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– The team at Les Glorieuses
August 29, 2021
Reading time : 6 minutes
‘You must pay!’: The cleaners who took on the hotel industry – and won
By Megan Clement
As David and Goliath battles go, they don’t get more lopsided than this: 20 hotel cleaners against the hospitality giants of Europe. And yet, after eight months on strike, fourteen months of industrial action while on partial unemployment, and one pandemic, it was the cleaners who came out on top in their fight for better working conditions at one of Paris’s largest hotels, the Ibis Batignolles.
On May 25, 2021, those 20 workers celebrated their new victory outside the hotel in the north of the French capital, singing, dancing and hugging each other, shouting: “We won! We won!” Their long months of struggle had gained them a pay increase of hundreds of euros a month, permanent contracts, the right to a daily break, work uniforms and a reduction in the number of rooms they must clean per hour.
And their movement shone a rare light on one of the least visible sections of French society: working class women of colour in precarious employment.
The Ibis Batignolles is owned by AccorInvest, a real estate subsidiary of Accor, the multinational giant that dominates the hotel market in France and worldwide. But the people who clean its 688 rooms are not employed by AccorInvest or by Accor. Instead, they work for a subcontractor, STN, which provides the cleaning services at the hotel. One of the cleaners’ unmet demands was to be brought on as salaried employees with the Accor group.
A representative of Accor said via email that the multinational did not own the Ibis Batignolles and was not party to the agreement with the cleaning
staff, declining to comment further. The hotel is listed on the Accor website and uses an accor.com email address. STN did not respond to a request for comment.
Before the strike, STN paid cleaners by the room, not by the hour, says Rachel Keke, a cleaning supervisor at the hotel and spokesperson for the striking workers. This meant that the significant time spent loading cleaning carts, moving between rooms and changing into protective clothing were not accounted for, and cleaners were paid the same whether a room was relatively clean or had been completely overturned by departing guests. All this took a significant toll on the workers.
Heloísa Marques for Impact x Les Glorieuses
Keke says the breaking point for the cleaners came when their bodies themselves began to break. “This is a job that makes you sick,” she says, “one that damages a woman’s body. It’s a job that can give you tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, a blocked disc in your back.”
By the time they decided to go on strike, 13 of the cleaners had been ordered by their workplace doctor to cut the number of rooms they cleaned in a day from as many as 60 to 12, Keke says. In response, she says STN tried to transfer those workers to another hotel and replace them with new cleaners who could do at least 30 rooms a day.
“We said to ourselves: we’ve been here for years, we can’t let this happen,” Keke says.
The cleaners approached the CGT-HPE, a union that represents hotel workers in France, to represent them in their dispute. And on July 17, 2019 – a day Keke says she will never forget – 34 members of the Ibis Batignolles cleaning staff arrived at work, then walked off the job.
For eight months, the women picketed the front of the hotel, in summer heat and through winter snow. To keep their spirits up, they banged pots, danced and sang. Their chant, “Scrub! Scrub! You must pay!” was turned into a song by Keke’s husband, a musician.
Keke says hotel guests made their displeasure at the striking cleaners known by pelting them with rubbish from their rooms. “They threw cans, apples, coffees, newspapers at us because we made too much noise,” she says, laughing.
But she is not one to be told to shut up.
“We don’t have to be silent because we’re women, because we’re mothers of families,” she says. “We also have the right to speak, to say no, that’s enough.”
Over the months, the cold, fatigue and pitched opposition took their toll, and by the end of the campaign, 14 colleagues had dropped out. The workers who remained were buoyed by a common fund organised by the union and the solidarity of fellow travellers in the anti-racist and feminist movements.
The Ibis Batignolles cleaners are dedicated supporters of the family of Adama Traore, a 24-year-old Black man who died in police custody in 2016, and their demands for justice. CGT-HPE organiser Tiziri Kandi, who has been involved in the strike since the start, says these links formed naturally between the striking workers and the anti-racist movement.
“These women also come from the working classes. They live in the Paris banlieue and their children are also exposed to police violence,” Kandi says.
“The problems of cleaners in France are problems of French society. When we talk about a lack of consideration, bullying and sexism in the workplace, we have to give these problems visibility so that the whole of society takes notice, so that the whole of society can be offended. Because it is offensive.”
It wasn’t listed in the agreement with their employers, but Keke says visibility is one of the hardest-won assets from the struggle. She wants her colleagues and their work to be acknowledged as a vital part of French life.
Take, she says, Emmanuel Macron: “Everyone knows he’s French, everyone knows he’s the President of France. Our profession should be like that. Why? Because we participate significantly in the French economy. When people come to see the Eiffel Tower, where do they sleep? It’s in these hotels.”
But even more than giving them their due respect for the role they play in tourism in the world’s most-visited country, Keke says visibility keeps her co-workers safe. She says women have been raped while at work and otherwise taken advantage of because people know that a hotel cleaner has few other options. The majority of her colleagues, she says, don’t know how to read and write. Visibility, for these women, is power.
Keke has not yet returned to the Ibis Batignolles. As the pandemic drags on, many cleaners are still on partial unemployment as hotels operate at reduced capacity. But, she says, these payments have increased thanks to the new agreement, and those who have gone back to work are happy with their new contracts, boosted wages, new meal allowances and the end of the room-by-room payment system.
“We had the union, but we also put our own strength into play,” Keke says. “We’ll fight the biggest bosses for our rights.”
“When women are determined, we go all the way.”
– Megan Clement is a freelance journalist in Paris, and the editor of IMPACT by Les Glorieuses.
– Heloísa Marques is a visual artist whose principal mediums are embroidery and collage.
This issue of IMPACT was prepared by Heloísa Marques, Megan Clement, Rebecca Amsellem and Steph Williamson from the team at Les Glorieuses.
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