Spain’s chambermaids are fighting for decent work in the hotel industry


The 2015 season was a good one for the Spanish tourist industry: 85 per cent of its companies “increased sales and improved results” proving one in every seven jobs in Spain and consolidating its position as the most important sector in the country’s economy, according Exceltur’s Outlook Report 2016.

The report explains it achieved this thanks to “policies of operational efficiency”. Outsourcing services is one of these policies, and hotel chamber maids are the most affected.

“Spain lives on tourism, but the staff who take care of the rooms are the Cinderella of the hotel business, no-one is interested in them, and so less is budgeted for them. We kellys [a play on the expression las-que-limpiamos, literally "those who clean"], are just the cleaners. We work in abusive conditions and we’ve had enough, we have to make it known,” says a cleaner whom we shall call Maria to protect her real identity.

Banned from several establishments for regularly exposing the realities in the industry, Maria works as deputy housekeeper in a Madrid hotel. “Chains such as NH or Barceló have outsourced all their services,” she says.

“It all began when a colleague created a Facebook page that didn’t stop growing. She was surprised at the sheer magnitude of the movement, and decided to step to one side. The rest of us decided to set up a national association and we operate through regional groups. The most combative are those from the Canary Islands, who are really challenging the employers,” says Maria.


“The employers think that because we are women, we are not going to protest”

María describes the work as “very feminised” and designed for women who are “very vulnerable, the victims of ill treatment, immigrants, or mothers with dependent children”.

She says: “They need work and they [the employers] take advantage of them. On the other hand, these are people with very little education and their options on the labour market are very limited.”

Being women only makes their situation worse. “Our work is so invisible, that when they design ultramodern hotels, nobody thinks about the fact that it is women who have to turn the mattresses over or move the furniture.”

Alex Tisminetzsky agrees. As a lawyer specialising in social security, occupational diseases and pensions at the Colectivo Ronda, a cooperative of labour lawyers in Barcelona and Madrid, he works with the kellys.

“The fact that they are women puts them in a more precarious situation and means they face social stigma. It also makes them vulnerable to excessive exploitation: employers think they will not protest. It is a very difficult situation in a sector where companies are not used to negotiating,” he tells Equal Times.

“I began by advising them on occupational injuries. Their daily activities are so repetitive that they can cause occupational injuries such as epicondylitis or tennis elbow. They retire very young, as their health problems appear between the ages of 45 and 50. Because they are retiring as a result of illness, their pensions are very low,” explains Tisminetzsky.

“They hardly know anything about their rights and are a very fragile group, not organised in any way, either socially or in trade unions. Companies think that no-one is going to stand up to them, so they commit many abuses. This is what the kellys want to change, and to do so they are beginning to organise” he adds.


Precarious and unstable jobs: the effects of Spain’s labour law reform

Maria remembers the industry when the employers were hoteliers and things were different. “Since the building boom, the industry has been invaded by non-professionals to launder money from property speculation”.

But the real guilty party (responsible for her current conditions) is the labour reform that the Partido Popular government approved in 2012, a reform that both Unidos Podemos (Together We Can) and ultimately the PSOE (socialists) promised to repeal in the last elections.

“At the moment, company collective agreements take precedence over industry agreements. The Madrid Hospitality Industries Agreement is very good, but following the labour reform entire workforces were dismissed to outsource staff via sub-contractors. They pay 40 per cent less than stipulated in the agreement and they hire on the basis of occupancy, which is why hotels are having problems with staff stability. It is very hard work – it always has been – and it is very badly paid, so people leave. As the professional categories in the industry have also been eliminated, nobody knows how many people work in it, nor under what conditions. It is very opaque,” says Tisminetzsky.

“The labour reform has encouraged the creation of company level agreements that are in a race to the bottom and companies are getting used to paying less every time. We have come across salaries that are below the minimum wage – €655 or about US$720 – rest periods are not respected and there is total disregard for occupational risk prevention. This is making an already precarious situation even more so, combining all the labour abuses that a worker could suffer,” adds the Colectivo Ronda lawyer.


“The more organised they are, the more they achieve”

Maria’s experience confirms what he says. “We work without proper materials, the working hours set out in the official schedules are not the real hours - i.e. they take away our days off, so one of our demands is to have random labour inspections. It is very hard work: we have no family life and our health is suffering,” she complains.

Their pay – they are paid per room - makes them especially vulnerable, as Maria explains. “To earn €900, each kelly has to clean 40 rooms a day, spending half an hour on each, with their bathrooms, bed clothes and communal areas. Many of them go to private houses, after working a 10 or 12 hour day, to look after children or to iron, just to make ends meet.”

“Spain’s hotel industry makes incredible profits, but social stigma and a lack of organising have prevented this from being used to improve cleaners’ working conditions. They are fighting now to turn things around, and they are doing it very well,” says Tisminetzsky proudly. “And the more organised they are, the more they achieve,” he notes.

“Although some of the women are unionised – which is good because it is more difficult to dismiss them – we kellys don’t need a union card. The Spanish unions should find a new model to combat injustice, more adapted to modern times, and to a new way of organising labour demands in Spain,” says Maria critically. That is why she believes it is important to publicise the association’s website, “in case other groups of women are motivated to follow our example”.

“We have made flyers setting out our demands and proposals. One of them is that there should be a link between the number of stars a hotel has and the working conditions of its employees, because we are the pillar of the establishment” she concludes.


This article has been translated from Spanish.