The Pulse of Exploitation

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Bella Reid on the immigrant workers who fuel the hotel industry.

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In 2004, the UK granted free movement to workers from the new EU member states. This included Poland and people talked about a new wave of Polish immigration. Back then, I was friendly with two Polish women who had settled in London many years before. One was a finance professional and the other a teacher; both had married English men. They viewed the new wave with a little annoyance. They discreetly indicated their superiority over the new arrivals. The attitude was reminiscent of sociologists Norbert Elias and John L Scotson’s study of an English town in 1965. Their research into a local community in 1960s England highlighted the ways in which an established group excludes and stigmatise outsiders who settle after them. In this case, these two women had created a successful life for themselves in a new country. London was their home and they felt wary of being confused with the latest Polish immigrants.

 The 2004 wave of Polish immigration quickly became synonymous with workers at the lower end of the job market. As a crude gauge of our reaction to the trend, compare two newspapers with opposing views. The Daily Mail readership blamed the “invasion” for wrestling jobs from British workers. They quoted builders, in particular, who were angered by the much cheaper competition. The Guardian, on the other hand, praised the new arrivals for their positive role in building up the economy.

I got an insight into this strata of the workerforce when I was employed part time and over a couple of years, in the offices of a four-star hotel in London. During my trips to the canteen, I became acquainted with some of the Polish employees from the housekeeping department. Recognisable by their pale uniforms, they were temporary workers, recruited through a staffing agency. They told me about the hardship of their jobs.

The worst stories I heard were from Janusz, whose job was cleaning the hotel bedrooms. Once, he was ordered to carry a heavy bag containing broken glass. The task was urgent so he was refused the use of a trolley. He cut his stomach with protruding glass while balancing the heavy, bulky bag against his body. His complaints were ignored; he was expected to get on with his job. He was never given gloves to empty the bins in the guests’ bathrooms and often came in contact with used sanitary towels.

I met him in the corridor during the Christmas season one afternoon. The hotel had organised a festive lunch on that day and the canteen had been decorated with garlands.

“Did you enjoy the Christmas lunch?” I asked

“I haven’t had lunch.” He said

“Why not?”

“There was not enough time. It was too busy up there, so I had to work through my break. I don’t even get paid for lunch so I worked for free!”

During these revelations, his manner was fatalistic. He didn’t believe he had any rights, or that there was any chance of his being listened to. His only contact with authority was his direct supervisor. If he complained too much, he would lose his job. Agency workers were unprotected and easily disposed of.

Another Polish worker, a sweet-looking young man with pale blonde hair, used to tell me how frustrated he was with his agency. One week he would be asked to work exhausting 10-hour shifts, and the next week he wouldn’t be given anything. He was kept in a state of precariousness, of last minute claims on his time.

The ruthlessness of the agency was just part of this process. The day-to-day casual nastiness of people who have been given just a little power was evident, too. I often heard about Janet, who supervised the cleaning department. She was a hard woman who treated the workers unfairly. One morning, I met Waleria in the canteen. She was in her 40s, pretty, with brown hair, with whom I usually had pleasant chats. She was upset that day, and told me how her journey had been delayed by slow-running tubes. She had arrived for work a quarter of an hour late, only to be sent home by Janet, who said she did not tolerate lateness. Missing out on a day’s pay was a disaster for Waleria.

I was struck by the way these tales were recounted to me. The workers were intelligent. They saw through the pettiness of the rules imposed on them and their accounts were enlivened by a sharp, ironic humour. They, and I, took our chats as a welcome release from the tyranny of the management. It seemed no humanity was displayed towards the migrant workers, neither in the structure of the process, or from the individuals in charge. I gave my opinion in staff surveys and slipped notes into the “suggestion box”, calling for the workers to be treated more fairly, but nothing was ever done. The whole system of the hotel was geared towards weeding out people like myself, who disapproved of working conditions.

In the hotel, the agency staff were a ghostly presence. Head office, based in the US, functioned as an all-controlling, gigantic octopus. Each hotel in the brand had a general manager. Ours was a down-to-earth, large man with a brusque manner that would turn to honey when faced with a guest. Around him milled the usual little court of those who cajole and scramble.

They, in turn, rewarded and promoted the most “professional” staff members. Promotion ran along the general lines of being recognised as a trusted employee, hardworking and always on time. But this, on its own, was not enough. You had to be willing to “go the extra mile.”

The hotel head office rolled out a campaign, “Golden Moments,” to recognise such gems. Little posters started appearing in the common areas, filled with anecdotes about workers who had done acts of recognisable value. These feel-good stories somehow always seemed to involve a worker forgoing their rights to come to the aid of a guest. For instance they would tell of a worker, Paula, who had not taken a break all day to make sure the busy reception was covered. Or a staff member would stay longer to ensure a guest was able to swap rooms with the minimum of hassle. The ethos was to work harder than you were contracted to. Otherwise you became a bad worker, one who didn’t care. Enthusiasm was crucial. Employees who attended work events, such as quizzes or raffles, displaying a positive demeanour, were more likely to get on in the company.

It is not surprising, therefore, that someone like Janet should have been promoted. She best represented the hotel’s ideals. With a group of transient workers in her power, her aim was clear: get as much work out of them as possible. If needed, she would bully them into doing overtime. What counted was her own small goal, that all the rooms get cleaned out on time.

For the Polish agency staff, who spoke little English, this system of promotions was closed off, as they weren’t permanent staff members. Not one of the agency staff ever got a permanent job at the hotel.

So when people talk of a wave of immigration “helping the economy,” it would seem that it helps the employers first, by giving them access to an endless pool of easily exploited workers.

It is possible that for some of those workers, those years were just the start of their London life – they’d just arrived and were improving their English while working these hard jobs. They would progress and go on to a better life. Others were sending money back to Poland. One of the workers, Andrzej, whose daughter I met, has gone back now for good. Others may never escape these difficult jobs.

We met in the liminal areas of the canteen and of our own temporary work situation. As we helped ourselves to coffee, bacon, eggs and toast, I took to seeing them as the core of the hotel’s ethos. For all its noise about happy workers and golden moments, I knew that the underlying pulse was one of exploitation. These ever-changing people – pretty blondes, thoughtful middle-aged men and women, were the most pleasant of the staff members. They were unlikely to talk in clichés. Their sense of humour shone through even when their English was bad. I found it hard to speak to the bubbly PAs and managers with their polyester suits, their watchful eyes and fake enthusiasm for everything hotel-related. The Polish cleaners knew the truth. They were unlikely to be seen raving about the hotel’s values; they knew, or sensed, that we were all working to enrich a foreign holding company at the other end of the world.

Patricia Duffaud

Patricia Duffaud

Patricia Duffaud is a writer of mixed French and Northern Irish origin. She writes short stories, features and reviews and her work has appeared in Wasafiri Magazine, the Puffin Review and Thresholds. One of her stories was highly commended in the Gladstone's library's Mystery Lady short story competition. She is currently non-fiction editor for Litro online.

Patricia Duffaud is a writer of mixed French and Northern Irish origin. She writes short stories, features and reviews and her work has appeared in Wasafiri Magazine, the Puffin Review and Thresholds. One of her stories was highly commended in the Gladstone's library's Mystery Lady short story competition. She is currently non-fiction editor for Litro online.

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