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Women in the cleaning sector and hotel-restaurant industry : syndicalist conversations

Fabien D /20 février 2013   

The purpose of these interviews is to provide an insight into the situation and the struggles of female workers in the cleaning sector and the hotel-restaurant industry. To this end, we have met cleaning and catering trade union members of the CNT-Solidarité Ouvrière (http: // www.cnt-so.org/), in the Paris region. More generally, AutreFutur hopes to encourage readers to think about the relationships between women’s struggles and labour unions, from the perspective of emancipatory social transformation. Of course, this article does not claim to exhaust the subject, but rather elicit contributions.

The first interview features Peneda Lurdes along with Depina Maria and Gumercinda Proenca ; cleaners who have waged many struggles in a cleaning company at Charles de Gaulles airport. Then, Elisabeth Zoro Lou Boué, a breakfast waitress in a hotel who more recently joined the union, discusses her situation. These testimonies are followed by a conclusion from the cleaning union’s legal advocate, Etienne Deschamps, who provides a general overview of differents cases and problems encountered in these industries based on his experiences.

The struggles of female cleaning workers

AutreFutur : Could you start by introducing yourself ?

Peneda Lurdes : I am a cleaner, union steward at 3S Group in ASP, Inc. The company is located at the Charles de Gaulle airport, hall C-D in terminal 2. I have been there for 20 years, but not with the same company. There have been 2 companies. First, Penauille, which was bought by Derichebourg and now 3S Group for 5 years.

Concerning the union, we, the CNT, have established ourselves there since 2007. I was previously been a member of FO [Force Ouvrière ; split from the CGT in 1947] as staff representative for 7 years.

Gumercinda Proenca : I have worked for a little less time. I have been there since 1998.

Depina Maria : I have been there since 1991. 20 years too.

AF : Concerning your workplace, are most employees male or female ? What about your union section ?

PL : It’s fifty-fifty. Maybe slightly more men than women. It’s also fifty-fifty in the union. Management is also mixed.

AF : What about your employment contracts ? There are a lot of precarious jobs in the cleaning sector. The problem of precarity also often faces female workers more generally. What is your situation ?

PL : All of us have unlimited-term contracts. There are no fixed-term contracts now in ASP. There are only unlimited-term contracts and a few part-time contracts. This situation is a result of labour struggles. If we had not struggled, we wouldn’t be in this position today !

AF : Can you tell us more about these struggles ?

PL : In ‘91, there was only one union, the CGT. Then, the FO union developped. Then the CFDT union, the UNSA union, and the CNT union. The number of employees is about 100 and there are 5 unions. At first, with the CGT, we actually struggled a lot ; we went on strike several times. We won thirteenth month payments [where the employer pays all their employees a thirteenth-month payment every year : an aditional twelfth (1/12) of the basic salary of an employee within a calendar year], a holiday bonus, and les paniers [a bonus paid by the employer to employees to eat if there is no canteen at the workplace, for example]. Most of these gains were won between ‘91 and ‘95. It is actually more difficult now. ASP has implemented an effective program of divide and conquer. This is how management operates and they do it well. People, unconsciously, are also somewhat manipulated by personal interests, so it’s difficult at the union level. Workers even tend to form social groups and bonds of affinity based on ethnicity, national origin, and religion. That’s pretty new, and we in the CNT try to be mixed (even if the fact is that, today, the three of us are Portuguese !). We have one Works Council, staff representatives, and Compulsory Annual Negotiations once a year. We try to continue to move foward with the gains we have achieved while continuing to push for more.

With the CNT, we’ve reached 10% in the trade union elections, so we are representative... We already had 14 votes. 4 new workers voted to join the others organised in the union. Now, it isn’t always easy with union dues... For some, life is now financially complicated. For others, its management that divides us. With the CNT, we struggle a lot against anti-union discrimination. Management will try to give more to the majority union than to us, to divide the workers. On the ground, from team leader to operations manager, management takes sides and some employees are adversely affected. We, in the CNT, agree that we are certainly there to do our job. But we are not there to be sold-out or corrupted.We have our rights. Our duty is to do our job ; we do it. Beyond that, we are not here to butter up the boss to get privileges.

