Exploitation of workers at top hotels
By Andrew Bomford
July 31, 2009
A BBC investigation has uncovered evidence of exploitation of migrant workers at some of London's leading hotels.
Examination of the time sheets and pay slips of 12 room attendants working for a contract cleaning company at hotels in the Park Plaza chain reveal that they have regularly been paid below the 5.73 per hour minimum adult wage.
And two undercover reporters, whom the BBC sent to work as room attendants at the Park Plaza County Hall Hotel and Park Plaza Riverbank, were only paid for about half the number of hours that they actually worked.
The room attendants at the centre of the investigation by Newsnight and Radio 4's PM programme are all from Poland.
Use of migrant labour is widespread in the UK hotel industry, which is well known for demanding long hours in return for low pay.
Polish workers, together with workers from most eastern European countries, have the same legal rights and protection in the UK as any British worker.
However, foreign workers are often unaware of their rights and lack English language skills, making them easy victims for exploitation.
The 12 workers whose pay the BBC examined asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs.
They are all employed by Hotelcare, a leading contract cleaning agency responsible for 30,000 rooms a day at 150 hotels around the country.
The company employs around 2,000 workers and has won lucrative contracts to clean rooms at many popular hotel chains.
Park Plaza Hotels have told the BBC that it takes the allegations “very seriously” and that they have launched an internal investigation.
Hotelcare also said it was investigating the allegations.
Examples which the BBC uncovered include one worker who is underpaid by 113 over a two week period, and another who is underpaid by 69.
The agency pays the room attendants not according to the hours they work, but the number of rooms they clean within the working day.
This has led to them being underpaid, and, it is claimed, some rooms not being cleaned properly:
“I was appalled at what I experienced,” Basia Mowiska, a 24-year-old Polish woman who previously worked as a room attendant at two hotels run by the Park Plaza group, told the BBC.
“The supervisors treated us like cattle. Often there were no cleaning products and we had to use whatever came to hand, like shampoos or shower gels for the guest rooms. We were often in tears when we were cleaning the rooms, but we had to grit our teeth. We had to work. We had families to support.”
Breaking the law
The BBC sent two undercover reporters to work for Hotelcare in order to investigate claims the law was being broken.
They used secret filming equipment while they worked as room attendants at the luxury Park Plaza County Hall Hotel and Park Plaza Riverbank, which are located across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament.
In one secretly recorded conversation during registration for a job, the reporter is told by a Hotelcare representative she will be paid the minimum wage. However, there is a catch:
“You'll get 5.73 per hour,” she is told. “But you have to clean two and a half rooms per hour. If you don't, you don't get that.”
The reporter asks, “So if I clean less than two and a half rooms I receive less money?”
The Hotelcare representative's response is a nod of the head.
The productivity rate is the device Hotelcare uses to justify payments below minimum wage.
However, two employment lawyers have told the BBC that it is against the law to pay less than minimum wage and that the company's attempt to link the pay to a productivity rate would not stand up in court, because the employer sets the hours and tasks.
“The employer is entitled to set a productivity rate, like a number of rooms per hour, but they can't pay them less than 5.73,” Rakesh Patel, from the law firm Thompsons, said. “If they don't seem to be working hard enough, it becomes a disciplinary matter.”
When one of our reporters received her first pay-slip she found that she had been paid for only 22.9 hours, even though the time sheets and the filming evidence showed she had worked 44 hours that week.
Her pay was 131.27 when it should have been 252.12.
She is also seen on film with a colleague who is visibly upset when she discovers that she has been paid only 149 for a work week of approximately the same length.
The reporter complained to her boss, Hotelcare Area Manager Iwona Pirog, who was secretly recorded appearing to blame staff from Park Plaza County Hall hotel for the underpayment.
“I only have what the hotel sent me,” Ms Pirog claimed, “I don't have access to the time sheets. You have been paid according to the documents the hotel has sent me.”
However, the BBC has seen copies of detailed documents sent from another Park Plaza hotel to Hotelcare each week detailing the actual hours each room attendant worked and the numbers of rooms they cleaned.
This information is designed so that Hotelcare can bill the hotel for its services, and calculate pay for each worker.
And, as our undercover reporters found, this is tough, physical work.
The room attendants work for around eight hours a day, starting at around 0800, and often do not take meal breaks. They are entitled to a half hour break, but are not paid for the time.
They work at least five or six days a week, and experienced workers are expected to clean up to 16 rooms a day, sometimes more.
Training is compulsory, but is expected to be carried out in the employees' own time, or on days off, as they are not paid for the time spent training.
The room attendants took their concerns to London Citizens, a community group working to improve pay and conditions for low paid workers in the capital.
The organisation has previously had success in raising wage levels for cleaners working in the banking sector, and introduced the concept of a “living wage” which is now supported by the London Mayor Boris Johnson.
The living wage is currently set at 7.60 per hour.
According to London Citizens, the British Hospitality Association, representing hotels and restaurants, has refused to discuss the idea of introducing a living wage into the hotel sector.
“It's a low paid job with low status, so you can only expect migrants to do the job and this makes them very vulnerable,” said Marzena Cichon from London Citizens.
“Agencies know these people lack the language skills, they know that these people don't know the law, and they know they don't know what their rights are in this country. They don't know who to turn to for help.”
Pat McFadden, the Business Minister, has promised to investigate the BBC's allegations, saying:
“We know that there will be a minority of employers out there who will try to get around the law and perhaps that temptation increases in a recession, but we are determined that the recession must not be an excuse for people to be denied their basic employment rights.”
Watch Newsnight's report in full on Thursday 30 July at 10.30pm on BBC Two.