Let’s say you’ve been away on vacation, or out of town on business. You may well check out of the hotel feeling like an exemplary guest. You have not, for example, driven a Lincoln Continental into the swimming pool, in the fashion of Keith Moon. You have not followed Rod Stewart’s lead and put all the room’s furniture into the elevator. You did not allow your pet ocelot Babou to soil the carpets, because you’re not Salvador Dali.
All right, you’re a pretty good guest and also a decent human being, so you’ve tipped the server at the restaurant, the bartender who made your cocktail and the valet who brought your car around. But have you remembered the person who did the hardest, most thankless job in the hotel? Possibly not, because you never even saw her.
Less than a third of hotel guests tip the women – it is almost always women, often migrants – who clean their room, according to a 2017 report in The New York Times. The Times offers a few explanations for this shockingly low figure: Guests may be unsure of the etiquette, or the amount to tip; they may lack change in the local currency. But really, it’s about a hole in their perception: “A common explanation is that [the cleaners] are out of sight and, therefore, out of mind.”
I recently interviewed Stephanie Land, author of the new bestseller Maid, at the Toronto Reference Library. Ms. Land’s excellent book is a dispatch from the world of the unseen: She worked as a cleaner for years to support herself and her daughter, gliding through other people’s houses like an observant and furiously industrious ghost. Sometimes she was treated harshly and sometimes kindly, but mostly she was ignored, which was good for her observational skills and bad for her wallet. She lived in minimum-wage poverty for those years, with all the indignity and despair that brings.
Now, Ms. Land is an advocate for those who clean for a living. She talked about meeting a hotel housekeeper and watching the woman burst into tears as she described the way she was treated by guests. The housekeeper and her colleagues were “an invisible team,” Ms. Land said, part of the silent infrastructure that keeps the privileged world moving in frictionless ease – but at what cost?
The very least we can do, Ms. Land said, is to tip hotel cleaners: $10 per day, per person who stays in the room. Leave a note next to the money thanking the housekeepers, so they know it’s for them. (She had other instructions for making their lives easier, such as putting garbage in the garbage can and flushing the toilet before leaving the room for cleaning. It’s hard to believe adult humans can’t be trusted to behave better than Salvador Dali’s ocelot, but here we are.)
Inevitably, there’s resistance to the idea that we should tip hotel housekeepers. When the Marriott chain introduced gratuity envelopes in 2014, they were discontinued almost immediately because customers became so irate: Don’t we tip enough already? Why isn’t the hotel paying its staff properly? (A question that I imagine is asked by people who spend days looking for the cheapest hotel room.) Progressives argue that we should fight for living wages for hotel staff instead of tipping, as if the two are mutually exclusive. I’m sure the woman who cleans your room would be happy with the $20 you left her and the letters you wrote to the hotel’s CEO and your MP.
Or maybe it just takes a slight shift in thinking on the part of the guest. You may tip your restaurant server partly based on service, but also because of the effort you see displayed – running between tables, juggling trays, grimly remembering every gluten-free, sauce-on-the-side order. What if we visualized the back-breaking, tedious, poorly paid work the hotel housekeeper performs when we’re out of the room?
In 2017, Oxfam Canada detailed the grim working lives of hotel cleaners in its report, Tourism’s Dirty Secret: The Exploitation of Hotel Housekeepers. “Not only do hotel rooms require much more cleaning than they did years ago, but guest expectations have increased,” the report reads. “Housekeepers are under constant time pressure to clean as many rooms as possible, and they face significant physical, biological, chemical, sexual and psychological hazards.”
That fancy mattress that provides such a good sleep? It may weigh up to 100 pounds, and the bed needs daily changing. The nice linens? Some luxury hotels ban service carts, so maids have to lug heavy loads from floor to floor. Caustic cleaning chemicals cause skin and eye irritation, and breathing problems. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, “hotel housekeeping is a very physically demanding job” performed in cramped quarters, thus increasing the risk of repetitive strain injuries. A housekeeper will typically move her body into 8,000 positions in one shift.
Now take into account their low pay (the Oxfam reports a range in 2012 of $12 an hour to $20 an hour for a union job in a large hotel). Many of the housekeepers have no chance of advancement, work split shifts and get no sick days. Around 85 per cent of the housekeepers in Toronto hotels were born outside Canada. This combination of precarious employment and newcomer status can make hotel staff prime targets for sexual harassment, to such a degree that some hotels have provided their housekeepers with panic buttons.
There is a better way forward, which is to ensure stable, well-compensated work for housekeepers, accompanied by benefits and sick days. But that way forward will not arrive tomorrow. Until it does, lay down your money, and your thanks.