We went on strike with the CNT in 2008 in response to the appointment of a foreman. We knew her, she was team leader. She had privileges at that time, since she was also the girlfriend of one of the general managers. We knew she was temperamental and that her attitude could cause her to lash out against us unfairly. We felt like we were in danger. Derichebourg completed the contract. There was a call for tender. Just before, they promoted her from team leader Ce1 to Ce3 to be able to appoint her as foreman. We tried to block it because it didn’t make sense. The strike lasted 11 days. The CNT is strong in the aftertoon shift. The night and morning shifts worked, although they came to help us in solidarity. She was not their team leader or their foreman. She was placed in the afternoon shift. From 2 pm to 10 pm, we were there, marching, shouting slogans ; we spoke up... There were 23 people, that is to say the total of the 2 afternoon shifts. So she remained team leader, but not foreman. We managed to disrupt her appointment, but we haven’t been able to go further.

The 3S Group took over in November 2008. This provoked a very, very long fight, in any case, with me. Being a CNT union steward and having gone on strike with the other members made me a target... After this woman became my team leader we had a lot of conflicts. I have experienced discrimination vis-à-vis other employees on my quota of work, her actions, her behaviour, her vocabulary... Many small conflicts like that on the ground. Reports were filed with management. I submitted oral reports to management about the situation with her. At one point, they saw things were getting serious so the two of us were called in. But I refused mediation with management or a conversation with her. I knew what I was getting into with her and what I had to deal with. So, according to my actions and my statement, they decided that the best thing to do was to make it so that she wasn’t my manager anymore. She was prohibited from being in the halls or headquarters area where I was. She remained team manager with other employees. She opened proceedings against me on the grounds of psychological harassment. We were heard in July 2012. The case was dismissed in September by the prosecutor.

Beyond that, it is true that our struggles, which won thirteen month payments, were great. The struggles for our social gains were great. The strike was more general : there were the morning, afternoon and night shifts on strike... We went on strike for one month that time ! The good thing was that the airport was dirty, they didn’t bring people to fill in for us. But that still took a month. Now, strikes are more complicated... They bring reinforcements from outside, they are less tolerant of a staff representative.

AF : On a more personal note, how did you come to unionism ? It seems like you have a lot of experience with it !

PL : I don’t know, in the end, if I’m a good organizer... How did it begin ? With my character, my way of looking at things, my convictions. From speaking with my colleagues around me too, we could find common ground on things we all had problems with. When I got to the airport, Penauille had just taken over. When we went on our first strike, there was only one union, the CGT. At that moment, I didn’t make it but I helped the revolution... (laughs) I invested myself, I was part of the movement.

AF : Is it difficult for you to balance work and family life ?

PL : Yes, it is difficult. In itself, balancing work and family life is difficult. Beyond that, balancing work, family life and the union is even harder... There’s less time to spread around. Being an organizer takes a lot of time. Particulary in the cleaning sector where many people have a wide variety of problems, are illiterate... Many people also confuse the union for social assistance, or a secrétaire [that can help illiterate people with] personal documents... This work requires a lot of investment from us. With children, alright, until primary school, it’s all fine. When they become teenagers, though, they start to get an attitude ! Sitting at the table, you get a phone call and you should be more available for your family... You have to face the criticism of investing more time in other people than in your family. This is not the case. But it’s true that labor organizing takes a very long time.

Our working hours are from 2pm to 10pm. If you have a somewhat supportive husband to look after the children, then those hours are okay... But, if he’s not really there, it’s hard, very hard... For a single mother supporting children, without family or friends to help out, that’s got to be difficult too... Already dealing with a husband, isn’t easy...

In terms of housing, I live half an hour from my workplace. And we spend our 8 hours in the same area. We have this privilege compared to others in the industry who spend 3 hours in one place and 3 hours in another.

AF : In your professional experience, what can you say about gender relations, cases of sexism, even harassment ?

PL : In ASP, Inc., I feel more psychological than sexual harassment. The pressure, the inappropriate language directed at the employees... They have an aggressive and vulgar way of talking. Pressure at work, nit-picking...

