The life of an Irish hotel worker
Customers in Irish hotels see little of people who clean up after them: non-unionised foreign staff many of whom, in fear of losing jobs, must do more and more rooms per shift
Workrate: a hotel-cleaning agency specified that cleaners spent, on average, 15 minutes cleaning a stayover room and 30 minutes cleaning a departure room. Photograph: Fstop Images/Getty
Hotel cleaners are meant to be invisible. Guests prefer to think their rooms are cleaned as though by magic. In reality, it’s physically demanding, low-wage labour largely done by migrant women. The union Siptu is concerned about the conditions for cleaners in many hotels. Joanna Ozdarska, Siptu organiser for hotels, tells me about a whole set of non-unionised, non-English-speaking cleaners who are unaware of their rights, fearful of unemployment and under constant pressure to clean more hotel rooms per shift.
In the past there were union rules suggesting accommodation workers clean 12 or 14 rooms in one shift, she says, “but increasingly that number is rising as high as 20 rooms . . . Many chain hotels are trying to push more and more. At the moment the whole attitude is very aggressive towards workers. There’s no respect whatsoever for people doing this work. They are pushed and penalised for minor mistakes.”
Prof James Wickham, who leads the Tasc (Think-tank for Action on Social Change) working conditions in Ireland project, which has interviewed several cleaners, says it’s a health-and-safety issue. “Training is often absolutely minimal,” he says.
Wickham maintains that such unreasonable pressure on cleaning staff to do more is widespread. He also worries about outsourcing of work to agencies and the drop in union membership. “What happened during the boom was that the hotels literally changed their labour force. They went from a labour force that was Irish and regular and fairly frequently unionised, to one with a much higher proportion of immigrants, much more short-term and non-unionised.
“There were points where it was very clear this was explicitly done. There were several cases of hotels closed and then reopened with new management and very different staff . . . You’ll be very unlikely to get an agency employer to say on the record ‘No, we don’t employ people in a union’, but the simple fact of the matter is staff are really, really nervous about joining a union.”
Stephen McNally from the Irish Hotel Federation disputes that these issues are in anyway prevalent. Hotels are doing well again, he says, with high occupancy levels, and it is not in anyone’s interest to treat their workers badly. Less than 5 per cent of its member hotels have their cleaning outsourced, he says, and the regular National Employment Rights Authority (Nera) inspections and “some of the best workplace protections in the world” mean that Irish cleaners are trained and well looked after.
Workers are aware of their rights, he says. “There are 45 pieces of legislation covering employees,” he says. “Everybody will have an employment contract . . . You get that issued to you.”
He doesn’t say that workers are never taken advantage of in the industry, but insists these cases must be exceptions. He is “very surprised” to find Siptu has highlighted this as a problem.
Hanna: ‘We had to clean 20 rooms in one shift’
About 10 years ago, Hanna came to Ireland with her partner and found work as an administrator. She was a book-keeper back home, she says. “I can count very well in my head.”
After she became pregnant, the family moved and she worked in a cafe – “I liked that” – and then, three years ago, found a job cleaning in a Dublin hotel.
About a year and a half ago, all the cleaners got a letter saying their employment was being transferred to an independent agency. She shows me the letter. It promised that nothing was changing, they were still hired on their original contracts for the same money. This wasn’t exactly true. The first change was that the agency decided that instead of paying weekly, they would pay monthly. “There wasn’t any meeting to discuss this.” Eventually, it was agreed to pay fortnightly.
She also says they decided to change what constituted an hour of time. They saw that cleaners spent, on average, 15 minutes cleaning a stayover room and 30 minutes in a departure room. “‘One hour’ would be calculated as two departures or four stayovers,” says Hanna, and they decided to calculate the hours worked based on the number of rooms cleaned.
In the past, cleaners cleaned around 16 rooms during their 7½ hour shift and were paid the minimum wage of €8.65 per hour. “Now, if we wanted the same wages we had to clean 20 or 24 rooms in one shift,” says Hanna. This changed things completely. “It was so hard. We had to run from room to room. We had no breaks . . . In the past, if I knew I have eight stayovers and eight departures, then I know I can manage my time without any running.
