Over the past twenty years there has been a rapid increase in the amount of work outsourced to agencies and third party subcontractors within the housekeeping departments in major hotels. Almost every hotel in London will have a sizeable proportion of its housekeepers, room attendants and linen porters employed by a third party. In many cases the entire department will have been outsourced.
Most of these outsourced workers will be migrant workers and because they work back of house and are not customer facing many will have little or no spoken English. They will be paid minimum wage, with supervisors on a slightly higher rate. They will invariably be on zero hour contracts with hours provided each week largely dependent on the day to day room occupancy levels in the hotel in which they are based in.
The contracts awarded to the third-party housekeeping contractors are predominantly based on a business model which requires them to invoice the hotel for the number of rooms cleaned per day, rather than the number of staff employed and the number of hours worked. This is a hangover from previous official guidance which suggested the hotels could use the piece work regulations within the Minimum Wage act to pay workers based on the number of rooms cleaned rather than hours worked. This became quite widespread. However, following numerous representations from Unite the Union to the Low Pay Commission the guidance was withdrawn and legally housekeeping staff must now be paid by the hour. However, major hotel chains have retained the business model and usually award contracts to the lowest bid for cost per room.
These circumstances create a perfect storm of exploitation, underpayment and non-payment for housekeeping staff, with constant pressure on them to increase productivity and the small number of service suppliers who attempt to work ethically being constantly undercut.
Some the sharp practices we come across regularly include not paying staff for time spent on hotel premises but unable to start cleaning rooms due to delayed check-outs, holding back the first week’s pay on the grounds that these are training days and illegally getting workers to sign an agreement stating this will be withheld if the worker leaves within the first 3 months, making regular and frequent wage errors, not being paid for all hours work which frustrates staff to the point they simply leave without these ever having been resolved.
Short term relationships
The contracts issued to housekeeping service providers usually have no longer than a 2 year lifespan. This means that the contracts are frequently and regularly changing hands. The transfer process rarely, if ever, work in the favour of the housekeeping staff and consistently leaves them out of pocket.
The TUPE transfer regulations require both the outgoing and incoming employer to consult both individually and collectively. However, because the majority of workers have English as a second language, are generally unaware of their rights and rarely if ever have any form of organisation or elected representation in place the consultation is effectively little more than a tick box exercise by both employers and something which the hotel itself would only ever engage in if its own directly employed workers were about to be sub contracted.
The consultation usually consists of one employer saying ‘I’ve lost the contract – but don’t worry everything will stay the same once I’m gone’. And the new employer saying ‘I’ve won the contract – but don’t worry nothing will change once I come in’. This never turns out to be the truth.
Collective consultation via reps elected specifically for the purpose does not happen in the main, or where the employer offers this the staff do not understand what they are being asked to engage in. Where collective consultation is not afforded, workers can claim compensation of up to 13 week’s pay in what’s called a protective award. Unite has successfully pursued protective awards in the housekeeping sector. But usually the failure to collective consult goes unnoticed and we are often approached by workers 4 or 5 month into a new contract when it is then too late to act.
Transferring the Liability
Under the TUPE regulations any outstanding liabilities including, ongoing tribunal claims or awards made and unpaid generally, transfer over to the incoming contractor. In the run up to the transfer date it is common for the outgoing contactor to do all they can to ensure as much as possible of the liability for monies owed to workers becomes the liability of the incoming contactor. This will include not rectifying wage errors or unpaid hours, refusing accrued holidays (particularly if the end of the holiday year is approaching around the time of the transfer), deliberately dragging out any settlement negotiations on legal claims, withholding money for training days etc.
Once the liability transfers over to the new contractor the employees are likely to be faced with an argument from their new employer that none of these liabilities were revealed by the old employer as part of the due diligence process. This usually ends up in further delays, with both the old and new contractor essentially banking on workers reaching the point where they just give up on money rightfully owed to them.
Instigating a head count reduction
The incoming contractor will have put in a lower bid than the outgoing contractor. Margins will be tight, so if they can get fewer workers to clean more rooms they will be able to profit from the invoice by room arrangement.
Laying people off or making them redundant could be time consuming and costly. So the employer usually instigates a series of measures clearly designed to encourage people to leave. This is linked to staff having such low incomes that any small variation in pay can have huge implications in terms of rent, fares, food costs etc.
So, there will be a payroll issue whereby, immediately after the transfer, a large number of staff find themselves on emergency tax codes, temporarily reducing their take home pay. They will find they are sent home regularly under the guise of low hotel occupancy. Pay errors will increase and hours will be ‘mistakenly’ unpaid.
If things don’t look like getting sorted out quickly workers leave in order to take up low paid work elsewhere just to pay the rent. In our experience 50% or more of staff can leave in the first few weeks following a transfer. This doesn’t only allow the new employer to reduce headcount at no cost it also usually mean that any liabilities for money owed by both the new and old employer get written off by the worker as a bad experience.
Ignorance is bliss (for some)
In theory, the TUPE regulations also protect items not specifically written into a workers’ contacts but considered an implied term through custom and practice. Here again housekeeping workers constantly find their rights undermined by the very nature of their employment.
The outgoing contactor may have had a daily productivity requirement of 16 rooms in an 8 hour shift. The incoming employer increases this to 20 rooms. The workers are losing because they are now cleaning more rooms to earn minimum wage. The incoming employer argues that productivity targets are not contractual, if workers put in a grievance this is endlessly dragged out, workers get frustrated and leave, new workers are recruited on the 20 room arrangement.
There may have been an arrangement with the old employer to pay a sum for extra rooms cleaned, but because the invoice for room arrangement it may only appear on the old pay slips as a payment for extra hours, so another unresolvable argument ensues. The new productivity may impact on the ability of workers to take their customary break – so what was once an unpaid half hour meal break and two unpaid 15 minute break may convert as much as an extra hour of unpaid work. Whenever any of this is raised with the hotel themselves they will invariably play ignorant and lay the blame firmly at the door of the contactors without offering any intervention whatsoever.
Generally workers end up out of pocket.
The TUPE transfer regulations are an important piece of worker protection. As they are based on a European Directive they could easily be under threat post Brexit. However, as with any form of legislation workers find it difficult to enforce these rights where they are not underpinned by collective bargaining and union representation in the workplace. There are 5 major hotel chains who are signatories to the United Nations Global Compact and one which is a foundation member of the Ethical Trading Initiative. They are supposed to respect and encourage the rights of their workers to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining.
All of these hotel chains are engaged in outsourcing their housekeeping departments. They are also supposed to ensure sub contacted service providers afford the same respect and encouragement, allowing workers to engage in collective bargaining.
They do in almost every other major city in the world.
They do not in London and the rest of the UK. They collude and engage in union avoidance tactics to maintain a union free environment within hospitality. This in turns creates the climate where the wholly unethical practices described here can fester and grow and where workers regularly do not receive wages and payments rightfully due to them.