“You don’t ask for power, you grab it!” – in Paris, migrant housekeeping staff are taking on a hotel giant

“You don't ask for power, you grab it!” – in Paris, migrant housekeeping staff are taking on a hotel giant

Rachel Keke, a housekeeper at the Ibis Clichy-Batignolles Hotel and spokesperson for the housekeeping staff strike movement, speaks at a gathering on 1 September 2020 to announce the resumption of the strike after the reopening of the hotel which closed down as part of coronavirus containment measures in France. A strike fund has been set up at the entrance, appealing for donations to help these striking mothers.

(Clément Dechamps)
This story has been translated from French.

For more than a year now, their lives have changed irrevocably. Having arrived in France without the qualifications required to find decent work, they are now engaged in a battle of wills with one of the country’s biggest companies: the Accor hotel group. For over a year, they have been holding daily gatherings, encouraging and supporting each other. For over a year, they have been shouting, chanting, telling the media about their plight and making themselves heard in the streets. They are housekeeping staff and for over a year they have been fighting for better working conditions.

It all started in July 2019 at the Ibis Clichy-Batignolles hotel in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. None of the housekeeping staff at this 700-room ‘budget’ category hotel are directly employed by the hotel. They are all hired through an outside contractor: the SAS-STN cleaning company. Established throughout France, with more than 4,000 employees, the firm is a major player in the cleaning sector, particularly in the Paris region. Whilst for the Accor group, which owns the hotel, it provides a cheaper and more ‘flexible’ source of labour, for the housekeeping team, subcontracting above all means “suffering” and “exploitation”.

Unpaid overtime, breakneck work targets, the very lowest social security contributions, no consideration for the work done, the fear of being replaced from one day to the next... such is the day-to-day life of the housekeeping staff at the hotel.

“Our contracts set out working hours but we are, in fact, paid by the room. We’re sometimes asked to do 45 rooms within a seven-hour day, which is physically impossible. We have no choice but to work overtime, but it doesn’t appear on our payslips. What if we refuse to finish the rooms? What if we complain? They tell us there are hundreds of other women ready and waiting to take our place,” says Sylvie Kinissa, who started working as a housekeeper at the Ibis Clichy-Batignolles hotel in 2015.

Indefinite strike against subcontracting

On 17 July 2019, 24 out of the 40 members of the housekeeping team working at the hotel on a daily basis (including a male colleague), tired of their indecent working conditions, decided to down tools and start an indefinite strike.

“Our first demand is that the hotel should hire us directly,” says Rachel Keke, housekeeper at the Ibis hotel and spokesperson for the movement. “We want the same employment status as the other hotel employees. We work for Ibis, it only makes sense that Ibis should hire us, doesn’t it? All we want is a decent wage, a less frenetic pace of work and a meal ticket for lunch, like normal employees.”

The strike members argue that the subcontracting system enables the various organisations to shirk their responsibilities by passing the buck to the other. The Accor group does not consider itself responsible for its subcontractors’ working conditions whilst the STN cleaning company denies any blame, claiming it is reliant on the rules dictated by Accor.

“Accommodation is the core business of a hotelier. Without housekeeping staff, you have to close the hotel,” says Claude Levy, general secretary of the CGT-affiliated HPE (prestige and budget hotels) union, who has been supporting the strikers at the Ibis hotel since the start of the action. In his view, recourse to subcontracting is not justified for tasks such as cleaning or room preparation.

“Unfortunately, this is very much common practice in the sector and it isn’t the first time that housekeeping staff have decided to fight it,” he adds.

Several strikes have been held on similar grounds over the last 20 years in France, such as the action taken at Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris) in 1998, at the Arcade cleaning company in 2002, the Astor hotel in 2005, the Concorde Lafayette hotel in 2006 or the Concorde Montparnasse hotel in 2012. These past struggles now serve as references for the housekeeping staff at Ibis Clichy-Batignolles, who were in no way prepared for such a fight.

“You don’t ask for power, you grab it!” says Kinissa. “Before going on strike, it wasn’t something I considered feasible. It’s not like that back home. For the people in my circles, it’s totally inconceivable. As an African immigrant woman coming to France, your only goal is to work to provide for your children. You’re certainly not going to be thinking about labour law. Some of the strikers among us cannot read or write, so who would expect them to fight for their rights? If overtime is not counted and they are paid €600 instead of €900, that’s already enough, for them….”