“Sometimes I’d spend less in one room so I can spend more in another. I could calculate this and manage myself. But after the change I need to check my time constantly. ‘Oh Jesus, that was 15 minutes, I need to run.’ ”
They were also expected to factor extra work into that time – they had to clean corridors and elevators. Technically they had two 15-minute break periods, but they no longer had time to take them.
Once, when the laundry company was using a new cleaning chemical, Hanna ended up with sores on her face. She believes there was a connection between the two.
At another time they were asked to use a special chemical designed to remove mould from some walls. She believes they weren’t using sufficent precautions. “We were breathing in all this vapour.”
Many of the women working in the hotel had back problems. All but one were migrants and many had poor English. Physically it was hard labour, but Hanna knew that it was worse for some of the others. “[Some] worked, five, six and sometimes seven days, when the hotel was very busy.”
Six women left. She remembers one woman breaking down at the end of a shift, saying: “I just can’t do it.”
The company brought in new cleaners, who came from the same country as one of the managers, says Hanna. “They changed every week and none of them had any English.” It was easier for the manager to organise the workers in her own language, says Hanna. “They just said ‘yes’ to everything.”
“When I complained she said: “If you don’t want to work here, say goodbye.” One time she said: ‘I have another 10 monkeys for this job from my country.’”
At the end of the day the supervisor would write down the number of rooms cleaned and calculate the number of hours worked. Hanna was paid, on average, €50 less each week. The payslips omitted details such as time worked and the rate per hour.
Whenever Hanna asked for a new contract clarifying the new rules, the managers refused. “They told me that if I didn’t want to lose the job, I couldn’t say no.”
Hanna had good English. She was also in college, and she had access to a library of information on employment rights.
She spoke to some of her old managers at the hotel who wanted to help and “sometimes put pressure on the the agency to treat us better”. But for most part, claims Hanna, little was done about their situation.
Guests were oblivious to all this, of course. Hotel guests barely see the cleaning staff anyway, she says. When they do they can be unfriendly. “They don’t care what happened in the room or that someone has to clean . . . Maybe one in four leave a tip or write a note for us.” (They also had a problem for a while with a supervisor who was pocketing all the tips.)
Hanna had meeting after meeting with the agency’s management and emailed Siptu several times. Siptu planned to meet the agency. Before this happened, Hanna and the other staff members got letters stating their employment was being transferred back to the hotel.
The agency was going into liquidation. The agency’s former director chose not to comment for this article. He said that he wasn’t willing to comment “on a company that was no longer trading”.
Things have gone back to the way they were before. Hanna and her colleagues are now cleaning a maximum of 16 rooms per shift. It’s still hard, low-wage work, but they can take breaks, they’re not racing from room-to-room, and more crucially they have monthly meetings at which they can raise issues. Hanna says some employers overlook the humanity of their cleaners. “I know we’re the last people at the hotel and nobody wants to know about us,” she says, “but if we didn’t do this work there would be no guests.”
The hotel: ‘The beds are on good casters’
They have it down to an art, says general manager Conor O’Kane. The rooms are 28sq ft. It takes 15 minutes to clean the room of a guest who is staying over and 30 minutes for a guest who is departing (though when a room is very messy, he says, extra time is allotted).
The cleaners work “anti-clockwise” around the room. The surfaces of the desks, the skirting boards, the lamps, the large framed, panoramic photos of Dublin, the flatscreen TV and the table are all designed to be easily cleaned. Everything can be wiped clean with a wet cloth, he says.
O’Kane started working in the industry years ago, when hotel rooms were cluttered and harder to clean. Now the lamps are no longer made of wood, but brushed chrome, a material that didn’t even exist 30 years ago. The table is reinforced tungsten glass, “far easier to wipe”. “The beds are on good casters,” he says, and he shows how easy they are to move with his leg. “And the Hoovers are more powerful.”
The heavy mattresses are flipped every six months by male household porters, not the female cleaning staff, he stresses.
There’s less “stuff” to tidy, he says, though all hotel rooms still come with a Gideon Bible. “I’ve never seen a hotel without one,” he adds.
Once the staff have Hoovered, dusted and made the bed, they check that the electrical appliances are working. The last thing they do is clean the bathroom, he says, which is easily cleaned floor-to-ceiling ceramic.
