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The Dirty Truth About Housekeeping

  • 7 mins

Understanding the Struggles

Before the pandemic, I worked as a housekeeper at an international hotel chain for a brief period. That experience left me with a deep appreciation for the tireless efforts of housekeepers. They are not only among the most vulnerable workers in the industry but also arguably the most crucial. Although my tenure was short-lived as I returned to school, those few months during the busiest season shed light on the systemic issues within the housekeeping profession.


My journey coincided with a significant event in the industry. In 2018, shortly after I left my job, a wave of strikes swept across major cities in the USA, involving approximately 8,000 workers across Marriott Hotels. These strikes were fueled by demands for higher wages, safer working conditions, and reduced workloads. It is only fair for workers to seek these basic rights, especially when hotel companies are reaping record profits.


Recent Struggles

More recently, hotel workers in the Los Angeles area have taken a stand, demanding improved pay and benefits. You might recognize some of the hotels involved, such as Fairmont, Marriott, and Sheraton. The dispute involves between 40 to 60 hotels, but negotiations have currently hit an impasse. The strike began in July 2023, and it has once again made headlines in August, drawing attention from popular celebrities like Taylor Swift, who have put additional pressure on the tourism sector.


While these hotel establishments are charging two to three times their normal rates during peak seasons, the pay for the hardworking staff remains relatively stagnant. Some hotels do provide bonuses for cleaning extra rooms on top of their standard quota of 16 rooms per day. However, this practice exists year-round. In fact, the summer season proves to be particularly grueling for housekeepers, as it attracts a crowd of party-goers, resulting in rooms that take an additional 15 to 20 minutes to clean. Essentially, workers are putting in extra effort without reaping any additional benefits.


This blog post will delve deeper into the challenges faced by housekeepers in the hotel industry, shedding light on their working conditions, the impact of recent strikes, and the urgent need for reform.


Canadian Hotels

The challenges faced by hotel workers in the United States are not unique to the country. In Canada, similar issues persist, highlighting the widespread nature of these labor disputes. Most hotel workers in Canada fall under the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). However, there are still hotels that may face labor disputes in the future, including the Hyatt Regency Vancouver and the Westin Bayshore by Marriott. The FairHotel program, offered by UNITE HERE, a union representing hospitality workers, has compiled a boycott list of problematic hotels across North America. While not exhaustive, this list provides valuable insights into the scale of the issue and helps travelers make informed choices.



Strikes in Vancouver

 In early August 2023, hotel workers in Vancouver took to the streets, protesting outside the Vancouver Airport. Their aim was to draw attention to their cause and gain support from Air Canada, urging the airline to respect the rights of striking hotel workers. This recent event is just one in a series of actions by these workers. Strikes in Vancouver began in mid-June, involving approximately 200 hotel staff members across Richmond.


Troubling reports have emerged over the past few years regarding labor issues in Canadian hotels. For instance, hundreds of hotel staff at the Radisson Blu Vancouver have been on strike since 2021. This prolonged strike, lasting over two years, has been marked by delays exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it stands as the longest strike in Canada. Such protracted disputes are possible because employers can continue their business operations during strikes. Many layoffs were initially attributed to COVID-19 and revenue losses. However, according to Michelle Travis, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 40, it's believed that the hotels exploited the pandemic as an excuse to weaken their unionized workforce.


Housekeepers in Canada are not asking for radical changes. They too face the high cost of living in cities like Vancouver and simply seek a living wage. Employers, on the other hand, often push for a return to minimum wage levels, which are outdated and fail to meet the needs of workers. These employers have also engaged in basic union-busting practices. As a result, Canada remains far from achieving equitable working conditions for its most vulnerable workers.


A Physically Demanding Profession

While many perceive housekeeping as a simple task of cleaning, the reality is far more demanding. Housekeepers face significant occupational hazards, including repetitive motion injuries (RMIs). The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety acknowledges housekeeping as moderately heavy to heavy work, involving up to 8,000 different body postures during a single shift. This physical demand becomes evident when you consider the task at hand: cleaning a room, complete with a bathroom and shower, in under 30 minutes. And this is just one of 16 rooms a housekeeper is responsible for during a single shift.


Housekeepers encounter a wide range of guests, from busy business travelers to exuberant partygoers. Their experiences span the spectrum, from cleaning up after feces and drugs to dealing with spilled glitter and unimaginable messes. Working as a housekeeper in a hotel is a unique experience that presents its own set of challenges. Housekeepers must address a variety of challenges beyond their typical cleaning duties, including maintaining discretion and professionalism while interacting with a diverse array of guests.


Addressing Sexual Harassment

Cleaning messy rooms is just one aspect of a housekeeper's role; they also face the looming risk of sexual harassment. This issue has become so serious that staff members have been advocating for panic buttons and alarms as safeguards. Even in Canada, while some key fobs include panic buttons, a comprehensive protocol to address harassers hasn't been firmly established. Though there may have been improvements since my time in the industry, sexual harassment remains a pervasive issue.


In a 2016 study conducted in Chicago, approximately half of housekeepers reported instances where guests exposed themselves, representing just one facet of the harassment they endure. This statistic doesn't even encompass the various other forms of harassment, including verbal and physical abuse, faced by other hotel staff members. The severity of this issue prompted lawmakers in states such as Washington and New Jersey to implement rules requiring medium to large-sized hotels to provide panic buttons for their employees.


Regulations mandating panic buttons are a relatively recent development, but in Canada, there are currently no requirements for panic buttons in hotel and hospitality workplaces. This does not mean that sexual harassment does not occur in Canada; surveys conducted at establishments like Vancouver's Rosewood Hotel Georgia revealed that 67% of staff faced unwanted sexual comments or questions from guests. These findings align with what has been observed in the United States, illustrating that sexual harassment is a pervasive problem that knows no borders.


Proposed Solutions

Unite Here Local 40, representing 6,000 hospitality workers in British Columbia, released a report in 2019 detailing sexual harassment issues and proposing several solutions. First and foremost, they recommend implementing panic buttons, which can be either digital on tablets or phones or physical alarms. Second, they advocate for the banning of guests who have sexually harassed employees, leveraging the existing client data stored by hotels. Lastly, they call for whistleblower protection to encourage reporting of such incidents.


These changes, while essential for ensuring the safety of hotel workers, do require financial investment and systemic changes through the adoption of new protocols. Unfortunately, many companies view these changes as inefficient and may resist them until regulations are enforced. It's high time that Canadian lawmakers take a cue from their American counterparts and enact these crucial reforms.


I, as an able-bodied male, consider myself fortunate not to have experienced harassment during my time in the industry. However, it's crucial to recognize that my perspective is privileged. The housekeeping industry is disproportionately staffed by women and racialized individuals, with many workers nearing retirement. Despite some of these workers being part of unions, they often cannot afford the costs associated with unemployment or striking. Canadians need to rally behind housekeepers and hospitality workers in general, recognizing that a healthy and sustainable tourism sector requires ethical and humane practices.

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