By Tania Parker
As with most jobs in the service industry, the work is physically demanding: housekeepers are constantly on their feet, vacuuming and scrubbing repetitively, wringing towels and lifting up to 14 mattresses per day – all done quietly within the dust-free confines of each hotel room they service per day.
With the physical demands of the job, workplace injuries are common and often go unaddressed and uncompensated.
UNITE HERE! Local 40, representing many BC hospitality workers, is currently negotiating with four Coast Hotel locations in BC. Their contract, covering all four shops, expired at the end of April. The local gives housekeepers a collective voice in an industry where they are often overlooked.
At the table with Coast Bastion Hotel in Nanaimo, Coast Inn of the North in Prince George, Coast Victoria Harbourside in Victoria and Coast Capri Hotel in Kelowna, they’re bargaining for more than wages. They are standing firm on coordinated bargaining and coverage of a single contract, despite push from the company.
Coast employees want safe and sustainable work, citing unpredictable work schedules as a major concern.
“We’re saying ‘No!’ to the cutting of shifts and on-call scheduling,” explains Kirsty Peterson, from UNITE HERE Local 40 communications, during an interview with RankandFile.ca.
“The workforce is predominately women, often with young children,” she says. “On-call scheduling leaves many mothers stranded for last-minute childcare or for paying for a daycare spot that doesn’t end up being used. Job security and respect are the key issues here.”
Also on the table is Coast’s pet friendly policy and how it translates into workload. According to UNITE HERE Local 40 President Robert Demand, housekeepers are seeking a reduction of their room quota when there is a pet stay, a drop of one regular room for every two rooms accommodating pets.
“This gives housekeepers an extra 15 minutes to handle the increased work that comes along with having a pet stay,” Peterson explains.
“It’s a funny thought amongst the housekeepers,” Peterson adds with a chuckle, “that Coasts’ pet marketing strategy involves niceties like leaving out treats for dogs, yet there is less consideration for the housekeepers.”
“Our housekeepers are taking care of so much,” says Peterson, “and often guests don’t really notice that they never see a speck of dust during their hotel stay. Their work is very underappreciated.”
“The idea with the Fair Housekeeping campaign is to raise awareness for housekeepers,” Peterson says.
“Especially those who are not protected by a union. Our goal is to create solidarity across the entire unionized and non-unionized sector, and to raise awareness for housekeepers and the meticulous and detailed work that they do.”
Work shouldn’t hurt
In an effort to remain competitive in the industry, especially with Airbnb’s progressive foothold in the hospitality market, hotels are enhancing their rooms with improved amenities, such as larger luxurious mattresses, greater small appliance options, pet stays, and heavy-duty doors.
However, while guests enjoy their safe, secure room on a comfortable bed with Fido and a Nespresso, it is easy to overlook the extra work required to maintain these amenities.
Gulzar Grewal and Ravi Binning, two UNITE HERE Metro Vancouver hotel housekeepers that met with RankandFile, agree. “The work is very physically demanding,” Grewal explains. “The mattresses are getting so big now, and we lift those 14 to 15 times a day.”
“And the other thing is the doors,” Binning continues. “You have to twist the door open with your wrist and push on the heavy door at the same time. This is causing problems with my wrists,” she laments, gingerly rubbing her wrists as she speaks.
When asked how many injuries are reported from herself and her fellow co-workers, Binning confesses that she’s given up on her Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) claim, even though she is confident that her repetitive strain injury is a result of her job. “The company discourages workplace injury claims,” Binning explains, “and even when WCB comes to take a look at the workplace, they say they don’t see anything wrong.”
When asked what can be done to prevent such injuries, Binning admits that she sees a lot of housekeepers who do not use their bodies correctly in their line of work. “There should be more safety training,” Binning suggests. “We need to know how to use our bodies appropriately to do the work. Once a month, a training session would help.”
According to WorkSafe BC, over 50 percent of injuries in the accommodation industry involve housekeeping staff. Currently, there are no Occupational Health and Safety regulations in place, only standard guidelines that are not necessarily mandatory.
“There’s a growing interest in requesting legislation with specific language for housekeepers.” Peterson says. “We’d like to see policies surrounding usage of proper tools, such as fitted sheets to avoid having to lift mattresses continually to fold sheets under, and long handled mops to prevent back strain.”
“Regulations around workload maximums and room size specifications are also ideal. Room sizes are getting bigger, more things are happening in each room with more amenities, but these factors aren’t recognized, and room quotas remain the same,” Peterson adds.
“There is an increased pressure on housekeepers to maintain the same level of excellence while adding more to their workload.”
Housekeepers fight back
Aside from the physical demands of the job, housekeepers face further issues that affect their work prospects and security.
“Vancouver in particular is a tough market situation,” Peterson explains. “The majority of jobs are situated in downtown Vancouver, where the housing market is simply unaffordable. Many housekeepers commute far into the suburbs where housing is more affordable, but this in turn creates increased travel expenses for many, especially for women working and commuting to two jobs.”
This precarious situation is what led UNITE HERE Local 40 to successfully campaign for, and secure, a 15% employer-funded transit pass subsidy from eight hotel employers back in 2014. “We’re looking to expand on this transit pass discount for all tourism workers,” Peterson says. “It was a very successful campaign.”
UNITE HERE and the recent Global Week of Action efforts also serve to increase awareness of UNITE HERE’s Fair Hotels Program, an online directory of US and Canadian socially responsible union hotels – complete with a boycott list – where the labour-conscious can vote with their wallets.
“Our housekeepers are taking care of you during your stay,” Peterson reminds us. “Staying at a Fair Hotel returns the favour.”
For more information and to ensure your next hotel stay or event makes a difference, please visit www.fairhotel.org.
Clarification: The usage of the term “on call” in this piece refers to the employer’s practice of reducing shifts without notice, resulting in a worker being sent home.