Since July 17, 2019, the maids and housekeepers of the Ibis Batignolles Hotel (Accord Group) in Paris are on strike. In this conversation recorded on December 1, 2020 by our own Amel Hadj Hassen, two spokespersons of the movement, Sylvie Kimissa and Rachel Kéké Raissa, describe their daily life at work, the various layers of exploitation they encounter and the effects on their bodies, as well as their political organizing of this past year and a half.
ALL PHOTOS BY LOUISE ROCABERT
AMEL HADJ-HASSEN: Thank you for accepting to answer our questions Sylvie and Rachel. This issue of The Funambulist is dedicated to space and labor. Could you tell us about your working days, how do you go about it, and what does your work consist of?
SYLVIE KIMISSA: I am a maid at the Hotel Ibis Batignolles in Paris. We start work at 8.30am every morning. To get there I’ll first take the bus, then the suburban train, and then the metro because the hotel is inside Paris. This journey takes over an hour from home. When we arrive, the first thing we do is change into our work clothes at the locker room in the third basement. Then we take the elevator upstairs to our offices on the 8th floor. This is where we sign the sheets we are given for our schedules.
What are schedules? They consist of a list of rooms that we need to clean. For example, if I have a six-hour contract, I must do 21 rooms because I am paid by the room, and not by the hour. The hours are calculated in relation to the number of rooms. So, in a six-hour contract with 21 rooms to clean means I will have to do three and a half rooms an hour. There are also two types of rooms: those where a client has departed and those where the same client will sleep again.
When a client leaves, it will involve putting the “departee room” back to the condition of the new room, renewing it for another client. It must be cleaned well, and you will have to watch out for spiders because we don’t know how long the client spent in their room. We call rooms that are still rented by the client “returnee rooms.” These rooms need to be serviced while the customer’s luggage is still inside.
So in these two scenarios, it does not take the same amount of time to clean a room. With returnee rooms, I assume that the client will return to their bed, so I straighten up the bedroom, the bathroom, and replace dirty towels with clean ones. It’s not at all the same compared to departee rooms, where I have to remove the sheets, towels, change the pillows, and check to see if he has not left hair on the bed. So you really have to look closely from side-to-side, corners, even underneath the mattress. There’s a lot of work getting the departee bedroom done, and out of 21 rooms, there’s the possibility that all of them are departees.
We use the same technique for all rooms. But some clients are maniacs though. They’d come into the room, put down their bags, start to play Lieutenant Columbo, inspect everything, check the mattress, lift the sheets, and when they notice something as small as a little hair, they will call reception to complain. Some clients are not so honest. They will find a little flaw and then refuse to pay for the room, or they do it to piss off the maid. Yes, that’s what our job looks like. Normally I finish work at 3-3.30pm, but when you have too many departees, I might stay till 6pm without being paid extra time. After you finish, you go up to the office, sign a piece of paper recording the amount of rooms you have done. They will give you the payment for the time that you have finished, then you go downstairs, change, and go home. This is our daily work, five days a week.
The work is so repetitive that after two, three or four years, we feel the pain in our arms. We call it carpal tunnel: the veins swell and you will need to get surgery. Our backs also hurt after pulling the bed to lift the mattresses, as the mattress is quite heavy and lifting them sometimes dislocates shoulders. There are disorders caused by the work we do.
Often, there is also moral and physical harassment at work. With moral harassment, I will do my registered contract of 6 hours and 21 rooms, but then suddenly find myself with 40 rooms to do, supposedly because a colleague did not come to work! Instead of hiring interim workers, it’s up to me to do what a colleague was supposed to do and I end up with 40 or even 50 rooms. And since you’re paid by the task and not by the time, you’d hope to be paid for overtime. But no, at the end of the month, you will only find yourself with your 1,000 euros.
So that’s what we go through at work and it’s something that has been happening over and over again. At one point we had to face the truth: if it continues like this, we are going to kill ourselves at work or go under the train. Many of our colleagues have also been on leave after hurting themselves at work. You’d think that people would call them at home, check on them, and have empathy. But no, nothing. They move on and replace each of the absent workers. That’s why we cannot continue to work in such conditions, we have to declare our rights since we live in a country that is supposed to respect the law. We have to tell others what’s happening to people about the work conditions in the hotel industry.
