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At Your Service? Migrant Women Workers in the UK Hospitality Sector

‘Migrant worker’. If you close your eyes and let the mainstream media and Ukip-stoked tropes of the last decade wash over you, you’ll probably be seeing an eastern European builder or fruit picker. They might be wearing hi-vis. And they will probably be a man.

In reality, the majority of migrant workers in the UK are women, comprising 54% of the UK migrant workforce. The most common industries for women migrant workers to be employed in are the cleaning and hospitality sectors, as well as elementary process plant occupations – warehouse picking and packing and food processing.

Poland, India and Pakistan are the main three foreign countries of birth for all migrants in the UK, accounting respectively for 9.5%, 9.0% and 5.9% of the UK’s foreign born population. London has the highest percentage of resident migrants, with 36% of its population born outside of the UK.

The London hospitality sector runs on 78% migrant workers’ labour, of which women make up 70%, mainly in front of house and cleaning roles. It also has the highest representation of black and minority ethnic workers – nearly twice the national average at 14% according to the UK Tourist Alliance.

The hospitality industry fits the bill of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ for ‘illegal’ as well as ‘legal’ immigrants. With Brexit, the number of people needing work permits could rise by millions, creating new loopholes for employers to exploit in their race to the bottom. The 2016 Immigration Act now holds not just employers but workers criminally liable, with illegal working punishable by imprisonment.

Undocumented women workers are the most vulnerable to racial, sexual and other forms of harassment and discrimination because they can often be dealing with multiple bosses. These bosses can include their immediate one (and in our experience at the Unite Hotel Workers Branch, these are often other women managers), a partner which they may be reliant upon for housing, a spouse-related work visa or joint financial security, with the state as ultimate boss, patrolling workplaces and streets via UKBA officers, enticing business owners to conduct entrapment raids (as was the case with Byron Burger last summer) or obstructing access to trade unions and legal justice through legally repressing collective bargaining and charging fees for cases to be heard at tribunals.

Lose your job – either through a raid, another worker competing with you, or for simply standing up for yourself? You could not only lose your home, but fail to find another one now the Immigration Act has turned landlords and estate agents into passport control, meaning renting is even harder and more open to exploitation than ever before.

Eligible for housing benefit or other welfare? Both EEA, EU and other nationals can find they have ‘no recourse to public funds’, a situation which drastically weakens women’s agency to leave violent partners as Sisters Uncut have shown through their ‘How can she leave if there’s nowhere to go?’ campaign.

End up on the streets? You could wind up in a detention centre. Charities such as St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and CGL have teamed up with the Home Office to detain and deport EU nationals and others found sleeping rough.

The constraints and oppressive conditions that working class migrant women face in terms of their stability and ability to survive outside the workplace enforce and intensify the workplace as a key site of social reproduction.

Conformism, compliance and self-censorship in the atomised, casualised workplace occurs because of the isolation migrant women workers often face outside of it. If anything, hospitality can intensify racist and sexist power dynamics precisely because of the contrast between the daily performance of pliant service in luxury surroundings with, behind closed doors, a punishing and impoverishing work regime.

The contradiction within hospitality as an industry using skilled but unrecognised emotional labour is stark. Workers are selling the experience of attention, care, support and guesting 24 hours a day. A temporary home is created and performed for people by people who are themselves far from home, and one pay cheque or potential immigration raid away from homelessness. Women are expected to perform the cultural role implicit in the workplace role of ‘housekeeper’, ‘maid’, ‘server’, interpreted by turns as mother or sex object to nurture or glamourise the guest experience.

There are room attendants forced to wear uniforms of tights, dresses and pinafores despite cleaning 16 bedrooms and toilets a day; attendants and supervisors dismissed in favour of new white eastern European workers; waitresses handed razors on their first day at work and told to shave their legs; dress codes of heavy makeup, hairlessness and skimpy clothing which are essentially discriminatory, particularly to women of colour; male supervisors groping whoever they want in the changing room or linen cupboard; rape alarms in pockets reminding workers of their vulnerability to guest harassment.

One waitress at a recent branch meeting said: “I wouldn’t even know where to start in raising a grievance about sexism in my workplace. It’s constant. It’s every moment. One manager threatened to grab a waitress’s boob last night if she didn’t fetch a dish quick enough.” A receptionist shared: “I have phone numbers thrown at me all the time. I’ve had colleagues press themselves against me, grab me from behind, comment on my lipstick. As a consequence I don’t speak to some of them anymore and despite me telling them why, they just don’t get it.”

The hospitality industry consciously makes workplaces hostile environments for trade unions, with some chains refusing to recognise unions in the UK – Spain’s Meliá Hotels being a case in point. Hotels also use sophisticated human resource management techniques including coerced unpaid overtime and piecework, leading to minimum wage violations.

Forced labour as defined by ILO Convention 29 of 1930 is ‘all work or service that is not voluntary and is exacted under the menace of penalty.’ Within the UK it is a criminal offence pursuant to Section 7 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009; however, there is no legally agreed definition of exploitation. It is arguable that the hostile environment facing working class migrant women both inside and outside the workplace – particularly and ironically in hospitality – could re-characterise this sector not as one of service, but of servitude, where refusal is not an option.

Migrant women workers therefore face multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, which can only be challenged by social movement (not sectional) workplace-only organising. Oppressive conditions do not start and end in the workplace, even if the workplace is a key site of their enforcement and reproduction – the work of veteran US community and union organiser Jane McAlevey is particularly inspiring on this front. Community based organising, rights advice and support, rank and privilege awareness and relinquishment on the part of those occupying positions of social and structural power, customer, media and authority-holder leverage, and disruptive direct action all need to come into the organising mix.

Social movement orientated organising and coalition-building is being exemplified by unions and groups like the Unite Hotel and Restaurant Workers branches, United Voices of the World, the IWGB, Latin American Workers Association, the IWW, Anti-Raids Network, SOAS Detainee Support, UK Black Lives Matter, Movement for Justice, Kalayaan, Sisters Uncut, Radical Housing Network and many others. Key to all change for migrant women workers, however, is the agency and self-determination of these workers themselves.

Published 10th March 2017

This work by Novara Media is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

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