By Haseena Manek
Hotel workers facing sexual harassment from guests hand list of demands to Marriott bosses at UN Labour Council meeting in Geneva
During the United Nations International Labour Organization Conference in Geneva last month, hotel workers from across the globe met to discuss the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and hand an accord addressing the issue to Marriott bosses.
On May 29, hotel workers employed by Marriott from North America, South America, Africa and Asia met in Geneva to share their experiences and march from the the Ritz-Carlton Hotel de la Paix to the Hotel President Wilson in Geneva where they handed a document, titled ‘Global Demands on Marriott Regarding Sexual Harassment’ to two separate Marriott bosses during the 107th Session of the International Labour Conference.
The accord reads, “Today, the world is focused on ending sexual harassment and gender-based violence at work. As affiliates of the IUF, the global union representing more than 10 million workers in sectors including hotels, restaurants and catering services, we call on Marriott to partner with us toward meeting that goal.”
The action was a coalition effort coordinated by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association (IUF). The federation brought together unionized and non-unionized hotel workers from around the world.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault is a serious issue for hotel workers, who are vulnerable not only to co-workers and management but also to hotel guests. According to UNITE HERE National Press Secretary Rachel Gumpert, when incidents take place, not only are guests who assault or harass workers allowed to stay in the hotel, but workers who report are sometimes sent back to clean the same room the next day.
“And that’s part of the challenge,” says Gumpert. “I think because it creates a really unique power dynamic where paying guests are put essentially against workers – who the employer sees often as being expendable. So frequently when our workers to report harassment or assault to hotel bosses – whether to their direct manager or going uot he chain – it’s not adequately dealt with.”
The accord seeks measures to prevent and discourage sexual harassment, to respond to incidents immediately, and to “ensure that workers are encouraged and feel safe to come forward with complaints of sexual harassment, and that these complaints are dealt with fairly and promptly.”
While Marriott is currently the largest hotel chain in the world, it’s not the worst in responding to sexual harassment or assault in the workplace. So why target Marriott bosses?
“Because Marriott is now the largest hotel brand in the world, we think that they have a really unique responsibility in really being a leader in the industry in how they address safety for women at work. And we’ve been really concerned by the way that they’re not doing that in every area where they have hotels,” Gumpert says. “We believe that when Marriott raises standards for workers it’ll have a ripple impact across the entire industry. So it’s been really disappointing to see Marriott not taking that responsibility more seriously.”
UNITE HERE was the only North American union to participate in this action and has been fighting for better policies to protect hotel workers from sexual harassment through collective bargaining, organizing and advocacy. They were named as part of the Silence Breakers in TIME Magazine’s person of the issue issue last year. Earlier in May, the union addressed this issue with Marriott’s corporate owners at their annual shareholder meeting in Washington DC, where eight workers from four cities shared their experiences of sexual harassment.
While the response at that meeting was seemingly positive, the union hasn’t seen any formal action from Mariott on the matter. “We saw a lot of pretty words from the CEO of Marriott and absolutely no folow up afterwords. We’ve continued to see marriott not make progress in negotiations on this. So i think if they really were interested they would be signing the global accord,” says Gumpert.
As for the latest action in Geneva, Toronto hotel worker and UNITE HERE Local 75member Brigida Ruiz, is optimistic. According to Ruiz the immediate response from the two bosses was a model of the two kinds of bosses you can get working in a hotel. The first was receptive and brought workers into the hotel and sat down to discuss the issue, the second received the document out on the street where other guests could overhear the conversation about sexual harassment in Marriott hotels.
“I was mad,” she says. “I was angry. I said, ‘You have no respect.’” when talking about the second interaction. Still, Ruiz, who has experienced sexual harassment in her career, remains optimistic. “I’m so hopeful for this that this will go around the world, that they have to stop this. Because this is not right. This is not right at all.”
While in town for the action, workers also took the opportunity to share their stories.
“The stories, they just break your heart,” says Ruiz of some of the worse experiences. “Especially with the non-unionized hotel or workplace. The chances of that harassment is huge in those places. So it’s not only about the unionized members, but also for those non-unionized [workers]. All of this harassment has to be addressed for everyone. We don’t accept this in the workplace.”
Ruiz describes the experience as very positive overall and empowering for those who were finally given a platform to safely share their experience. “Most of them feel relief, or feel strong, because they feel that they’re not alone,” she says. “We were like a big family, it felt like we’ve known each other for so long. I guess that’s the feeling when you are unionized people and you unite.”
Gumpert explains that the unions were aware that discussing sexual harassment int he workplace was actually on the agenda at the ILO conference and that this action was planned to coincide with these discussions but not disrupt them.
“The goal was to draw attention during the United Nations International Labour Organization Conference. To draw attention to what’s really at the crisis level within Marriott hotels. Not because Marriott is necessarily worse on this issue than other hotels, we see sexual harassment across the industry and in all hotel brands unfortunately,” says Gumpert. “We are increasingly concerned about what it’s going to take for Marriott to start acting like the leader that they really should be within the industry on this.”
Unfortunately, as of weeks after the action, Marriott has not responded to the demands to signed onto the accord.
“The workers who work at Marriott, they’ve made this the most profitable hotel chain in the entire world. And they deliver this really remarkable service that guests remember. It’s one of the key reasons that people stay at Marriott hotels, because of the front line workers they encounter and their professionalism. So to have this kind of systematic disregard for their basic safety at work is something that women are just not willing to accept any longer,” Gumpert says.