taking rooms off me and giving them to the other girls. I don't mind but I don't quite understand whether I’m being paid per room or by the hour. Girls with a different agency say it's by the room - £3.25 per room. If it's by the room then the pressure's higher than by the hour.

The supervisors are chastening me and urging me to work harder and faster.

I've been getting the order of the R2 spray on the bath chrome and taps a bit wrong for a couple of days now and it means I've been leaving slight water marks rather than the sleek, silver, mirrored shine the supervisors and guests expect. 

It's making me really anxious.

                                                        A Departure bathroom

The supervisors will open the door abruptly. As much to 'catch' me as it is because they themselves are under huge pressure to check every room in a short space of time.

Divesh, one of the more angsty ones tells me staccato-like: 'You have not cleaned properly. You have left water mark. You have left urine on the toilet seat, you must do this properly. If you want I can help, if you don't want, I will not help. Come back and re do the bathrooms'.

I keep sloping back and re-spraying, re-wiping....

I’ve got to get those taps right...

The lived-in rooms - AKA the stays or the occupieds – are interesting. Despite their uniformity you're entering into a private, personalised space, made intimate with things: souvenirs, shopping, books, notes.

I pick up peoples' clothes off their unmade bed or the floor. I fold pijamas, nighties, trousers, even socks and boxer shorts. I tuck a bear into a child's bed. Sometimes the adults have cuddly toys too....whatevs.....I tuck them in too.

I place belongings carefully to the side, in a neat way as I clean a desk or a sink. I'll stack reading books. Fold newspapers. Arrange toiletries. It's a form of care. I like the idea of the guest, the welcome to whoever it is, and making them feel like they are cared for. It's a cultural thing, it's a human thing. It's a bit like being a temporary, brief, home-maker. A housekeeper. Well, that is the department.....

                                                                     Yep. We do.

In one room, a deluxe suite, I walk in and immediately spot a pile of white powder on the desk. 

I freeze.

I look around.

This is a family suite. This ain’t no scar face gangsta pad.

I inspect it a little closer. There's a sports bottle nearby. It's definitely got to be some kind of glucose drink powder. I clean around it carefully and chuckle to myself thinking that the guest is going to wonder whether the room attendant thought they were a coke-head. Chuckle. But then I realise they won't even give me a second thought. They won't have even noticed I was here.

A high point of the day is a departure room with a leftover box of milk chocolate Brazil nuts in it. There are three left inside. SCORE. I guzzle them immediately. It's 3pm and I’m flagging and their sweet thick creaminess is a welcome lift.

What we encounter in the rooms shapes our day. Small surprises, insights, chop up the monotony. Sparks imagination, or revulsion.

We peer into and briefly audit someone's stay in the city; catch a glimpse of their passing lives. 

                                                       Not so bad

The channel they were watching or the radio station they were listening to; the books they read, the takeaways they ate, the clothes they wear, their medication, their (usually very expensive) face creams, make up, perfume and jewellery. And their toe nail clippings, old cotton buds, and condoms, used tissues. It's all there. Little shreds of, and windows into their work, their play, their holidays...

                                                       If you're really unlucky..

There are barely ever any tips or communication left for us. 

We're literally invisible. And so are they, the guests. 

It's lonely work. It's silent work. 

Before I go to sleep at night or if I wake up too early, nervous about being late for work, and slip back into a fitful half-sleep, I see the bathrooms, I see the large wooden headboards, I see the corridors. I don't see people. I just see fittings and furniture, and the linen and mirrors that thread people through these hundreds and hundreds of rooms.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Hospitality Direct Action?

Dorota looks back at me and then at the table.

'Try it' she says non-committally as if I can do it on my own. And gets up.

Every conversation I have here is time-limited. Breaks, starts, stops.

Filing downstairs to our duster, tea tray and rape alarm pick-up, I wait to be called.

I'm on a collective job again. The new wing. No one's stayed in it yet but we need to clean it spotless because electricians and engineers have been in and dust's accumulated.

The suites are massive and full of light with giant windows. We need to try all the taps and showers to makes sure they work and also report any knocking sound to maintenance. You can't have guests paying £500+ per night and showering under shuddering, intermittent bursts of water and sound.

