Afrika left Ethiopia for London when she was 15. She became involved in community organizing and was encouraged by her mother to join a union. Now aged 30, she is a trade union organizer.
❛The hospitality sector is made up almost entirely of migrants, and there is a high turnover because of the terrible pay and working conditions. We travel long distances to work in the city centre, and when we get home we’re too tired to do anything. We’re not machines, but all we do is work and rest. Many hospitality workers have physical problems – bad backs, aches and pains. They take painkillers to get them through their shifts, or turn to alcohol to unwind and sleep, or drink lots of energy drinks to get them through the day.
Migrants will put up with a lot because of what they’ve left behind. What they are experiencing now may be luxury compared to the environment of recession or poverty or repression that they come from – and employers know that. They say: “Put up or get out” because they know there are lots of others available to replace them.
Migrants just want to start a new life, a life without trouble, but they don’t understand the language or the system. There are no locals on hand, colleagues who can give advice on how things work here.
There’s not much solidarity between the workers. There are language and cultural barriers. And people want to keep their privacy; they may not trust each other. It’s hard to build up trust with your colleagues when there is such a high staff turnover.
Uniforms are not replaced regularly because of cuts in hotel budgets. Some staff – on a minimum wage – end up buying their own shirts or suits just to feel comfortable at work and proud of their appearance.
For women migrant workers there may be cultural or religious issues. I noticed one housekeeper putting her headscarf back on at the end of a shift. She had been told that she wasn’t allowed to wear it at work, and didn’t know that it was illegal for her employer to force her to take it off.
Unions aren’t even on people’s minds; they don’t know about them. I’ve told people that I’m in a union, but it’s hard to talk to them about it. Some fear trouble if they join. They fear what their managers will think (to whom they may have a sense of loyalty), which creates a sense of guilt. They are worried about the cost of membership fees. And they fear victimization and losing their job.
Migrants will put up with a lot because of what they’ve left behind
We’re campaigning for union recognition in the workplace because that would allow union organizers to talk to staff at work, rather than having to hang around at the back door like a mistress. There are CCTV cameras around the hotel exits, which makes staff feel they are being watched.
Real strength will come from workers seeing the union as a collective environment, but we’re far from that. Most still see the union as a way to secure their individual rights rather than their collective rights. We do service their personal problems through regular “surgeries”, but we need access to the workplace so that we can train workers to help themselves.
Being in a union helps people to understand their rights, but getting them into the union in the first place is what’s hard.
It’s also important for the union to give us migrant workers a voice, to listen to our experiences, and to give us agency. It’s our union, after all.❜
Afrika spoke to Jo Lateu.