Hotel cleaners, who have united as 'Las Kellys' (a name taken from 'las que limpian' - the women who clean), have just received a boost they had never imagined. A recent meeting with prime minister Mariano Rajoy marked a turning point in their fight for decent working conditions and for the outsourcing of this service to be brought to an end, because some cleaners without contracts earn less than two euros to prepare a room for a hotel guest. There is also no recognition of the health problems associated with having to prepare a room against the clock, because there are so many to do in one day. “We are the slaves of the 21st century; people think we must be ignorant because we work as cleaners,” says the president of the Malaga branch of 'Kellys Union', Trinidad Jiménez, who is pleased that the meeting with Rajoy has given them “greater visibility”. She is now confident that “hotel owners will realise this is not a joke; we are not going to stop until our problems are resolved”. Jiménez talks about the everyday life of room cleaners, upon whom the hotels rely. There is still a long way to go, she says, but they are more determined than ever.
What is your working day like?
I started working in the early 1990s at the Palmasol hotel, then I worked at others and in recent years I have been at the Don Pedro, on a permanent contract. Our working conditions include meals, holidays and three extra payments. We are employed directly by the hotel, so we have rights, not like the colleagues who do the same work but in hotels which outsource their room cleaning service. The only thing we have in common with them is that our workloads are still not regulated. That is the problem; you have to do everything at top speed because all the rooms have to be perfect. That has an effect on your work and stress levels. Nor is it recognised that there are health problems associated with this work. I have had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, I have two lumbar hernias, three dorsals and two cervicals, as well as lumbago and fibromyalgia, but the work inspectors tell me I'll just have to get used to living with the pain. Well, ok, living with it is one thing, but working with it is another.
But are you working at the moment, even with those problems?
Of course. It's difficult to get time off sick. For Social Security we're just a number. If you have lumbago you should be entitled to some days off work but not in our job, whether you are 20 years old or 54, like me. It is important that these health problems are recognised as being associated with the work. That's what our colleagues told Rajoy at the meeting. We also want our workload to be regulated, article 42, which permits outsourcing, to be cancelled, and a lower retirement age.
Even so, is the situation for cleaners employed by a hotel very different to that of those who come from outside?
It is totally different. Nobody controls the workload of women who are contracted through outside agencies. Their working day is supposed to be four hours but they have to work twice that to get all the rooms done. And they are paid minimum salaries, which work out at less than two euros per room. They earn less than half the salary of a cleaner employed by a hotel, who has a contract and agreed working conditions. We take home around 600 or 700 euros a month, as well as having holidays and extra payments. Recently there was a cleaner who had an accident in a room in a hotel in Madrid and it turned out she had been given a contract as an office cleaner. How do they explain that? This is a lawless situation.
And you must have more contact with clients than most hotel staff...
We are the most important department of a hotel, because it is a business that sells rooms and if the rooms aren't perfect there is no business. That's why it makes no sense to outsource this service, because, also, we like what we do, so we work very hard. If we didn't like it we couldn't do it. We often talk to the clients, we get to know them a little and they like to have a bit of a chat. Sometimes, by being friendly, we can cheer them up if they have had a troublesome journey. That's why we don't understand why the hotels outsource this fundamental service.
What is the situation like in hotels on the Costa del Sol?
The Costa isn't bad. The worst situation is in Malaga city or inland, where hotels have always outsourced this service. We are preparing a survey to obtain more information. Sometimes, when we have made official complaints, we have succeeded in getting hotels to employ their room cleaners directly, but it is very hard work for us and for the unions, because this is like a war. We started the Kellys Union association in January last year, although the Facebook group began in 2015. There is still a great deal to do.
How has the meeting with Rajoy helped your fight?
It has made us more visible because our problems have been reported by the media, because I don't think the government works in such a way that just telling Rajoy about your problems means he will sort them out overnight. That isn't how things work. He said he hadn't been aware of the problems but now they have been brought to his attention. Well, at least that's something, so when an MP says they want to change the law he knows that we were there and we have told him what is happening, so let's see if he will vote to support us. So far they have turned down our different proposals. Nor do I believe that after having created a labour reform that permitted this to happen, he is now going to vote in favour of us, but I never lose hope.
Two room cleaners from Malaga went to Madrid to support the five colleagues who had the meeting with Rajoy. What was that like?
People went from all the provinces to support the five who met the prime minister. They were pleased because they could see that there was interest among the media, and that means that the whole of Spain knows about our serious problems. We are now at a point where, as my colleague says, we are the slaves of the 21st century. This is slave labour.
Is that what it feels like?
Yes, exactly that. We are slaves in the 21st century. They treat us badly because they think we must be illiterate, as we clean for a living, when in fact most of us have a good education. A lot of women started working early so they didn't have the time to train for anything else, but others, like me, went on to study. Some are even qualified in Tourism. We are not ignorant and people shouldn't treat us as if we were. We do this because there are no decent jobs available. This is the employment situation in Spain. We have to adapt to that. We are important to the hotels. What would they do without cleaners? They sell rooms and those rooms have to be clean, and the way we treat the clients is very important. We are good ambassadors for the hotels. They should remember that. This isn't a joke. We are going to continue fighting for our rights.