I'm with Adhira again. Red bull fuelled stress mission. She, like all of us, wants perfection, but she's so anxious with it. All the more so because I'm the new girl, and she doesn't want me to dent her excellence. Whatever we think of the job, you need to respect the fact people pay huge money for a clean, perfect room. You'd want that if you paid for it.

She and her 3-year-old daughter have a lot at stake in this job.

Organising in the workplace isn't like any other political organising. In other contexts you might have your community behind you, a network in place. The threat is evident. Your home might be taken away by developers. Or you have a target, or external threat to eliminate. Could be environmental, could be housing or service related, but here, at work, it's you and your body, up close that you're fighting for.

So you want to be active now? On a temporary contract are you? You causing trouble? Sorry, it happens we've got no work for you tomorrow. Or the day after or....

Organising when your power is your labour and it's constantly moving, with that of others, is so hard to harness. And if you 'lose' you lose not just your job, but potentially your home, your means to survive, the community you live with if you have to move. No wonder the big stick of the sack works so well to discipline us. It's only everything at stake.

                                     No comment

We change the unslept in, perfect, but dusty King Size beds. Six of them before lunchtime. We shine the already shining chrome taps. We mark off the juddering tap sounds.

The broken hoover I use falls apart on me again and accidentally dents a brand new tortoiseshell, gleaming fridge cupboard. It's a small mark but I'm horrified. No one's seen it. I feel nauseous about this mark I've made in a room un-stayed in and how a VIP might spot it. How the supervisor might react when they check the room and see it, glaring. It wouldn't have happened if the hoover was actually functional and not in pieces all the time held together with gaffer tape. It's not my fault I tell myself as I carry on dusting.


Adhira manically looks at her watch in the lift. “We must to hurry. We also need to replace the cleaning fluid”.

“Hang on. We've got half an hour, we've got half an hour break time” I intervene.

“No! We are coming from the new wing, this takes time, the bottles, we don't have the time”.

I shake my head and look at her sassily.

Are you telling me that I'm supposed to do all this other stuff, in My lunchbreak? I'm entitled to half an hour. We Need a Break”.

Adhira looks even more stressed. I'm telling her something incredulous.

“No. Half an hour. We Have half An Hour”, she asserts, fundamentally and looks away.

She puts our bottles outside the lift on the canteen floor and we go straight in to eat, not washing our hands because that takes time and will take us to the locker-room and then back here, cost us 5 minutes.

We sit at a table. Both of us with plates piled high. Tired. She takes her phone out and starts speaking angrily into it in Punjabi. I take mine out too so's not to feel alone but there's no reception. I look around at my fellow tired eaters.

A suggestion box sits at the end of the canteen under the mounted TV.

Suggestions. What can make your workplace better?

It makes me think of an organisation I saw an ad for downstairs. 'Hospitality Action'. It's a 'Hospitality Industry Benevolent Organisation'. Their tag-line is 'Helping Our People'. It was established four years after the end of slavery by the UK in 1837. Except slavery has just changed dimensions and definitions. If you need to go through this, sell the majority of your time and energy, just to eat, just to sleep, just to feed your children, just to get a roof over your head and clothes on your back and not much else. What is that?

                                  I don't want your charity. I want a union.

'Hospitality Action' were paternalistic then, and paternalistic now. They offer help for essential items such as food, equipment and central heating. They've even got a a helpline for workers suffering from depression and debt. Debt. Why would we, on £6.50 per hour, in London, possibly be in debt?...Working 9 hours a day, travelling three, barely seeing our loved ones, why might we be depressed?

It's a classic case of charity not solidarity. Power in their hands, none in ours. Anything to avoid paying the Living Wage and Unions..

We've got fifteen minutes to eat because we need to fill our bottles and the diamond wing is so far.

I feel like crying.

I narrow my eyes.

Is it time for some hospitality Direct Action?

Monday, 6 April 2015

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 what?”

“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......

Friday, 3 April 2015


Hi there, a lot of people have told me I should get a twitter account so, this is what I've done.

I'm @hotelunionnow

Please don't expect too much. I feel like twitter could become just as much of a time-sink as Facebook, so, it'll just be the odd tweet here and there but, please do follow.

Also, 35,000 people have now read this blog!

Many thanks to everyone paying attention and another blogpost is coming soon...