GP : By chance, last Tuesday I overheaded a conversation in an office. All the managers were there. One of them was saying that the people making a bloody mess were me, Peneda and Depina. I responded. I told one of them : "You’re listening to that shit and you aren’t saying anything ?" He answered : "You don’t talk to me like that, I’m not your husband ! You’ll see, I will send you home ! This is your only warning !" I answered : “Do it.” Later, they cornered me in the elevator. They nearly pressed me against the wall. Everyone was around me. I was all alone. The manager said : "Starting today, you’ll see. You’ll get only one warning : I’ll send you home for 15 days ! Starting today, you’ll see, I’ll piss you off, during your 8 hours—I’ll break your balls !".

PL : We bother them, I believe, because we’re able to say what we think in front of anybody. Even the HRD, the CEO... Those who bother them are discarded. But the truth is that we don’t try to bother them, we speak out because we see that there is injustice, discrimination.

DM : That is what hurts the most, injustice. They do nothing to help us, they do everything to bring us down.

PL : We experience injustice as Gumercinda said. Or, if you arrive late, your salary is cut. But others arrive late and their salaries are not cut because they get along with the team leader, the foreman, the manager... Or, on the workstations. The most difficult jobs are for us. So, you are there and then you revolt : they don’t like that.

In terms of gender relations, it’s like everywhere. People who decide to have sex with their boss... As long as it’s voluntary, there’s nothing you can do but they’re still privileged people. But that is part of favouritism. Everyone does what they want in that regard. It is up to us to get involved to keep everything in its place at work. But there are instances like that... I think it has always existed, but they are still privileged for being late for work and privileged at their workstations and in their career developement.

AF : Finally, would you say a last thing about your experience that we have not seen ?

PL : Currently we work in conditions that are far worse than they were 10 years ago. Other companies have automatic industrial washers, so you stand and don’t have to push. They have very well equiped trucks, which reduce the physical burden on us. This aspect of the job has really stagnated. At work it’s a little bit like the Middle-Ages... Our quota of work as greatly increase ; we work much more. Our work atmosphere is a disaster. The managment uses a divide and conquer strategy. Work-related stress must have increased. Unions are much weaker than before. They support their members and if you’re not a member they don’t care about you... There hasn’t been a strike recently.

Hotel-restaurant industry : why I joined the union

AF : Can you introduce yourself ?

Elisabeth Zoro Lou Boué : I am from the Ivory Coast. I’ve worked at Ibis since 2000. It’ll be 13 years soon. I am a breakfast waitress. I got a qualification contract in the hotel sector, then I continued. I came here at the age of 16.

AF : Why did you join the union ?

EZ : What brought me here was abuse, psychological harassment. They were harassing me. They wanted to fire me. They nitpicked... They provoked me to see how I would react. But they never got to me. Since I joined the union, they calmed down a little bit but intimidating letters come from them all the time.

An example of psychological harassment is when they tell you to clean and stand behind you saying you’re doing it wrong. Or a supervisor comes and shouts at you. For example, I went down once to use the toilet. The supervisor asked me why I used the toilet, and started to shout at me. I told him : "So, are you preventing me from using the toilet ?" He told me : "No, only if there are a lot of people.” But I had served, there was nobody. He told me : "Restrain yourself, you are a big girl.” I was angry, I told him : "This is serious.” He said : "Yes, yes, it’s serious here now.” When he did that, 5 colleagues stopped who were about to come into the room. At the slightest little thing, he screamed, he shouted. This was psychological harassment. Sometimes, when I was serving, the supervisors came quickly, walking with big strides to frighten me, to make me jump. I’m talking about the Director and his deputy.

They wanted me to get frustrated and resign. Since I didn’t say anything, they were encouraged to continue... So I finally joined the union to stop this. I brought the CNT union into the company ; that calmed them down a little bit. There are now 4 of us in the local union, one works at the hotel but in another company. They just want to fire those who are directly hired by the hotel.

There have been elections at the hotel but things have gotten worse since. Before, I didn’t work on Sunday. I told them that there was no school on Sunday and that I couldn’t leave the children alone. They call me at home to say : "You want to have children, take responsability.” I said : "What does that have to do with work ?" They sent me letters that I didn’t understand. I came to see the union and things were put in place. For the moment, the union doesn’t send any more letters. They laid me off for 3 days in July because of the Sundays. They sent me warning letters. I was so tired of that... They really want to fire me.

