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23 Jun, 2011

Unions Seek Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy Disclosure by Hotel Chains

In a move that could open a Pandora’s box for the travel & tourism industry worldwide, the international union of food, farm and hotel workers (known by the French version of its acronym, IUF) has written to hotel chains asking about their policies to prevent sexual harassment of housekeeping staff by guests. In an announcement on 21 June 2011, the IUF said it would post responses on its website as they are received.

Although the Switzerland-based IUF specifically directed its inquiry at the Intercontinental, Wyndham Hotels, Marriott, Hilton, Accor, Hyatt,  Rezidor, Starwood, Carlson Hotels, and Melia hotel chains, the move could put the entire travel industry in the dock, given the widespread and pervasive presence of sexual harassment across the travel, transport and tourism industry worldwide, not just hotel chains.

An industry that has been thus far focussed on bottom-line financial issues, climate change and security has now got a more grassroots issue on its agenda. For the many who have been victims of sexual harassment, by both guests and other staff members, it could mean a significant change in the balance of power. If whistleblowers emerge and lawsuits follow, the entire industry could have some heavy-duty crisis management issues to deal with.

The IUF said its letter to the chains was motivated by the “the recent highly publicized events at the Sofitel New York,” a reference to the arrest of former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and designed “to highlight the vulnerable situation of hotel housekeepers.”

“These predominantly women and migrant workers are often employed on precarious contracts and routinely face indecent exposure and other indignities from male guests. Often they are too scared to speak out when harassment occurs for fear of losing their jobs as a result. The risk of sexual assault and harassment by hotel guests must be treated as a workplace hazard and appropriate steps taken to protect workers.”

The IUF letter said, “To assess their approach on this issue we have asked hotel operators for responses to the following questions:

• Do you have an anti-sexual harassment policy in place for your hotels?

• If yes, are guests made aware of this policy, and informed that harassment of staff will not be tolerated?

• Is there a sexual harassment awareness training program in place for staff?

• What procedures are in place to support a member of staff reporting harassment?

To facilitate the transposition of policy into practice, the IUF said it will publish these responses as they become available. It said, “We also encourage unions to integrate the necessary programs and procedures into their collective bargaining with employers in the sector.”

According to the IUF, “While sexual assault is uncommon, housekeepers’ stories reveal a pervasive pattern of harassment and unsafe working conditions for the women-predominantly immigrants-who work in the industry. Too often, hotels have been complicit in the culture of silence around this issue, telling housekeepers that the guest is always right. Now women are standing together to say through their unions: we have the right to a safe and secure workplace.”

It noted that on the day of Strauss-Kahn’s arraignment, uniformed New York housekeepers showed up in droves to show their solidarity with their sister union member at the Sofitel Hotel. On June 2, hotel housekeepers in Toronto, Chicago, San Antonio, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Los Angeles held coordinated speak-outs to end the silence on the range of abuses they experience on the job. The housekeepers courageously shared their stories of sexual harassment, workplace injuries, and debilitating workloads, and called on the hotel industry to listen to their concerns and end the abuses.

“Standing together, housekeepers are also demonstrating that a union is a powerful tool for workers when harassment and other hazards occur. In New York and elsewhere, many safety measures are already in place for union hotel workers, who know they can report incidents to their superiors without the fear of reprisal.”

The IUF is recommending a number of common sense preventative measures to help them feel safer, such as increased security staff, working in teams, and replacing the traditional dress uniform with a pants and tunic uniform. In addition, the union supports the legislation recently introduced in the New York State legislature to provide panic buttons to employees to use in case of emergency.

Travel Impact Newswire will be following this issue closely as it develops. Readers comments are welcome.

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