Because this is happening in many hotels, not just Ibis. We had the courage to stick our heads out, and now we’re hearing a lot of complaints coming from workers in other hotels. We said that we are going to shout loud and clear because the people who could be clients at the hotels do not know about our suffering. When they arrive at the hotel, they make you suffer more, they play Lieutenant Colombo, they call reception, and then reception calls management because this girl did not do her job, the girl did not do this, the girl did not do that. You get warnings that fall like rain, and after three warnings, you get fired. What are you going to do after that? So we all live in fear and we refuse this. We want to work calmly and not be supervised like little children would. They make us feel like we’re in prison! So we’re standing up for ourselves and we don’t want this anymore. Here is our fight and this is what we’re denouncing. If more hotel workers could join us, we could make the bosses fall.
AHH: Can we talk about the gestures of labor? Their repetition, how it affects your body, and the stress that it produces. We were also curious to know about the toxic products you are forced to use and the consequences they have.
SK: Exactly. We are given products but no mask, and often when we arrive at work, there is no broom and no product — in which case we just have to use water which makes things even more difficult. Plus, the company does not have as many brooms as there are workers. Some women have organized themselves and bought some, as well as mops. But when they’re done cleaning, they take the equipment with them. There are other things missing, and some vacuum cleaners no longer work so we just have to find ways to make it all work. Sometimes, I’m done with 20 of my 21 rooms and I need a broom for the last one, but I’m obliged to wait for someone else to finish, even if this person has 10 more rooms to finish. If that person has a good heart, she’ll leave me the broom, but if not she’s going to hide it. So then I have to wait for someone else; it’s very stressful and it’s another form of violence. This stress also affects our health because we’re always running after time.
And yes, we used to be given a pink product to put on toilet taps to descale it and remove any color. It’s acidic and we’re manipulating it without gloves and masks. When you use this product, you have to keep some distance with it. But when you have 40 rooms to do, you can’t really take the time to use it and then take your distance for a while. When you use this product 20 times a day, it will destroy your lungs. By the time you get to retirement, you’re already done. You’ve absorbed everything bad out there, head and shoulders pulling beds — you know hotel beds are hard and you have to do it right; if work has not already killed, work is killing us. That’s the reality of the hotel industry. Now Rachel is going to give you her perspective as a housekeeper.
Rachel Kéké Raissa: I’m a housekeeper at the Ibis Batignolles Hotel since April 23, 2003, and I’ve been on strike since July 17, 2019. We’ve been in this struggle for 16 months now. As my colleague said, we went on strike because the work is very very hard and some people got sick. 13 people had carpal tunnel, others had tendinitis, others received doctor’s restrictions not to work too hard given their state of health. The company we work for thought we were not bringing enough money to them. Most of these 13 people were part-time, which supposes that you work four, five or six hours, but then you end up working eight or nine hours and only get paid for four hours. The doctors told some workers to no longer do 30 rooms but instead, 15 or 10. But the company is not interested in this. They feel like they’re no longer betting on the right horse, so they will find someone else to take advantage of people with these needs. Something else they did was to switch people who were required by the doctor to only do 10 or 15 rooms from our three-star hotel, to a five-star hotel. So the rooms are much bigger there and the work, even harder.
We saw that and we thought, if we let them get away with this, they will transfer everybody who is sick, and we have no idea how this will turn out. So we discussed amongst ourselves and decided to talk to another union rather than the one we’re used to. The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) dedicated to hotel personnel listened to us, whereas the union dedicated to cleaning with whom we had been speaking sofar only pretended to hear our concerns. Nothing ever changed even though we kept talking to them as they had already sided with the bosses.
About my work: the housekeeper starts work at 6.30 or 7am. She first goes to reception to check how many rooms there are to clean. The hotel has 706 rooms. The reception might say that there are 660 rooms to clean today. Then, the housekeeper would schedule the girls, but remember, there are always some who are sick, so some girls end up with 30, 40 rooms or 50 rooms. After that, we go up to the office and there is a report there where we have to write down the number of rooms that each maid has to do. For example, if she has to do 30 rooms, we write down 30 rooms. So when the maids arrive at 8.30am, we give them a sheet on which they sign their time of arrival and we give them this report. They take that with the material and they go clean the rooms. Later, the housekeeper checks on their work. She checks to see if the maid hasn’t forgotten any hospitality products such as towels, shower gel, toilet paper, etc. She checks the cupboards and cushions for any dirt. She then looks at the mattress to see if there are any stains. When the housekeeper confirms that all is fine, she passes on the room to reception, who then rents the room to customers. So that’s the housekeeper’s job.
AHH: Can you tell us what your demands are through this strike?