My unionised colleagues work in rooms (I am breakfast waitress). They are also targeted but not like me.

AF : Are there mostly women in your workplace ?

EZ : There are only women in the rooms. It is mixed at the reception.

AF : You mentioned your children. What can you tell us about the difficulties in balancing work and family life ?

EZ : I have 5 children. When they were small, it was vey difficult. Very, very, very difficult, I have to admit. I left home at 5:30am to be there at 6:30am. I tried to arrange things, to get myself organised. At the beginning, I was all alone. As I used to get up early, I was looking for someone, a neighbour, to pick the children up. I prepared everything the night before. In the morning, I let them sleep. Now they have grown up, the youngest one is 8 years old, so it’s getting better. I moved so now I live closer.

AF : What are your working hours ?

EZ : My working hours are from 6:30am till 2:30pm. The problem is that most often we work alone. Sometimes, you can’t go out before 3:30pm-4pm. And overtime is not paid while letters are sent when I’m late. They are reducing staff. So, the work of 2-3 people has to be done by one person. They shout at me especially because they want me to clean the bedrooms after my service. My health does not permit it. It pisses them off.

AF : What do you expect from the struggle now ?

EZ : First, I want them to leave me alone and let me keep my job. I have 5 children to feed. I am used to this job, I have done nothing wrong and they want me to leave. After the effort that I have given in this hotel for 13 years, I don’t think I would have the courage to do the same work elsewhere or to learn another job.

Women’s struggles, unionism and labour law

AF : What is the gender distribution, according to your experience, in the cleaning and catering sectors in the Paris region ?

Etienne Deschamps : Catering is still a male-dominated sector (in kitchens, for example, there are mostly men), except for service functions. In any case, this is what we see with the catering union.

In cleaning, this also largely depends on sectors. For example, in transport, SNCF(French railways board), RATP(Paris transport authority) it’s almost equal. But in hotel outsourcing, it is highly feminised, 98%. Chambermaids are women ! Certain jobs where you have to carry additional beds to do very particular services are male but otherwise it is principally female. Overall, it is approximatly half-and-half, with a modest majority of women. There are 400,000 employees in the sector. 200,000-300,000 women.

AF : Can you give us some details about the precariousness in the sector, contracts, part-time work and the way this affects women ?

ED : I will be focusing on cleaning, as I’m more familiar with this sector. In this sector, most contracts are part-time work. It is forced part-time work, with very particular working hours. The morning and the evening : from 6am-6:30am until 9am-9:30am and the evening from 5pm until 9pm. This amounts to about 65-hours(per month). There are women with a shift the morning and a shift the evening. This has a negative impact on women. First, they can’t benefit from maternity benefits. To benefit from them, you have to work 200 hours in the quarter. 3 times 65 equals 195 hours... A woman came to me one day and told me : “This is my third child, I don’t understand why I don’t receive any benefits from social security.” She had her job for 5-6 years and was in a common situation. We looked into it and found the problem. So, they can work for 10 years or have 10 children and receive no daily benefit. This concerns at least several tens of thousands of women, maybe several hundred thousand. As I see it, it’s 30% or 40% of women in the sector. The union demands that there be no contracts under 200 hours quaterly. Otherwise, a way of exemption should be found. The solution can be either with collective agreements or with social security. That said, as long we are waging the struggle alone... I have little hope... But we’re going to send a well-argued file to Minister for Social Affairs and Public Health, Marisol Touraine. The union pushed this issue with the Ministry of Labour 4 years ago. We said that there was discrimination. The Ministry was supposed to examine the situation and provide feedback. We are still waiting... But we’ll be on the offensive again. Those women receive 400-500 euros per month (around 460 euros). It’s as if a lot of employers thought of those services as pocket money for their husband.

Companies tend to modify working conditions and make it impossible to reconcile work and family life. For a young mother with a newborn baby, who must leave at 6am and come back at 10am, and leave again in evening, it’s nearly impossible to look after her kid. It can be more expensive for her because she does not qualify for the opening hours of the collective childcare centers. And to find a babysitter that can be flexible enough to fit around work schedules which sometimes regulary change is complicated... Today, I saw an employee. She only left for maternity leave, without matching it with a parental leave, which can last 2 years and 9 months. She worked in the hospital sector, so one week her schedule was from Monday to Friday, another from Tuesday to Sunday. Unmanageable...

