Hotel housekeepers take a stand


Here is why it matters that hotel workers came forward last week to tell the news media about the hazards of working as a maid in hotels, including the problem of sexual harassment. They are low-wage, low status workers who are nevertheless a vital part of the smooth operation of any hotel. Yet they are accorded little protection. Hotel housekeepers are almost entirely immigrants and women of colour. When things go wrong on the job many do not come forward because they feel they will not have the full support and protection of their employers.

The high profile case of the alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid in New York City by now former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 62, who has entered a not guilty plea, and the more recent revelation of another similar charge against 74-year-old former bank chairman, Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar, are disturbing. Neither accused has been convicted as their cases are still to be tried, but the voices of hotel housekeepers are now growing as they relate that acts of indecency if not always sexual assault are, to put it nicely, an occupational hazard.

As appalling as these matter are, in the blogosphere there are some who have no sympathy for the unsafe working conditions that can be a part of hotel housekeeping. Sadly some prefer blaming the victim. Some cynical people ask why hotel housekeepers don’t wait until guests leave their hotel rooms before entering to do their cleaning duties.

If the reports of the two recent alleged assaults are any indication then we can see why. In the case against Strauss-Kahn, the maid, who by the way is a 32-year-old from Guinea, an immigrant woman of colour, the allegation is that she had knocked as is the custom before entering, there was no answer and, moreover, it was past checkout time so no one was expected to have even been in the room. In the charge against Omar the alleged assault took place after he had requested a box of tissues be delivered to his room.

Hotel workers say they face a 25 per cent higher rate of injury than other service workers and that housekeepers have the highest rate of injury at 50 per cent higher than hotel workers overall.

The incidents that brought this matter to light took place in New York City, but the pattern is present everywhere in the hotel industry and evident in other low-wage, low-status jobs held by women. In Toronto last week, Cicely Phillips, a unionized hotel worker, told her story of being assaulted by a guest. However, given their terms of employment most hotel maids do not feel secure enough in their jobs to come forward.

All this points to a much larger issue, the sense of entitlement some people have regarding people with low status jobs. The tendency is to overlook the value of the work such people are doing and to give more meaning to the notion of the status of the job. With it comes an unspoken attitude that people in these jobs can be treated as less-than, as commodities, rather than as valued persons.

Along the same lines, Lilliane Namukasa, who came to Canada from Uganda to work as a live-in caregiver in a Brampton home is charging that she was taken advantage of by her employers. She charges that while she was to be paid over $400 per week she received $100 per month over a two-year period during which time she worked 15-hour days, seven days a week with no vacation caring for two boys. Namukasa also alleges other violations of her rights and freedoms.

Part of the problem is that regardless of whatever protection there is for people in these circumstances, most are coming to these jobs directly from other countries, and might not be aware that they have some recourse when treated unfairly. It is therefore absolutely necessary that before entering these jobs potential workers are provided with all the necessary information about their rights and about the agencies that are in place in Canada to protect them if their employers are taking them advantage of them. We need to hold our various levels of governments and in particular the immigration ministries responsible for that.

A note on youth taking a stand…

There are many ways to be fired from your job, but former Senate page Brigette DePape, 21, did it in spectacular style when she raised her handmade “Stop Harper” stop sign in Parliament during the recent Throne Speech. At least some of us haven’t been lulled into this new Conservative norm.

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