Sunday, August 02, 2009

Hotel worker slavery exposed

Immigrant workers are paid half the minimum wage in some London hotels.

Last Thursday's Newsnight was a stunning piece of investigative journalism. Hotelcare, one of the leading agencies for hotel cleaners in the country, was caught red-handed with serious exploitation of foreign workers at some of London's top hotels.

To say that the revelations were a surprise would be on a par with feigning shock at the recent MPs' expenses scandal. The rumours that some London hotels are paying less than the minium wage had been circulating for a while. Indeed, back in 2005 hospitality website Caterersearch was already pointing the finger at Hotelcare's dubious employment practices but failed to cause the stir that it should have.

This time, the evidence against Hotelcare as uncovered by Newsnight is simply unbelievable - and it may be interesting to see how the greedy ones will wriggle out of it. They may have to do better than cliched press statements about "isolated cases".

Taking advantage of the foreign workers' poor grasp of English and the fact that they're often unaware of their rights, those workers are led to believe that they would only earn the minimum wage (£5-73 an hour) if they clean two and a half rooms per hour.

Except that, in Britain, the idea of linking the minimum wage to piecework, a replica of the old 'sweating system' of the 1800s, is against the law. The BBC discovered that hotel cleaners are routinely shortchanged. In some cases, they are paid almost half of what they should be entitled to, and £120 off an already meagre weekly wage of £250, especially in London, can seriously make a difference.

Hotelcare claims they employ 2000 staff nationwide. Imagine if they were up to the same trick with all of them: that would pocket them £240,000 a week on the back of vulnerable workers who carry out a very physical job on a daily basis. Last year, Hotelcare made £1.5m in profit and the three shareholders paid themselves a total of £1m on top of their annual £500,000 salary.

Following the BBC's revelations, Hotelcare issued a statement saying that they're "concerned and disappointed" and that "it is not Hotelcare's policy to pay staff less than the national minimum wage". And yet the evidence on the programme is embarrassingly obvious.

Similar practices are exposed by a Times investigation revealing that several migrant workers are often cajoled into making themselves self-employed, a situation that doesn't seem to bother Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association. He said that: "if technically someone is self-employed and they wish to pay themselves £2 an hour - you might argue that that is their choice". Of course, Bob. Shall we ask some Romanian chambermaids if it is?

What is clear is that the government is not doing enough to monitor the situation. The murky world of temping staff, agency workers and outsourced services ensures that the culprits are very quick at passing the buck. For instance, while on Newsnight Hotelcare's area manager is seen blaming the dodgy timesheets on the hotel, the hotel itself later issued a statement feigning shock and oblivion.

In this manic quest to drive down costs and raking up more profits, the investigation also exposed dubious hygiene practices, including lack of proper cleaning equipment, a fact made more disturbing by Park Plaza's statement that they "recently had an unannounced visit by the AA Hotel Inspector [...] and received a four star rating" and by Hotelcare's website with its annoying collection of cliches about "quality service" and "ongoing training [to] provide the staff with excellent skills".

Like many times in the past, perhaps the best incentive can come from the customers. The same way many now judge an establishment or a product on the basis of information about customer service as well as ethical and environmental issues, hotel chains could also be pushed to regularly publish external reviews of their employment practices.

And those who appear fond of paying £2 an hour for an 8-hour working day will be quickly named, shamed and hopefully put out of business.

1 comment:

Chris H said...

Back in June a bunch of tories were trying to introduce amendments to the employment opportunities bill, amendments which would allow employers to ignore the minimum wage if the employees agreed.

Given the comments by the BHA and the machinations of some of our politicians I think this is an extremely widespread practice, especially amongst the most vulnerable workers in this society.

A website highlighting the ethical and environmental activities of hotel chains? Now there's a thought.

Good post btw!