Where is the dignity for hotel workers?

Staying in a hotel is usually a relaxing experience. Someone else is making the beds, cooking the meals and cleaning the toilets while the guests are pampered.

But all is not well.

The hospitality industry last week launched its own specialised recruitment website. The chief executive of the New Zealand Hotel Council Mark Oldershaw says “We have been struggling for some time to attract and retain a regular stream of employees that see hospitality as a long-term career option”.

This is no surprise to many and neither should it be a surprise to Mr Oldershaw. The pay and conditions of work in this sector have deteriorated drastically over the past 20 years.

Wages rates have not kept pace with inflation and penal rates for overtime and weekend work were stripped from hotel contracts under the National government’s Employment Contracts Act of 1991. The result is that hotel workers are amongst the lowest paid and hardest working in our low-wage economy.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year talking with these workers and the story is the same everywhere. The work is demanding, the hours are irregular and much of the work is rostered. On my first hotel visit last year one of the housekeeping staff (staff who clean and maintain the rooms) had been in tears earlier in the morning because of the huge workload she faced that day. Rooms are allocated based on very tight timeframes. For a room which might cost $150 per night the cleaning staff would typically have 15 minutes for a day to day clean (approx. $3 before tax for the housekeeper) or 40 minutes for a full clean when the guests leave (approx. $9 before tax for the housekeeper)  Small wonder that housekeepers typically work through their breaks to finish on time at the end of the day. If they don’t finish their job in time they work on unpaid after their shift till it’s finished.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of respect for the workers.

One five-star Auckland hotel has just had a multi-million dollar upgrade but has offered the workers a nil percent pay increase for the year during which the upgrade took place. The hotel says it kept employees on pay throughout the refurbishment and so shouldn’t have to pay an increase. However the employees were expected to do a range of work outside their normal work duties and were required to take their annual holidays in the middle of winter while the upgrade was underway.

Now the company is poised to increase its income dramatically but the workers are effectively getting a 3.5% pay cut because of inflation.

Another Auckland hotel had the misfortune to open at the time of the September 11th attacks when worldwide travel slumped. The hotel struggled in the first two years and over this time the workers agreed to no pay increases to respect the hotel’s situation. However now that the hotel is very profitable the management are offering a meagre 3% pay increase, just keeping up with inflation. There is no shred of loyalty to their workers. Loyalty is reserved for their shareholders – based in Hawaii – who have never lifted a finger to make a bed or clean a toilet.

Yet another hotel offered its employees just a 2% wage increase. In this case all the housekeeping staff went on strike for three hours one busy morning last month while the management staff frantically made the beds, cleaned, scrubbed and vacuumed. These workers have now been offered 4% to 6% increases. Still modest but improving.

Most of our hotels are now owned overseas. Negotiating to improve pay and conditions means talking with local managers who are under huge pressure to keep wages down despite the high profitability of the global chains to which the hotels belong.

Our hotels need a wake up call. Mr Oldershaw should forget the flash website and the “many initiatives” they will be launching this year to address their labour shortage. Hotels have to front up to the fact that low pay and heavy workloads are the reasons why it is hard to find staff. A hotel I visited two weeks ago had 20 new housekeeping staff begin this year and all have now left. The pay is poor while the workload is exhausting.

Our hotels are often the first face of New Zealand to overseas visitors. However the good service guests receive is a superficial sham when hotels fail to treat the New Zealand citizens they employ to give that good service with the same decency and respect.