A housekeeper goes undercover in a major London hotel.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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”.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.