There’s an unmistakable look that night workers have after a long shift – pink-eyed and delirious.
As the rest of the world starts their day, they carry on just a bit longer, maybe to grab a meal and chat with their fellow shift workers before they collapse at home in bed, forcing themselves into a sleep pattern so unnatural that there’s no getting used to it, no matter how long you’ve been doing it.
But the gruelling hours aren’t the only thing that Ali, Mahir and Abdul have had to contend with as workers at a hotel in London.
What started as a routine job in hospitality – they’ve all worked other jobs in the industry – has turned into a waking nightmare.
A few months in, the three night team members suddenly had their paid breaks taken away – without being notified. They were forced to take on duties that they weren’t contracted to do. “We were essentially doing three jobs for the price of one,” Ali noted.
As night shift workers, they play a critical role in keeping guests safe. They should be trained in fire safety, bomb threats, food hygiene and premises licensing. But instead of receiving training, the three team members’ signatures were allegedly forged in documents indicating they had been trained when they weren’t.
They raised issues over health and safety – they were allegedly forced to serve out of date food to guests, and their concerns over a sewage leak were dismissed. As practicing Muslims, Ali, Mahir and Abdul* aren’t allowed to consume or handle alcohol, but, despite this and not being trained in licensing, management allegedly pushed them into serving alcohol after licensed hours.
“There’s a difference in the way you talk to a human and the way you’d talk to a dog,” Mahir explained. “The management, they talk to you like you’re a dog.”
At one point, the three colleagues said they had had enough and refused to take on the extra work. Management retaliated by starting an investigation and accusing them of gross misconduct.
‘You need a union’
That’s when Abdul, who had been taking a college course in business, approached his lecturer, a lawyer, about the problems he was having a work. “He told me you don’t need a lawyer – you need a union.”
The hotel workers then found Unite, which helped the three draw up a grievance which is now at the appeal stage.
“When we joined the union everything changed,” Ali said. “Management dropped the investigation.”
The three said the union gave them a new sense of confidence. “One manager told me they didn’t want any problems with the union, and I told them if they don’t want any problems, then they should stop giving us problems,” Abdul said.
Now, the three hotel workers are spreading word of Unite throughout the hotel. But they face an uphill battle – the hospitality industry in the UK is notoriously anti-union. Since a large proportion of the workforce are migrants who don’t speak English well and often don’t know their rights at work, the prospect of joining a union can for many be frightening.
The British Hospitality Association (BHA), Unite hotels co-ordinator Charlotte Bence explains, is pointedly against improving pay, terms and conditions for workers, and even gives bosses guidance on avoiding engagement with unions.
“And ultimately people think this is just how the industry is – hospitality is synonymous with bad employment practices, it just is low pay; it just is bullying and harassment. People think that things can’t be better.”
But there are glimmers of hope. Besides Unite’s many smaller victories winning grievances for individual workers, tireless campaigning – often spanning months or even years – is gradually chipping away at the notion that hotels must be a cesspool of bad work.
In October, catering and hospitality firm WGC, which provides cleaners and other outsourced workers for many big hotels, agreed to abolish zero hours contracts following pressure from Unite.
And after a long Unite campaign, Meliá, a Spanish company with hotels in London and Manchester, agreed this summer to implement in the UK an international agreement it had made with the Unite-affiliated global union IUF.
Now the hotel group is working constructively with the union – it’s supporting English as a second language classes (ESOL) facilitated by Unite. It’s also investing in its housekeepers – the company is giving staff the opportunity to complete NVQs so that they can advance in their careers or change roles altogether.
Charlotte says that we need only look to New York City to understand how high we can set our sights for jobs typically considered low-paid and insecure.
In 2012, an American hotel union secured an unprecedented city-wide deal for hotel workers, which sees, for example, housekeepers earn about $30 (£23) an hour, provides them with free health care and secures them a generous pension as well.
“We have to get better about talking about what good work actually is,” Charlotte says. “Far too many people look at retail, look at hospitality, or service sector jobs and regard them as quote-unquote ‘crap jobs’. We say there is no such thing as a crap job. All there is is crap pay, terms and conditions.
She believes that fighting low-paid, insecure jobs now dominating the UK economy – one recent report found the problem is ‘endemic’, with only one in six people ever escaping the low pay trap – requires a total change in thinking.
“It’s not just about raising terms and conditions, it’s about raising people’s thinking over what they’ve got a right to expect. It isn’t just a question of if you join the union we’ll have a conversation with your boss about a pay rise – you have a right to expect better.
“People deserve to be treated with respect; they deserve a wage that they can live on; they deserve a voice in the workplace. At the moment, too many people believe they don’t deserve that.”
This feature first appeared in Unite’s members magazine uniteWORKS. You can read the latest edition on the Unite website here. Or as a Unite member you can receive a print or digital copy by changing your membership records through My Unite or by contacting your local regional office regional membership admin team.