The Reception was held on Wednesday (23 Jan) on behalf of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), which helped launch the Staff Wanted Initiative in conjunction with the Anti-Slavery organisation, to tackle issues such as excessive working hours, piece-work rates which deny the National Minimum Wage, and excessive deductions for the likes of uniforms, transport and accommodation.
Under the current employment system, the majority of hotel chains hire staff such as housekeepers and cleaners through a separate management company, which in turn contracts this work out to an agency.
But, as Kevin Curran from the Hotel Workers Branch of Unite Union argues, these employment agencies are potentially exploiting workers – particularly migrant workers whose lack of awareness and workers’ rights may make them particularly vulnerable.
Poor working conditions
Speaking at the Parliamentary Reception which took place in Westminster’s Portcullis House, Curran explained the typical life for housekeeper in a London hotel. “It’s a dysfunctional social experience with no opportunity to learn or develop any skills and sometimes no opportunity to even learn English,” he said.
“These workers cannot afford to live anywhere near their workplace, so they’ve got a long journey to and from work. They cannot afford the train or tube fares so they’re on the bus, which often means they’ll be leaving home at 5am in the morning for a two-hour journey.
“They start at 8am for an eight-hour shift. They’re probably employed by an agency and will be given an amount of rooms to clean which they must finish within their shift. This often means they have no time to stop.
“A few years ago we asked 100 female room cleaners if they took any medication - 84 of them said they take painkillers every day before coming to work.”
Curran went on to point out that, although any arguments over the mistreatment or exploitation of staff are related directly to the employment agencies, it is the hotel companies themselves that have the real power to improve working standards.
“At the moment, we try to engage with the hotels and they say ‘it’s nothing to do with us, we don’t employ those people.’ And they’re right, they don’t employ them. But they work in their hotels, and the hotel group issues the contract.
“As an example, a transnational organisation like Hilton has a branded hotel owned by a separate company. That company then contracts the work out to a management company, which then contracts the work out to an employment agency.
“So you’re three or four levels in – not to mention any private equity companies like Blackstone which owns Hilton.
“But we need these hotels and their senior managers to set the standards and only accept contracts from these agencies on a certain basis.
“Everyone would benefit from an improvement in the working conditions of these people. Of course, the individuals would benefit and the industry would benefit as well because there’s a huge pool of talent out there in hotels with perhaps no motivation and no opportunities to develop that talent.”
One potential solution to this issue that was highlighted on Wednesday was the introduction of legislation similar to that of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority(introduced by Government in 2006 to oversee the agricultural, horticultural and shellfish industries) – which would ensure every employment agency meets a certain ethical standard in order to have a licence to distribute work.
But the introduction of such legislation can be a lengthy process and, as Joanna Ewart-James concluded, the first step needs to be a unification of the hotel industry to tackle this issue, with a willingness to co-operate with the likes of the IHRB and Anti-Slavery.
“If anything is going to change, the industry has to first move collectively,” said Ewart-James. “No one hotel is going to break this situation at the moment because all of these agencies are just paying minimum wage.
“Our aim is to bring all of these voices from the hotel industry together - we need the leaders to stand up and engage in dialogue with the people that make their industry the success it is.”
Also in attendance at yesterday’s Parliamentary Reception was Labour MP John Cryer. Whitbread's corporate responsibility director Simon Ewin was scheduled to speak but was unable to attend. The discussion follows on from an Early Day Motion which took place in June of last year and saw cross-party support for the prevention of exploitation of staff in UK hotels and the welcoming of the Staff Wanted Initiative.
That initiative is set to expand this year, providing guidelines and tools for the hotel industry and associated businesses throughout the UK. For more information, visit www.staff-wanted.org.