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Another Day, Another Housekeeper Incident

Another prominent international figure has been arrested on charges of sexually abusing a housekeeper at a high-end New York hotel. This time the accused is the former chairman of a top Egypt bank and the alleged incident occurred at the Pierre Hotel.

I assume this is the kind of story that nobody would have noticed as recently as a month ago, before Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, was accused of sexually assaulting a housekeeper at the Sofitel in Manhattan. Now people are taking notice of these things. And that's probably a good thing.

While I have no idea whether the charges in either case are true, inappropriate treatment of hotel housekeepers certainly doesn't seem to be unusual. I’ve interviewed many hotel housekeepers over the years. (Many don’t have health insurance.) And although I've never had anybody tell me about sexual assault, I've heard about unwanted sexual advances and outright harassment. 

Last week, I got back in touch with some old sources and ended up speaking to a housekeeper from Southern California. Asking to be identified only as “Maria,” because she was worried about getting in trouble with her employer, she told me the following through a translator:

It happens a lot, you knock on the door, guest doesn’t answer, you do it a few times and then go in, turn on the light, and a man will be standing there naked. One time, a guest was in the bathroom and said I need you to come in here. He said, ‘don’t worry, just come in, I need your help here.” So I did, and he was just standing there without any clothes on.”

Incidents may seem more boorish or offensive than threatening. Frequently they are. But the vulnerability housekeepers report certainly seems real, for reasons the Daily Beast's Jesse Ellison explained in a recent article on the subject: 

It’s a perfect storm of factors that make the job so dangerous: Housekeepers often are tasked with cleaning whole blocks of rooms, so they’re alone in isolated wings or halls of their hotels, without security or any means of calling for help. The women who fill these positions tend to have humble backgrounds, have few means, or are illegal immigrants -- and may indeed have all those characteristics. They consequently are less likely file complaints or speak up about mistreatment, for fear of jeopardizing their jobs. And there’s an inherent power dynamic at play, wherein a hotel’s management is eager to please wealthy clients -- even if that means turning a blind eye to the complaints of one of their staffers.

I should note that it was a union (UNITE-HERE, via LAANE) that put me in touch with Maria. And unions have an obvious interest in publicizing these sorts of stories: They’re trying to organize housekeepers. But I happen to think they have a pretty good case that hotel housekeepers would be better off with representation.

A 2009 study in the Journal of Industrial Medicine found that women working in the hotel industry had substantially higher injury rates than men, most likely because they were more likely to be housekeepers and suffer from repetitive stress injuries, the result of scrubbing floors on their knees (because they frequently have no mops) and lifting ever-heavier mattresses to make beds (because sheets frequently are flat, rather than fitted). Hours can be unpredictable, break times withheld, and so on.  Unions can improve those conditions, making sure everybody has proper equipment and decent working conditions -- not to mention better pay and, yes, the sense of security that emboldens housekeepers to report inappropriate behavior when it happens.

As Alternet's Adele Stan wrote:

a man who once ranked among the world's most powerful now sits, forlorn, in a jail cell on Rikers Island -- all because an immigrant woman in a lowly position had the temerity to tell a superior that one of her employer's very important clients had done, by her account, terrible things to her.
By any measure, it was a risky thing to do. There's a reason most rapes go unreported. But there was one thing that housekeeper knew could not be done to her for reporting her account, observes a colleague in the labor movement: she could not be fired for having done so, because of the contract between her union, the New York Hotel Trades Council, and the Sofitel Hotel at which she works.