Another impact of these working conditions is that even when children aren’t young, when they are no longer in school, parents are at work. So elitist discourse looks down on them saying : “those families look after their children poorly.” But when both parents work in cleaning, which is often the case- this is the sociological composition of the Paris region- families are stigmatised because they don’t look after their children after school and they are accused of not going, for example, to school meetings. When teachers ask parents to come at 5pm, they have to take time out of their work schedule and they’re in an awkward position with their boss... There hasn’t been any adjustment ; the educational system hasn’t adapted its methods of functioning to these new splintered work patterns and the widespread precariousness of theses working conditions.

Another form of precariousness affecting women, although not only women but primarily, is the fixed-term contract. I see women on fixed-term contracts for 3, 4, 5 years. It is very hard to launch re-classifying procedures because they dread losing their job. As soon as we take the case before the industrial tribunals for requalification, the result is dismissal or a non-renewal of contract at the end. Many women are alone with their kids and hesitate to intiate an action before the industrial tribunal.

Collective action is complicated. The challenge with the cleaning sector is that employees work for the same employer but on different sites. This is not Renault where you have 1,500 employees at the same site. Here you have 3, 4, 5, 6 employees at a given site, except in certain professional situations : large transportation hubs, large hospitals, large hotels, where you have 15, 20, 30 employees. In large hopitals like Pitié-Salpètrière, 5 or 6 cleaning companies are involved and approximatly 600 or 700 cleaners. In a hospital like Lariboisière, there are one hundred, in Bichat 70-100 workers. But in any case, they have part-time contracts. They take great care to avoid giving full-time contracts to employees which would make their lives easier.

There are also people working the morning for one boss, and in the afternoon for another. The morning employer says : "You’ll work until the time that you’ll work the afternoon". Obviously, if working hours overlap with those of the second employer, that is going to be difficult. Take a second situation, in the context of appendix 7 to the collective agreement, which is a specific provision where the employee remains assigned to the site, although the firm changes the cleaning company for the site. The employer, in an effort to cut costs, will try to downsize the workforce and therefore to mutate it, even if they know that the employee has another provision in their contract elsewhere. The employer will try to impose a schedule upon her employee hoping that she’ll refuse and have a ground for dismissal and the termination of the employment contract. The situation is getting worse and worse. Another worker had a situation where she worked from 9am until 1pm in the Quai Branly museum. A part of her contract was transferred to another company. She was doing everything on the same site. They told her : “now, you have one hour for our company, the rest of the contract is tranferred to another company.” But she didn’t have time to change overalls (with the name of the company) and, as a result, they said that she had to work in the middle of nowhere. So she had a one-off provision and she now has three shifts. In early morning, midday and end of the day. A great pleasure for family life. As they often need a job to renew their documents, they are completely trapped if they refuse to sign the riders. It’s overwhelming.

A collective agreement means that when you have several worksites, in particular for the maintenance of buildings, you might have 1 hour on a building, 1 hour on another building, etc., if you have 8 hours of work you might have to go to 7 buildings, but spend ½ hour of travel time in between each building, you can calculate the length of the working day... It is expected that travelling time between worksites will be paid like working time. It is NEVER applied spontaneously. It’s only when we decide to bring proceedings before the employee claims court, when we make a point of order. But sometimes, our claim reaches 4,000-5,000 euros (2 hours a day over 5 years). As a result, the employer fires workers on the spot : it’s less expansive in the end because the employer doesn’t have savings. One hour is paid by the housing office, one hour for one worksite, one hour for another. If 2 more travelling hours have to be paid, then the company runs the risk of losing money since it’s pay for nothing.

Many live in the suburbs. To go to work, some leave at 4am to work at 6am and arrive at home in the evening at 10:30pm or 11pm. Some have to travel 4 hours for 3 hours of work... Companies want to ignore this reality. The employees living on one side of the Paris region who have to work on the other side at 6am... It’s clear they won’t be able to be there on time.

