In the framework of the preparations for the international campaign on housekeepers’ conditions of work to be promoted by Rel-UITA, I recently visited Playa de Palma, Mallorca, to interview women workers in this sector.
I contacted them through the CC.OO and the UGT. Playa de Palma is one of the principal sun and sea destinations in the Mediterranean. The hotels, which in the high season accommodate thousands of European tourists, especially Germans, line up one after the other for miles. The concentration of workers is also very high.
“I’m worn out”
In the accounts of housekeepers’ work, they complain most of all about their workload: they clean 18 to 24 rooms a day, although there are hotels where the number is even higher. They also look after the public areas, the common areas used by the guests.
Dolores Ayas, 57, works for one of the principal hotel chains in the Balearics. She says, “the hardest thing is moving the wooden beds, which are very heavy. There are 50 beds every day. And the mattresses also weigh a ton. There are days when I am worn out”.
Another worker, Soledad Castro, who cleans 24 rooms a day, describes her work as “unbearable”.
Not all the rooms involve the same dedication: when guests leave, more thorough work is needed. And as tourists stay for fewer and fewer days, this happens more and more often.
“Every day we have four or five departures, and no one is stopping it”, says Isabel Moreno, housekeeper for 22 years.
Angelina Alfaro, with over 30 years in the job, explains “The time is all measured: 30 minutes for a departure and 10 minutes for a normal room. But if one day you have to do more than four departures, the company’s schedule does not allow for this”.
In fact, the intensity with which you have to work is another problem for housekeeping staff.
More work less staff
Emilia Ortega explains that “the pace of work is very intensive, excessive, we are always racing against the clock”.
The time you have to clean the rooms is very short, taking advantage of when the tourist goes out: “We have four or five hours to do 20 rooms” explains Isabel Moreno.
With a bigger team there would be no need to force the housekeepers’ pace of work, complains Pepi Lora: “Where they need 20 housekeepers, there are now 14 or 15”.
Soledad Castro also expresses the state of discomfort caused by these conditions: “When in the morning they give you the job sheet, you bang your head against the wall. It causes lots of frustration when you can’t do your work well. And this causes a lot of tension”.
Thus, the hard nature of the work and the conditions in which it is carried out have a considerable impact on the women’s health .
Repetitive strain and stress
“We are overloaded, we have a huge workload, and the body pays the price”, echoes Angelina Alfaro.
On the one hand, there are disorders derived from repetition of the same movements with heavy loads, which causes various injuries to the shoulder, neck and arms. And on the other is the situation of stress and psychological disturbance.
The consequence is that practically all the housekeepers end up by taking medication to cope with the work.
“We are knackered and work every day with the help of pills. I take pills for rheumatism, anti-inflammatories and also for my heart, because I am very stressed”, says Dolores Ayas bluntly.
Medicaments, a second skin
Isabel Moreno says much the same: “We all carry medication. I take espidifen for pain relief and other pills for anxiety. In the morning, I get up and take my pills. It’s because your body hurts. Then I take the pills and that’s how you cope with it”.
This resort to medication is also mentioned by María González, who after 16 years as a housekeeper tells how she has already had two operations in the lumbar zone and another in the carpal tunnel.
“The doctors told me that I am addicted to medication, because I have to take it in the morning, at midday and at night, every day. They even gave me morphine patches. At 7 in the morning I take a pill because my whole body hurts”, she says.
The basic problem has to do with a tourist management model in which labour costs are increasingly lowered.
That is what Dolores Ayas claims: “When we started, the work was easier, but now the pace has increased. Managers want more and more. They set the money they must earn in a year and anything below that is a loss. I see full hotels and they say there are always losses, and they always demand something more”.
Responsible tourism cannot be just another tourist product. It starts here, at the most basic level, in the working conditions of workers in the sector.
(Note:The full testimonies of the housekeepers are being published on the Rel-UITA website).