Cleaners learn by shadowing a more experienced cleaner, he says; they self-monitor, are trained on health and safety, get their breaks and there is plenty room for progression. He introduces me to a young receptionist who started as a cleaner. Are staff here unionised?
“No,” O’Kane says quickly, “But in 10 years we’ve never had a need for it.”
Colette: ‘You don’t have a minute to breathe’
Early last year Colette’s mother became seriously ill and Colette moved to Ireland to help care for her. “I started work the second day I was here, in the hotel my mother had been working at,” she says. “I needed the job.” It was the hardest work she’d ever done. “You don’t even have a minute to breathe in and out. You don’t even have time to go to the toilet. You start at eight and you don’t stop for the day. Not even a five-minute break.”
Cleaners cleaned the rooms on their own and were allocated 30 minutes for a “departure” room and 15 minutes for a “stayover”. The problem was, she says, nothing else was factored into this time – collecting the linen, getting from room to room, taking a toilet break. They were often expected to do 10 departure rooms and 14 stayovers in the 8½ hour shift.
“And in that time you have to do everything. That room should be like new.”
What has to be done? She itemises it: They have to empty rubbish from the room. They have to take the dirty linen from the beds. Then make the beds. Change the towels. Clean the bath, sink, toilet and bathroom floor. Dust the furniture and skirting boards. Hoover the room, including under the beds. Dry the bathroom with a rag. Look around to see what’s been missed. Sometimes, when asked by management, they had to turn mattresses. This was always done by one cleaner on her own.
This workrate isn’t possible, says Colette. “If a room is very messy, or has two beds, it’s impossible to do it in 30 minutes . . . You have to skip some work and do it so the dust and dirt is not seen. Sometimes we worked with two in the room. It helps, but if supervisors saw us, it was a problem.”
If they were unable to clean a room because of a “do-not-disturb” sign or any other reason, they were paid less for the shift.
She does an impression of the manager checking their work, rubbing her finger on a table for dust. She laughs. “[One woman] was really impolite to us. She was always telling us she hated us. She had no respect for us. She didn’t care about us.”
Initially, Colette didn’t complain. Her mother was sick. She had a teenage brother to look after. “I didn’t want to lose my job and if you don’t want to lose your job you have to close your mouth and work.”
Colette’s contract was part-time. She never knew the hours she would be working. “If you are put on the roster seven days you have to work those seven days. If you tell them you don’t like it, then next week you might just work three days and that’s also bad for you. I never knew my hours [in advance].”
The insecurity and stress of the job began to wear her down. “Everyone looks like zombies doing that sort of work,” she says. “When they go home they have no energy for normal activities. What activities can you do if going home after cleaning 24 rooms? I just came home after every day, showered and slept.”
She felt bad, especially after her mother died in July and she wanted to spend more time with her little brother. “My brother was very sad,” she says.
Was anyone concerned about health and safety? She laughs. “My manager and supervisor never said ‘Please be careful! Your back! You shouldn’t do that!’ No, they said ‘You have to be faster. You have to be on time’. ”
She knew several cleaners with chronic back pain who kept working nonetheless. The workers were mainly migrant women. Some were well-qualified back in their home countries, but were stymied by non- transferable qualifications or poor English. There was a high turnover of staff.
“I think about 14 people left in one two-week period. Seventy per cent didn’t speak English and the ones who left spoke better English . . . They know they can find another job . . . [The management] don’t want [their cleaners] to know English so they can manipulate them. The less the cleaners know the better.”
Colette eventually complained to the human resources manager. “She said: ‘If it’s so bad then why don’t others come and say it to me?’ I said: ‘Others are scared.’ She said ‘What are they scared of’. I said ‘Losing their jobs’. ”
Nothing changed. Then she heard that some of the supervisors were trying to get her and others who complained dismissed. “We were troublemakers.”
Colette left of her own accord. Too often, she says, she felt like “a lemon without any juice inside”.
First she went briefly to work at another hotel, “which was just as bad”, and then to work as a care worker, something that she finds relatively easy. She is shocked at how necessary work is so undervalued and looked down upon.
It takes a toll, she says, “You start to feel like nobody. You feel like zero.”