In 2014, the United Kingdom welcomed 32.6 million international tourists, an increase of 5% from 2013 and a figure which far surpasses the pre-financial crisis levels of foreign visits. To accommodate this rising demand, the hospitality sector has also been experiencing a steady growth over the past few years. It is said to be the country’s 4th largest industry, delivering £143bn per annum or 10% of the gross value added to the GDP.
There are roughly 180,000 businesses within this sector of the economy which are supported by a massive four-and-a-half-million labour force. In other words, around 10% of Britain’s entire working population are employed in hospitality or tourism and while most are perhaps glad to be earning a living, they are nonetheless often reminded of the disadvantages that such jobs entail. These include long hours, low pay, shifts on holidays, limited or no opportunities for advancement as well as temporary, seasonal or zero-hour contracts which translate into total lack of security for employees. These hardships are most strongly felt among the people at the very bottom of the chain, who are also the ones most likely to end up in an exploitative situation.
One particularly vulnerable group are housekeeping staff, the vast majority of whom happen to be migrants, not employed directly by the hotels but hired through temporary agencies or outsourcing companies. Practices of this kind kick the door wide open to exploitation as often hoteliers do not feel the need to get too involved into the circumstances of what are effectively another company’s employees. This coupled with the fact that unionising in the sector has only started to gain momentum in the past few years leaves many workers rights largely unprotected.
Some who had mustered the courage to speak up said that on an eight-hour shift, they were required to clean at least 16 rooms, often without taking any breaks. They were yelled at, harassed and if anyone failed to complete the quota in time, their supervisors would make them stay and finish what’s left for no extra pay. Room attendants in London are already severely underpaid to be able to afford working for free. Most earn the minimum of £6.70 an hour, well below the city’s living wage of £9.40. In comparison, in New York where cleaning staff are employees of the hotels they service rather than an agency, the rate starts from £16 an hour. This huge disparity is mostly attributed to the fact that unlike in London, 80% of New York’s hotel workers are unionised and that has given them much greater bargaining power.
It will likely take some time before their British counterparts manage to reach the same level of mobilisation. The Modern Slavery Act makes it clear that protecting workers’ rights in the sector should be considered as much a responsibility of the outsourcing companies and agencies as of the hoteliers. Companies with a turnover of over £36 million will need to report every year the steps they have taken to ensure a clean, ethical and exploitation-free supply chain. One could even think of going even further – going back to the example of New York, hotels have a logo that flags up to guests the fact that they offer fair wages and conditions, making a positive change in a positive way.