by Natalie Bennett
This was the topic of a debate tonight at City Hall hosted by Green Party London Assembly member Darren Johnson.
The scene was set by Richard Wilkinson, one of the authors of the brilliant The Spirit Level, who was uncompromising: the issue isn’t poverty, he said, but the size of the gap between rich and poor. “If we all move up together it is a zero sum game.”
He spoke about the “psychosocial impact of inequality” – the way that people feel disrespected, unvalued, worthless, if they are left too far behind. “Studies of the stress in primates when you move them around into different social groups – they show much same effects as westminster bureaucrats.”
But the really vivid and gripping part of the evening – because it wasn’t talking about concepts and ideas but individual, hardscrabble lives, came from Kevin Curran of the Unite Union, who is working on trying to introduce a living wage in the hotel sector, specifically for cleaners.
Most are on the national minimum wage, which comes to £12,324 a year (when the median nationally for people working fulltime is £31,323; in London it’s £33,384). “They can be accurately described as working poor.”
He described a cleaner’s typical day. Because of their low pay, they can only afford to live in outer London and must catch a bus to work (the Tube is far too expensive), so they probably have to get up at 5.30am to start work at 8.
In a typical working day they’ll clean 14-16 rooms, for which guests of the hotel are paying £150-250/night. “For that the guests, reasonably, expect cleanliness par excellence. Each of those rooms has to have a spring clean, the sort of clean many of us do only when we’ve got house guests.” In additionally they’ll be pushing unergonomic heavy laundry carts, climbing up and down stairs (many aren’t allowed to use the lifts), and using strong, unpleasant chemicals for a great deal of the day. It’s hard work.
“We did a survey of 100 cleaners; 86 said they were in pain daily at work; 83 were taking painkillers to get through day.
“But their main grievance is the lack of dignity and respect. Bullying and harassment are normal, and this leads to a corrosion of self esteem, and a high level of stress.”
He said that the global hotel chains all used outsourced contractors, and competition between them, and the rates hotels were prepared to pay, meant workers were locked on the minimum wage.
And there were strong answers for those who might say it couldn’t be helped: Hotel profits in London are the highest in Europe, and the next two years are expected to be highly profitable.
So what to do? Curran suggested that the mayor and the London Assembly should be launching a campaign of naming and shaming, possibly starting with Intercontinental, which this week announced profits up 38% worldwide, at £247m, with London being one of its biggest profit centres, yet it won’t even meet the union to discuss workers’ conditions.
No more Holiday Inns for me then…
There was much more fascinating material: the outgoing Crossrail chief executive has been paid 35 times the salary of his lowest paid worker, London Assembly member Jenny Jones reported. She also noted that 10% of London social housing doesn’t meet the decent homes standard.
She said an important weapon in dealing with low pay was “the politics of embarrassment”. Naming and shaming definitely had a place. Another suggestion was that we should all “be a stroppy citizen”.
Richard noted that recent work he’d done on New Hampshire showed how strong trade union movements were important factors in more equal societies. Kevin noted that in New York Intercontinental are paying the equivalent of 14 pounds hour to hotel cleaners – “all because of collective bargaining”.
Yet Kevin said he couldn’t walk into a hotel in London and speak to a cleaner without getting them sacked. And as he pointed out, there are social and economic costs: we all subsidise low pay, or in other words the company’s profits. State benefits have to top up wages, and eventually in many cases the NHS will have to pick up the care of workers who’ve simply been worn out.
Curiously, I came home and found on the Guardian a video looking at some of these issues, and talking to a group of Polish women hotel. cleaners.