Housekeepers’ work is essential for the fast growing tourist sector. It relies on hundreds of thousands of hotel cleaners, most of them women with vulnerable immigrant background.

housekeepers iufUnfortunately most hotel guests know very little about the nature of hotel cleaning and the general public is not aware of how hard and dangerous housekeepers’ work can be. After a few years of work in the industry it is difficult to find a housekeeper that does not suffer from work-related stress or pain, often requiring medication to get through the working day.

Trade unions that organise hotel workers are coming together this week to raise the awareness of the health and safety of hotel cleaners and the hard work they do every day in millions of hotels around the globe. This international intervention is aimed at various multinational companies to improve working conditions and provide them with better benefits and fair wages.

Difficult and dangerous work

Concealed behind luxurious décor lie exhausting tasks including strenuous and repetitive work at fast pace, lifting and moving heavy loads, high pressure work patterns, contact with toxic products and a long list of personal risk situations including sexual harassment. The housekeeper may do those task dozens of times each day, slowly but surely taking an irreversible toll on the body simply to earn low pay.

When we speak to housekeepers in the Nordic countries they complain about their workload. They claim that the pace of work is very intensive and they are always racing against the clock. In most hotels, housekeepers must clean numerous rooms per day under intense time pressures. In order to meet this quota, the housekeeper might skip breaks and work off the clock.

Rushing to complete the work takes a toll on workers’ bodies, in some cases leading to permanent disabilities and psychological distress. Injured workers must often choose between continuing to work in pain or not working at all. A tough decision in today’s economy.

This problem has been getting worse in recent years due to customer demands and understaffing due to cost savings. Managers want more and more. They have financial goals they must reach and in their attempts to reach these goals they pressure cost by reducing staff and make the remaining workers run faster every day. The constant pressure to reduce costs but maintain service quality usually has a negative impact on employment conditions including pay, workload, and job security.

Furthermore, taking advantage of the international financial crisis, employers are downgrading conditions of work, either directly or through outsourcing. This situation has led to a decline in already low wages and an intensification of the work.

Sexual harassment is a frequent problem

Few years ago the poor working conditions of housekeepers received a huge global media attention after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF Chief, got arrested after sexually harassing a housekeeper at a luxurious hotel in New York. This incident raised the awareness of the health and safety issues housekeepers face every day. Around the globe more housekeepers are coming forward to break the silence about the routine sexual harassment and other forms of abuse that they face at work. In a study conducted among housekeepers in Finland 2011, more than 25% had experienced some form of sexual harassment from hotel guests.  Similar results have been reported in other Nordic countries and it is safe to assume that many housekeepers are facing similar problems.

Unions improve working conditions

So why should hotel workers join unions? Well organised and unionised workers tend to have a much greater job security, better wages, benefits and working conditions. Together we can push for collective agreements through solidarity and actions.

In our attempts to organise hotel workers in the Nordic countries, our unions have been faced with management unwillingness to improve workers´ salaries, benefits and conditions.

Simple solutions can make the difference

It is important to remember that businesses have a responsibility to ensure that workers have a safe working environment. Hotels can take simple steps to reduce the health and safety risks associated with housekeeping work. Measures such as training, protective and ergonomic equipment, reasonable room quotas, team work, panic buttons, and interior design that take health and safety into account can easily reduce risk of injuries and improve working conditions.

Finally, next time you stay in a hotel remember that housekeepers and other hotel workers try hard every day to make your stay as pleasant as possible, most likely with low salaries, under extreme time pressures, and in poor working conditions.

The week of activities, organised through the IUF’s ‘Make up my workplace!’ campaign for healthy, safe and dignified working conditions for housekeepers will culminate in an international press conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil on December 12th, where images from the week will be displayed and housekeepers will tell their stories of work and struggle.

Get involved online by using the following hashtags on your social media streams.

#HotelHousekeeperGlobal
#schystastädvillkor
#dignity4hotelhousekeepers

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Kristjan Bragason

General Secretary, Nordic Union of Hotel, Restaurant, Catering and Tourism workers

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