As a general rule, it’s getting worse and worse. I see situations I haven’t seen in a very long time. I remember an employee in a small company, who was in part-time work and paid €4.50 an hour. She was paid half the minimum wage, she was in part-time work... This is nonsense. I’ve even seen dismissals of pregnant women. These are not isolated instances.

AF : Have you encountered problems with parental leave ?

ED : Upon returning from parental leave, we have to appeal to the industrial tribunals. Most often, it is "I inform you that I return from my parental leave", such a date, and 6 months after, still nothing. No assignments, nothing. No salary. What happens ? That depends on the juridiction (Paris and Bobigny are not Nanterre). The problem is that, most often, the house is already on fire. Comrades are not familiar with proceedings. They phone... We write systematically. This last month alone, in August, 200 registered letters were sent. That makes sense. If she didn’t write "I put my services at your disposal, if you don’t provide me work, you will be in default...", the judge will say she did not act. But more and more employees take the initiative of writing, even badly (it is sometimes a little counterproductive), so there is evidence. The Industrial Court will also take into account the fact that many immigrants have language and educational obstacles. It is the employer’s responsibility to get things back on track. "I inform you that my baby is now only three, I want to go back to work", even if there is no date, the employer has to do something. They have the birth certificate of the baby. It is important to ask, to have evidence of reclamation. It’s the procedure, that’s what’s so complicated.

Parental leave is a right but you have to ask for it. It poses another problem, concerning job insecurity. A woman on parental leave is replaced by another woman that she introduces herself. She has a fixed-term contract. Parental leave can last 2 years and 9 months. This situation generates precariousness for the employee who replaces the parent. Men don’t take parental leave but many take birth leave (3 days) and paternity leave(11 days). There is another problem. When children are born in a foreign country, do they have the right to birth leave and paternity leave ? Some claim it... In my view, they have that right. A parent can go to his country of origin for 15 days if he wants. It’s not that simple for employers, jurisprudence and legislation.

AF : Can you describe the situation of these women that you meet who are alone with their children ?

ED : It is a phenomenon that exists in our society in any case. But there is also something particular to point out, which is the occasional impact of cultures where polygamy is quite common. With one woman, a second woman... As a woman becomes less interesting, she is marginalized, although she still has support from her community. The community cares for the children but this is less and less true with our current rhythms of life. First, because, without judging, living and housing conditions prevent people from having 3 women in the same household with 7, 8, 10 kids. Many women are actually alone to look after their children. There are even situations where the husband will go to his country of origin for 3-4 months to remarry and leave the woman alone with the kids... That being said, the composition of the sector is changing. There are more and more people from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. They don’t have the same culture.

AF : Do you see cases of sexism or harrasment regularly ?

ED : I saw cases of blatant sexual harassment. These issues are difficult to address. First, it isn’t easy to come to the union and tell us "My team leader gropes my behind every week or every day.” A woman recently came to us. I sent her to our lawyer because I thought it was sexual harrasment. For 2 years, every day, the teamleader showed her his body and suggested that they fuck, to put crudely. She finally said "I can’t take it anymore" and came to talk to us. One day, he took her on a bed in the hopital where she works and told her "Come on, I’ll give you a kid.” It was an extreme case. The lawyer has taken control of this file. But the "you’ll have a good job if you sleep with me", I grope your behind or breasts and "oh, I’m just kidding with you"... I saw a case the other day in the industrial tribunals where, in a kitchen, the head chef groped the behind of his colleague, the assistant chef, every day for years, and he reported it to management. To joke... There is an extremely significant relationship with the body and sexuality in the workplace. I’ve noticed that the younger and prettier the women are, the more they suffer from this. They speak little about it because they are ashamed. A woman told me "I can’t take it anymore, I’m harassed every day, my team leader gropes me, he comes into my changing room". I told her we would send a letter, lodge a complaint, etc. She told me "no, because my husband will label me a slut and beat me.” It’s terrible. I’ve never been able to convince her. "Come with your husband, we’ll talk about it". But no. What can you do ?

Employers exploit this situation to play employees off against each other, nearly blaming them because they don’t yield to management’s advances. "Only you have problems with him". So, you have your part of the responsibility.

Interview by Fabien Delmotte
Translated from French. Source :