“If we don’t keep fighting, we’ve had it...”

It is thanks to their meetings with unions and the information they provided that the Ibis workers came to know that other women had fought similar battles before them and that there are similar movements abroad. Women who had never taken part in a demonstration before, started to organise, to make contact with other groups, to develop a real culture of struggle, and to make it their own. They have come up with their own songs, such as the Exploited Cleaners Anthem (a Kickstarter campaign is currently raising money to produce the video), as well as choreography to go with it, they print pamphlets, train themselves to talk to the media, etc.

They are well aware of how unequal the balance of power is with the Accor group – the six largest in the global hotel sector. With around 40 well-known brands, such as Ibis, Novotel, Mercure and Sofitel, Accor is present in 110 countries and employs more than 280,000 people worldwide. It is one of the jewels of the French economy.

The strikers knew full well that downing tools would not be enough to make the hotel giant concede, that they would have to shout and to do everything they could to make themselves seen and heard. That’s why, instead of staying at home, they decided to gather in front of the hotel every day from 9am to 3.30pm. “We tell ourselves that it’s like working. It’s not because we’re on strike that we don’t have to get up in the morning, quite the opposite! In any case, if we don’t keep fighting, we’ve had it,” says Kinissa, with an air of determination. This daily presence not only keeps them visible to the management, the hotel guests and journalists but it, above all, allows them to support each other and to keep up their spirits.

Strength in numbers is the key: when one of them starts feeling disheartened, the others are there to help and support them.

“We’ve been through so much together during this year of struggle that we have become like family, almost more than a family!” says Keke, visibly moved when she talks about her sisters in the struggle. “Before, we would come to work, we would ask after one another’s husbands and children and that was it. Now we have got to know each other, to know who’s who. Our relationship is much more than the everyday relationship between work colleagues.”

One of the housekeepers had a baby during the strike and takes him along to all the gatherings. During the demonstrations, he passes from one person’s arms to the next, as if he had not just one mother but 23. In a way, he represents the invisible bond that has been created between the strikers. Now carried like a mascot, little Aboubakar has even been nicknamed “the strike baby”.

The members of the strike are also able to rely on outside support. First and foremost, there is the union, which, in addition to contributing its experience and a human network, also provides financial support by contributing a third of the monies to the strike fund. The remaining two-thirds are financed by donations collected online or at support events. The fund was set up to compensate for the workers’ loss of income during the strike.

A symbolic battle

“Without this solidarity initiative, the struggle would be impossible to maintain,” stresses Kinissa, who has been able to earn the equivalent of her full salary during most of the strike. In addition to this vital economic support, the housekeepers also receive moral support from several collectives, particularly in feminist and anti-racism circles. Given the current social debates and challenges surrounding these issues, the plight of women of African origin has perhaps played a part in rallying support and capturing the attention of the media or politicians.

“It is true that there is something novel and symbolic about our strike movement. Maybe it can influence public opinion, but we mustn’t forget our day-to-day reality in the hotel industry, which is a miserable existence. If Accor feels it can treat us this way, it is also because we are African women. If we were white, it would be a different matter,” says Keke.

With the arrival of the Covid-19 epidemic, the strike was temporarily interrupted. “We were on the right track, but when the lockdown came, we were a little disheartened,” says Levy of the HPE union. Ibis, like the whole hotel sector, closed its doors in March 2020 as part of the containment measures and the strikers managed to have the STN cleaning company register them as partially unemployed, allowing them to receive 84 per cent of their wages. When the hotel reopened on 1 September, the housekeepers took action to mark the occasion and to resume the strike, “stronger than ever”. With the hotel sector being particularly hard hit by the health crisis, the battle of wills with the Accor group will be all the more difficult to sustain, but the strikers are determined not to back down.

“We’ve been on strike and fighting for almost 15 months, we can’t stop now. If we go back to work now, they’ll transfer us, fire us, humiliate us... It’s not an option. Covid-19 has put the brakes on our action but we are determined and we will hold out for another year if we have to,” warns Keke.