Your room is ready, Sir

2011-09-03 20:59

The arrests in New York of former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Egyptian businessman Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar, who allegedly sexually assaulted hotel housekeepers, have made the power relations between hotel workers and guests explicit.

The outcry makes it clear that there are services to which hotel guests are not entitled.

What has been less discussed is what services luxury hotel guests are entitled to – what they pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars a night for – and the jobs and conditions of those who create the experience.Luxury hotels are known for their beautiful rooms, distinctive decor, upscale linen and amenities.

Yet managers claim service is the most important amenity “because we all have beds and bathrooms”, according to a sales manager.Workers lavish personal attention on guests, responding immediately to their desires, and remembering their preferences.

As a guest summed it up, luxury hotel workers “do things for you in a way that’s, like, better than your mother!”As in most hotels, these jobs are broadly seen as belonging to the “front of house” or “back of house”, depending on whether interaction with guests is a significant part of the work.

This distinction also often aligns with demographic characteristics of the workers.

The back of house, especially in US cities, is usually staffed by immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa, who do physically demanding work, primarily in housekeeping.

These workers have have little autonomy.

Room cleaners, almost always women, are regulated by a daily quota (12 to 14 rooms in upscale hotels): they lift heavy mattresses, scrub floors, polish glass and push vacuum cleaners.

Turndown attendants, among other tasks, close draperies, turn on the radio, lay out slippers and leave cookies by the bed.Sometimes these workers must skip breaks to finish shifts.

A room cleaner told me she lost almost 5kg in her first few weeks at the hotel.The front of house comprises doormen, bellmen, valets, front-desk agents and concierges – workers who are more likely to be white and/or born in the US or Western Europe.

Beyond the physical labour of carrying luggage and standing all day at the desk, they provide “emotional labour” in interactions with guests.

They need the freedom to deal with whatever guests may ask of them so their work is less constrained.But they are almost constantly onstage, responding to guests’ needs and whatever mood they happen to be in.

They also derive a significant part of their income from tips, making these relationships crucial.

The most important factor in determining working conditions – wages, benefits and treatment by management – is whether the hotel workers’ union, Unite Here, is strong.

According to Annemarie Strassel of Unite Here, room attendants (and other non-tipped workers) in unionised New York hotels earn approximately $24 (R169) an hour plus benefits, including healthcare.They are expected to clean no more than 14 rooms a day.

In New York and other cities with high union representation – such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco – even non-union hotels tend to offer their employees union-level wages and benefits to forestall union organising drives.

A hotel housekeeper in the non-union city of Indianapolis is paid the minimum wage ($7.25/R51 an hour) and might clean up to 30 rooms in an eight-hour shift, a pace which is likely to cause injury.According to Strassel, hotel workers have injury rates 25% higher than other service workers, with housekeepers facing frequent incidents.It is not coincidental that the housekeeper in the Strauss-Kahn case worked at a unionised hotel.

The Strauss-Kahn affair highlights another feature: like most people in interactive service jobs, hotel workers are subject to the authority of customers as well as managers.

Management encourages guests to voice complaints and provide feedback through comment cards, making them responsible for the evaluation of workers. Many hotels hire “mystery shoppers” who pretend to be guests and then report back to managers.Although back of house workers interact little with hotel visitors, guest actions affect them significantly.

For housekeepers, every shift is a race against the clock to meet the quota, and guest behaviour either speeds up or slows that down.

Messy rooms take longer to clean. Housekeepers fear those where children have left fingerprints on every surface, spilled their juice, or wet the bed. Guests who sleep late leave room cleaners standing anxiously in the hallways.Housekeepers also live in fear of potential complaints that might give them “a bad reputation”.

These workers told me about guests who called the housekeeping office to report a hole in a sheet, a mark on the wall or even hair in the bathtub (which the guest had already used).

 The possibility of guest surveillance leads workers to discipline themselves, making extra efforts to preclude dissatisfaction.In the front of house, interactive workers provide the personal attention characteristic of luxury.

They chat with guests, help them navigate the city and the hotel, and calm them down when calamities occur.They go to great lengths to solve guests’ problems.

A concierge I worked with convinced a local department store manager to open early for a guest who needed to buy businesswear, another lent the shoes off his feet to a guest whose own shoes had been misplaced by the housekeeping department.Workers must express friendliness (but not familiarity), deference (but not obsequiousness) and sincerity.

These interactions must not appear routine.

Workers must customise their responses to guests’ behaviour, casting all desires as legitimate needs.Guests are not regulated by any contract.

But they do usually adhere to the social norm of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule (do as you would be done by).

Guests in luxury hotels mostly treat workers well – better, some say, than guests in less expensive hotels, who may have unrealistic expectations and are more likely to be rude.

In the hotels where I worked, guests were usually friendly, appreciated workers’ efforts and tipped well. Frequent guests even sometimes brought gifts for the staff and remembered their names.

But some guests behave rudely or aggressively toward workers or fail to tip when they should.

Workers are required to respond politely, restraining any urge to talk back.

Managers in one hotel I studied encouraged workers facing complaints to “pretend the guest is a relative, so there’s still a sense of caring”.

In the US, the belief in egalitarianism makes people uncomfortable with class inequalities immediately visible in luxury hotels, both material disparity and unequal entitlement to labour and attention.

The reciprocity guests show toward their workers helps both workers and guests feel that they are equals, rather than servant and master.

The union presence goes a long way toward making sure these workers labour with dignity and without poverty.

But the everyday workings of the hotel are based on the implicit idea that some people (guests) are entitled to receive attention, status and human labour, while other people (workers) provide it.

» Sherman is assistant professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research and author of Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007.

© 2011 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global 

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