The backbreaking work of Spain’s exploited hotel cleaners

The lives of tens of thousands of chambermaids have been made harder with the rise of outsourcing cleaning companies.

Hotel housekeepers during a protest called by Las Kellys housekeepers collective in front of the Barcelona's city hall at Sant Jaume square in Barcelona on August 25, 2018 [Pau Barrena/AFP]
Hotel housekeepers during a protest called by Las Kellys housekeepers collective in front of the Barcelona's city hall at Sant Jaume square in Barcelona on August 25, 2018 [Pau Barrena/AFP]

Maria* cleans rooms at a large Spanish hotel.

She arrives before 8am, changes into her uniform and heads to the housekeeper’s office to get her cleaning schedule.

“It really depends on the hotel’s occupation, but we usually get 16 to 18 rooms,” says Maria, who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity.

“First you open the windows to ventilate the room, and take out the rubbish. Then you make the beds and change the linen. Dust. Restock the mini-bar. Three sodas. Two beers. Water. Two chocolate bars. Then comes the bathroom. Shower. Sink. Toilet. Bidet. After that, you vacuum and wash the floor.”

Her least-favourite part is the bathroom.

“You can find anything in a hotel room, but the toilet is the worst part. You can’t even begin to imagine what we have to deal with.”

A room that guests are checking out from takes 30 minutes to clean if it isn’t dirty. Otherwise, it can take up to an hour, sometimes more. 

Coffee and ibuprofen, the chambermaid's breakfast. My husband calls me the painkiller queen.

Maria, chambermaid

If a guest is staying another night, it’s a little easier.

“Then it only takes 15 to 20 minutes, if you don’t have to change the linen,” says Maria. “It’s impossible to finish in eight hours, so we skip lunch and work overtime for free. If you refuse, you’re fired.”

The 44-year-old is blonde and pale, with clear blue eyes and blue-painted eyelashes.

“I moved to Madrid for love,” she says. “I’m from a provincial city. I met my husband there and we fell in love. We still are.”

After marrying and moving to Madrid, she worked as an accountant for the National Lottery Administration, but became jobless when the post was computerised.

“I never had any trouble to do my fair share of work, so I applied to clean hotel rooms. Finding a job wasn’t too hard even during the crisis. At the beginning it was through temporary work agencies, now there are these outsourcing companies. How to call them? I call them exploiters,” she says.

Angela Munoz, vice president at the Madrid chapter of Las Kellys, a nationwide association of chambermaids, explains that outsourcing is widespread and harmful in the hotel industry.

The job, says Munoz, has always been hard and ungrateful. But in 2012, there was another turn of the screw when hotels began outsourcing their cleaning departments.

“A chambermaid hired directly by a four-star hotel in Madrid makes around 1,400 euros ($1,636) per month. One hired by an outsourcing company has to clean up to 400 rooms per month to make between 800 ($935) and 900 euros ($1,052),” says Munoz.

There are an estimated 100,000 chambermaids in Spain. Las Kellys has begun organising protests against their mistreatment.

Juan Rubino is an employment lawyer from Madrid. He does not represent any of the chambermaids in this story.

The law, he says, is unclear about outsourcing.

“So it’s the courts that have established precedents … The rule of thumb is that outsourcing is illegal if the hotel manages the employees. Otherwise, it’s legal in most territories.”

Rubino explains that forcing unreasonable workloads on employees goes against the law. 

“A company can’t ask for more work than an employee can possibly do. Overtime must always be voluntary, paid, and never be over 80 hours per year,” he says.

Maria* is 44 years old and has suffered severe pain because of the long hours cleaning hotel rooms [Santiago Saez/Al Jazeera]

Spain was one of Europe’s worst-hit countries in the financial crisis.

Ernest Canada, professor at the University of Barcelona and coordinator of NGO Albasud, says the economic trauma trapped chambermaids.

“The hospitality industry in Spain was heavily indebted before 2008,” he says. “Once the financial crisis hit, the banks sold this debt to international investment funds, who wanted to guarantee a return, so they put the screws on to the hotel companies. They then made cuts where it was easier: the workforce, whose salaries represent 40 to 50 percent of a hotel’s operating costs.

“In addition to that, many chambermaids became the main breadwinners in the family during the crisis, as their partners lost their jobs … They had to hold on to their jobs at any cost.”

Outsourcing companies face barriers in the two Spanish archipelagos – the Balearic and Canary islands. 

“I make around 1,400 euros ($1,636) per month, and work eight hours and no more,” says Sara, who was hired directly by a four-star hotel in the island of Mallorca.

“We clean 24 rooms per day, plus common areas, but I always go home at my scheduled time. How do I manage? Well, if I can’t clean your room so well, then your room won’t be so clean,” she says, describing a heavy workload.

Painful work

Canada, the professor, says in addition to overburdening staff, other examples of mistreatment include zero-hour contracts.

The industry’s obsession with overworking staff in an apparent bid for efficiency can lead to injuries.

Maria has learned to live with pain.

“Everything hurts,” she says. “Your hands, your legs, your arms, your back.” 

She takes several doses of ibuprofen and paracetamol a day, a widespread habit among hotel cleaners. 

“Coffee and ibuprofen, the chambermaid’s breakfast. My husband calls me the painkiller queen.”

One evening, Maria left work with acute back pain. She tried sleeping it off, but it was worse in the morning. The physician confirmed that her spinal nerve tissue was protruding from her backbone.

She bandaged her body, took some pills and headed to work. 

“I know better than to take sick leave. If you take more than one week, they will fire you,” Maria says.

Dilcia, 42, knows that better than anyone.

She was a graphic designer with 13 years of experience, but has been working at hotels since 2007, when she arrived to Spain from Honduras.

“When you’re a foreigner, you take whatever you can get,” she says. “I started at the bar of a hotel in Barcelona. After a while I started cleaning rooms. It was hard work, but we were treated right. I made around 1,400 euros ($1,636) per month, and we cleaned the rooms in teams of two. I miss those days.”

Last May, she got lower back pain.

“I couldn’t even climb the stairs to get to my door. The doctor told me I couldn’t work,” explains Dilcia. Two months later, while still recovering, she got a call. Her contract had been terminated.

Dilcia is attempting to sue the outsourcing company, Exeo, and is waiting to appear before the court.

Dilcia was made redundant while recovering from back pain, which she endured as a result of arduous hotel cleaning work [Santiago Saez/Al Jazeera]

Rubino, the lawyer, explains that companies cannot sack workers on sick leave.

“Unless there’s a disciplinary cause, the dismissal is deemed unfair, giving the fired employee the right to be compensated,” he explains. “Many of us think it should be directly illegal, because it’s an attempt against the right to physical integrity.”

Al Jazeera first interviewed Maria, the 44-year-old, during her annual leave. When she returned to work, she was fired.

“They said I’m not convenient after I demanded to be compensated for working bank holidays,” she said.

Her employer Grupo Constant declined to comment, saying the subject was not “part of the company’s communication policy”.

AC Hotels by Marriott, the hotel chain she was working in, didn’t respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Al Jazeera sought responses from several hotel groups believed to be using outsourcing companies to some extent. Most ignored the calls and one replied issuing no comment.

Al Jazeera also tried to interview outsourcing companies such as Exeo, Externa and Grupo Eulen, but none of them responded to repeated requests for comment either.

“I’ll find another hotel job, but I’ve sent my CV to a clothing store too,” says Maria. “I’ve got the experience, so who knows?”

Source : Al Jazeera

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