Friday, 15 August 2014

working as a hotel housekeeper

A little forewarning. I'm going to talk about excrement here a little more than you might be comfortable with. If you're made uncomfortable by that, but not by the acutely exploitative nature of our market economy, you have bigger issues than I can help you with.
You might recognise me, but chances are your eyes will just glaze over me. When I'm in navy, pushing a trolley of clean linen and a bin bag that contains quite a few dirty nappies, you don't see me. I knock on your door around 11am to freshen up your room, when I hear you inside but you don't come to the door I just move on. You poke your head out and look up and down the hall, calling to your partner inside 'no one out here, honey'. Well, I am out here, but I'm about as inanimate as the desk lamp or minibar to you.

When I'm on the street and we cross paths outside the hotel, me dressed like a human being and not in the drudgy oversized tshirt and leggings of my profession, you might step out of the way for me, flash me a smile, maybe ask me for directions somewhere. If I am my usual polite self when you ask where that museum is, I give you a good impression of the people that live in this city. If I give you the same helpful information while I have a sweaty forehead and am simultaneously carrying 4 towels, bed linen and a bin filled with toiletries, 2 pairs of slippers and a magazine, you will be visibly amazed at how well I speak English, give advice, am confident. You do not expect that of someone in my profession.

You don't expect a housekeeper to have a personality. You say 'good morning' back because you feel obliged to, a little awkward about it, maybe. You expect a classifiable individual, a member of some minority group, low education, low aspirations, happy to do backbreaking work for years on end, and nothing more. The truth is that the women I worked with came in all shapes and sizes, but were perpetually categorised as 'housekeeping girls', despite being 20, 30, 40, married, divorced, some speaking several languages, having children, a life, a home, an education, unique skills and abilities, a backstory, a narrative. None of it matters when you have 15 do-outs to clean before 3pm. As soon as you put on the name tag, everything that makes up the unique and wonderful person that you are is taken from you, put in a plastic bag with your name written on it and placed in the lost and found bin.

In my first week we were given some nondescript bleach with which to scrub the shower walls of the inevitable mold that appears in grouting after several years of constant use. A few hours later a supervisor rushed around to tell all the 'girls' to stop using the bleach right away; it was giving people headaches. I spoke to one colleague a week later. The woman had not just gotten a headache, but passed out in the shower, been taken in an ambulance, had her vitals and reproductive organs checked, told by the doctor that extended exposure to that chemical can do serious damage to your internal organs. There was no apology or explanation from management. The thing I found most unbelievable about this was how the woman just accepted it as an inevitability of the job.

There are things that I come to expect, and as someone who has spent years in customer service I will deal with a lot. But the long list of things you are expected to deal with as a housekeeper, sometimes it's too much. The 26 or 13 minutes given to clean a room (depending on 'do out' or 'stay over' status) is utterly unsatisfactory, and that is with every single second being accounted for. Being expected to set up and clean up your trolleys on your own time, that is unsatisfactory. The huge quantity of human excrement dealt with on a daily basis, anyone would find that exceedingly unpleasant.
 Every pile of sodden towels in the otherwise clean bath that now had to be washed, every awful mother who let her child do whatever the hell they wanted and leave that whatever-the-hell smeared on every visible surface, every puddle of piss on the floor beside the toilet, binbag full of dirty, stinking nappies, not entirely rolled up, furniture rearranged, papers ripped up and tossed beside, but never inside, the bin, wet bed sheets, bronzer-stained sinks, makeup stained mirrors and generally every single indicator that humans, when left to their own devices in a hotel room will turn into unsanitary, unapologetic, and ungracious foul entities, this is too much.
The woman who trained me in laughed at me (and not in a friendly way) when I said I was tired after working my 6th day in a row. She told me she had once worked 18 days straight, and that eventually everyone would do that. It was the sacrifice you made for the job. I'm sorry, what? It became increasingly apparent that the sacrifices were to be completely and utterly one-sided. The shit salary (in Denmark, 115kr/hour x 15 minus endless deductions is not enough to live on, as my empty bank account is testament to), high tax, part-time hours which spilled over into your free time as you were called every god damn day off at 7am asking if you could come in for 8.30, none of these things negatively impact upon management in the slightest. These are the kind of sacrifices utterly terrible people expect those they consider inferior to them to make, in an economic reality that dictates that the supply-side should always bear the burden with a gracious 'tak for i dag'. 
The worst thing about working as a hotel housekeeper in an exceedingly wealthy, overwhelmingly privileged place is not that the guests are the worst people on earth. No, the scariest, saddest, most regretful thing for me is the amount of people who think they have no choice but to do what they do. In the 4 years you've worked as a cleaner, you could have taken out a loan, taken a college course, gotten a decent job and be on your way to paying back said loan, in line for a better future for yourself. Or if you wanted to stay a housekeeper, demanded better conditions and pay, start campaigning that union you subsidise to act as arbiter. But as long as the framework is there to exploit people, and individuals do not feel empowered enough to recognise the alternatives, inequality just gets perpetuated. When you are told day in day out that you are worth very little, eventually you start to believe it. For me, the saddest thing of all is the human labour that goes unvalued, and individuals who believe they can't do better, if they want to.


  1. this post makes me sad. Your writing is absolutely spot on

    1. Thank you for reading! Even though I've been fortunate to leave that sector behind, I will never forget what I learned from the experience, and will always keep it in mind when I'm doing research on the labour market and low paying jobs.

  2. Hello Amy.
    I am moving to Denmark, my boyfriend is Danish and I know I will have to work as a waitress or a housekeeper for a long while until I find a better job. Reading your experience made me feel quite scared, to be honest. I know cleaning in hotels is very demanding but I never thought it would be so psychologically exhausting. At least now I know what I should truly expect.
    I am loving your blog.
    Have a nice weekend

    1. Thanks for your reply Ofélia :)

      I think that if it's possible you should try to find a café job rather than a cleaning job (and try to find a non-tourist venue, although without Danish this will be hard, try to use any contacts your boyfriend has, it's much nicer working in an all-Danish place, they respect you more).

      Hope you enjoy Denmark, it's the best place.