RKR: The first demand is to become employed internally. We want to end subcontracting. They changed subcontractors four times, but it’s the same system for us, it doesn’t change. So we want to be internalized and become employees of the Accor Group. In the morning, when we arrive, we are not entitled to breakfast. Say that you did not have time to eat anything before leaving home and that you want to take your medicine. If they catch you taking one croissant, the Accord Group housekeeper will send an email to say “I saw this person steal a croissant,” and it becomes a whole problem. So we want to become internalized because the work we do is so hard. You get up in the morning, you commute for one hour or more and by the time you get to work, you’re already stressed or troubled. You wake up and you’re already thinking “What are they going to blame for today?”. The Accor Group knows that they are billionaires because of us, so why not make us employees?
Internalization is our first demand. The second one is a lunch bonus. We ask for 7.24 euros each day. With only 2 euro in our pocket, we simply don’t have lunch, whereas employees have access to tickets that can be used to buy lunch. Without the ticket, there is no lunch.
We also ask for a reduction of work rhythm because the assumption that we can do three and a half rooms per hour, at 17 minutes per room, is simply impossible. But we feel like we have no choice so we do it. We ask for a reduction to two and a half rooms per hour.
One more demand is the change of our official qualification. Right now our status is AS1 (Service Agent 1), which is the same as someone who is paid by the city hall to clean up the streets. We, the maids, make beds, clean the toilets, the faucet, the shower, dust, vacuum cleaner, mops, etc… so we want that change of status.
Lastly, we want them to change our work clothes. The clothes we wear are fully synthetic. When it’s hot, it’s difficult. We require cotton clothes. I think that’s all. Also that they stop these abusive transfers too. But really, the demand that is most important to us is to become employees.
AHH: How does the space of the hotel affect your work? We think of long corridors and the repetition of bedrooms, many stairs and elevators, etc. We already spoke about the space of the rooms themselves, how clients leave them sometimes in a terrible state, etc.
RKR: The space of the hotel affects our work, that’s for sure. As I said, there are 706 rooms; that’s a lot, especially since there are not enough workers. On each floor, there are about 32 or 35, separated in two wings and each girl generally takes care of a full wing. If there is no one on the other wing, the girl has to take her cart and go all the way to the other side of the building. It affects us a lot. Carts are heavy; they’re not small you know! It damages your body and as years go by, you will see that your whole body is broken: your back, your knees, tendinitis, carpal canal, etc.
AHH: Can you tell us about the forms of solidarity that your movement has given and received since the beginning of the strike? We’re recording this conversation after a gathering for your fellow striking comrades from the Paris region supermarket company Monoprix. Assa Traoré also brought her support, as well as exiled and undocumented people’s organizations.
RKR: Yes, since the beginning we’ve been really supported! The people of Monoprix have been with us since the beginning; even just a few days ago for the 17th month anniversary of the strike, many of them were here. So when they got summoned at the High Court, we also went. Solidarity means supporting each other. That’s how we can win.
People also gave a lot to the striking fund. When we started, we no longer had a salary and the striking fund organized by the unions meant that we were able to continue. They also did a crowdfunding campaign where people could give, in particular when many were mobilized against the retirement reform. The Paris and banlieue autonomous high schooler coordination (CLAP) also gave us 6,000 euros. The Solidaires union gave us 5,000 euros, and the CGT, 15,000 euros. Of course, it’s not just about money. Many people came to the picket line and when it was cold sent us some blankets. Some student organizations sent us food and others, croissants. So yes we really got some great support.
I really did not think that we’d keep going for 16 months. The Accor Group is playing the clock because we’re Africans, we’re Black. They know that we left our countries to come here. When they see us, they clearly still have the slavery era in their mind; that’s why they treat us this way. That’s also why this fight is tough. At the hotel, we call out slavery because that’s what we’re living. And they tell us that we are manipulated by the union, infantilizing us, as if we do not know anything. For them it’s normal that when you leave your country, you don’t know anything about your rights because supposedly there aren’t any in Africa. But they forget that France is the one who colonized us.
We’re also women. I can tell you, to manipulate a woman, you have to wake up early! The union we found is really supporting us. In the 17 years I’ve been working, I have never seen a union like this: serious, supportive, and one that tells us “you have the right to this, the right to that.” They’ve also connected us with other workers who have won their fights. This has made me realize even more how much the Accor Group has taken advantage of me for 17 years — and there’s some of us who have been used this way until retirement. But let’s be clear, it’s us who are telling the union what we’re surviving through. The union does not know what’s going on inside a hotel. Today, there are more people who are striking, recently in Marseille for instance. If workers refuse to continue for each hotel that uses subcontractors, I think that many more people will understand this fight. ■
Since July 17, 2019, the maids and housekeepers of the Ibis Batignolles Hotel (Accord Group) in Paris are on strike. Sylvie Kimissa and Rachel Kéké Raissa are spokespersons for the Ibis Batignolles Hotel Workers on Strike.. Read more on their contributor page.