The Customer is Always Right?
Hawai’i Housekeepers / On June 16, 2011, a Kihei man received a life sentence for the March 12 unprovoked multiple stabbing of a 62-year-old hotel housekeeper who was cleaning his room at the WorldMark Resort in Kihei, Maui. According to MauiTime, the victim was left paralyzed and has had to re-learn how to speak, how to walk and how to sit up. She is no longer able to care for her elderly parents.
But it wasn’t until ex-International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on May 14 for the alleged sexual attack on a 32-year old New York City housekeeper–followed by the arrest of another international banker for a similar sexual attack–that global attention has turned to the safety of hotel housekeepers.
Here in Hawaii, where thousands of women work as hotel housekeepers throughout the islands, comparable attacks happen regularly, according to anecdotal reports. Some assaults are reported to police, but more often the housekeepers are too intimidated or ashamed to report the incidents. And hotels prefer to keep the incidents quiet for fear of upsetting guests. According to the Honolulu Police Department, no specific statistics are kept on assaults of hotel housekeepers.
Most hotel housekeepers in Waikiki clean up to 15 rooms a day, spending less than 30 minutes on each room. Hotels often reduce costs by requiring that housekeepers work alone, even at night; and housekeepers, like all hotel employees, are instructed to accept the popular, yet sometimes dangerous mantra–the customer is always right.
Gemma Weinstein, a Waikiki hotel housekeeper for 16 years and current union organizer for Unite Here Local 5 believes that men who harass and assault housekeepers are very careful about who they target. “Some of these guests, they think we are nobody because we are immigrants,” says Weinstein. “They think that since we are immigrants we must be really desperate for our jobs and afraid to make trouble, so we won’t say anything. And they know that maybe our English is not very good. So who are we going to tell?”
Monisha Das Gupta, a UH-Manoa professor and the author of the award-winning book Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Actions, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States, says, “The intersection of immigrant status, perceived language barriers and the hyper-sexual images of women, especially Asian women, that surround us all the time lead some men to think they can get away with acts of violence like this.”
In 2006, Das Gupta spent some time at one of the largest hotels in Waikiki learning about housekeepers’ work duties. “I didn’t get how housekeeping really is until I saw them working. They are in the rooms, alone and stressed out.”
Weinstein claims that it is even worse now for Waikiki housekeepers than it was when she was working as a housekeeper just a few years ago. “The hotels have just cut, cut, cut jobs over the last couple of years. Before the cuts, there were housemen who traveled the floors with us, picking up dirty linens and trash; and they would help us if we were having a problem with a guest, you know? At least there was someone around, someone on your side. Now you are all alone a lot of time and it is scary.
“When you are all by yourself up on the 10th or 20th floor inside a guest room, scrubbing tubs and running vacuums by yourself, you cannot get your job done if you are looking over your shoulder every minute,” she points out. “The guests know we are alone, they can watch you.
“We need a buzzer to carry around with us, like tellers have at banks in case of a holdup,” Weinstein adds. “If we feel threatened by a guest, it’s too hard to use the phone in their room to call for help. And housekeepers should all have the choice of [wearing] pants instead of skirts. When you go out to clean the lanai, your skirt blows all over, and sometimes the men are looking at you too much, but you have to ignore them and just keep cleaning because you want to get out of there. We should not have to clean occupied rooms, and we should be able to work in pairs at night.”
In New York, legislators have introduced bills to require sexual harassment prevention training for all hotel staff and managers, as well as to equip all hotel housekeepers with panic buttons.
Here in Hawaii, the Hale Koa Hotel, owned and operated by the US Army, is the only hotel that requires all hotel staff and management to attend extensive sexual harassment prevention training. In part, the training is a chance for the management of the hotel to speak directly to all workers about their right to be treated with dignity and respect on the job, thus reinforcing the procedure for reporting incidents.
According to Hale Koa’s Human Resources Director Peter Gary, “Sexual harassment will not be tolerated here, and the Hale Koa has done a great job in getting the word out and educating the workforce. Even one instance of sexual harassment can have devastating effects.”
Some assaults are reported to police, but more often the housekeepers are too intimidated or ashamed to report the incidents.