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Premier Inn Exposé Highlights Need for Unions

This week, Channel 4 show Dispatches revealed the shocking conditions that housekeepers working at a London Premier Inn must put up with.

Housekeepers, employed via contract cleaning agency ISS, are asked to clean an unrealistic number of rooms during each shift - one room every 20 minutes, regardless of size or state. If they don’t meet these unfair targets, they have to work overtime to make sure the rooms are finished. They’re also required to arrive up to an hour early to prepare for shifts.

This time spent working outside contracted hours is unpaid. As a result, housekeepers forced to make a difficult decision. They can either cut corners to get rooms cleaned quickly, or work overtime without getting paid for it.

Channel 4’s undercover reporter opts to work without pay, but you couldn’t criticise any worker who chooses otherwise under these conditions. Instead, the blame lies squarely with Premier Inn and the agencies it uses for creating this system.

This isn’t a one off

Premier Inn may try to convince us that these are isolated incidents – that these workers have somehow slipped through a net of carefully crafted policies and procedures - but unpaid overtime is rife throughout the hotel industry.

According to the government’s Labour Force Survey, 3 in 4 employees in the hotel industry who usually work overtime work at least 5 extra hours a week without pay. Nearly half work over 10 hours of unpaid overtime a week.

Unpaid overtime can easily mean that low-paid workers are unlawfully paid below the national minimum wage. This is particularly true for the hotel industry; 30% of workers in industry earn no more than £7.50, the national minimum wage for those 25 and over. This rises to over 60% of younger workers aged 18-21. 

Any unpaid overtime for someone on the minimum wage will instantly mean that their level of pay becomes illegally low. The undercover reporter for Dispatches, for instance, ended up earning less than £5 an hour for her work. And even those contracted on higher wages could end up being paid below the minimum wage if they aren’t compensated for working this much overtime.

Indeed, the situation may be even worse than official statistics suggest. When union Unite surveyed hotel staff in London, they found that pay was lower and hours were longer than indicated by government figures. More than half of chefs surveyed said they worked after their official end time without extra pay, while more than 1 in 3 front-of-house staff were owed money for hours they had worked. 

And while most hotel employees get by on poverty wages, the same cannot be said for the executives who profit from their labour.

The owners of Premier Inn, Whitbread, paid their board a total of £1.5 million in 2016. With their operating profit rising by 7.4% to £468 million in 2017, Premier Inn have no excuse for the measly wages they (and the agencies they use) pay their hotel staff. 

Change is coming

Importantly, though, hotel workers are beginning to stand up for their rights and join unions. The exposé of Premier Inn highlighted the importance of union organising for the hospitality sector. For too long, companies like Whitbread have tried to gag workers from speaking to or about trade unions in the workplace in an attempt to shut down any fight for fair working conditions. But now, thanks to brave workers risking their jobs to speak out, change is coming to hospitality.

It’s a similar change to the one we’ve seen recently among McDonald’s workers. Last year, McDonald’s workers in the UK went on strike for the first time in history. They were forced to strike because of unfair employment practices, and they saw successes because of it.

There’s still some way to go, but it’s a clear turning point. Low-paid workers have put with this for too long. They need change and a voice at work.

At the Trade Unions Congress (TUC), we believe that everyone deserves to be treated with respect in a great job that pays fairly. As Dispatches has shown, this value is under threat in the modern economy. Unions are more important than ever in guaranteeing workers respect and fair pay in the workplace.

So this week, the TUC is running HeartUnions week - a celebration of all the great work that unions do to make a positive difference in people’s working lives. Through this, we hope to draw attention to important campaigns like #McStrike, educate workers about their rights and build a stronger movement. Together, we can fight for a fairer economy.

Find out more about HeartUnions week here.