NEW YORK, May 23, 2011 (IPS) - With the arrest of the once powerful head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, following allegations that he tried to rape a maid in his 3,000-dollar- a-night penthouse suite at the Sofitel Hotel, a spotlight has been turned on the treatment of female cleaning staff, many of whom are immigrants who keep silent for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.
Interviews with hotel workers revealed numerous incidents of sexual comments, proposals and harassment, with management frequently turning a blind eye out of deference to their high-profile guests.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former female employee at the luxury Mercer Hotel in Soho told IPS, "It happens all the time. I think this case was a bit extreme, but yes, it is not uncommon for hotel maids to be harassed or even attacked. I would always hear disrespectful comments, or be asked to join male guests in exchange for money when I worked at the hotel."
"Most guys who stay at these establishments are high-class businessmen. They have the money and the power to do whatever they please and think they can get away with anything," she said, adding that cleaning staff is reluctant to complain because they are afraid that the hotels will not back them up under the theory "the customer is always right".
"If the employee is unsatisfied with the treatment received, they are more than welcome to find a new job," she said about the prevailing attitude.
But for many hotel maids, finding a new job is not an option. Some are undocumented, while others are in the United States on a work visa that ties them to a specific contract. Both situations make these workers vulnerable to long hours, low wages and in some cases, physical or sexual abuse.
"The control that employers often exert over their foreign national employees and the perception of 'ownership' that exists in such relationships creates a sense of fear carried by foreign workers in the United States of losing their employment or being removed," said Jeremy Richards, an attorney specialising in immigration law.
Strauss-Kahn has since resigned from the IMF to fight the charges against him stemming from the May 14 incident. The French national is under house arrest in New York on a million-dollar bail plus five- million-dollar bond ensuring his appearance in court.
Little is known about his accuser beyond media reports describing her as a 32-year-old West African immigrant and mother of a teenager, who had been working at the Sofitel for the past three years.
Since she came forward with her account, two other female employees say Strauss-Kahn made sexual advances to them during his stay.
"I believe the situation of most hotel maids is undoubtedly delicate not only because most of them are immigrants, but also because they are at the bottom of the hotel hierarchy," Janaina Santos, a front desk receptionist at a luxury Manhattan hotel, told IPS. "Hospitality is one of the largest industries in turnover and replacing the employee is not a difficult thing."
She said the incident could spark changes in hotel security policies, which prior to the Strauss-Kahn incident were mainly focused on the safety of guests.
"There was a concern about the employee's behaviour with the guests, but I do not remember seeing anything, at least in my function, on how to react in the case of being abused by a guest. That is interesting, considering this is not a recent matter," Santos said.
In a statement released on May 16, Robert Gaymer-Jones, CEO of the Sofitel, stated that the hotel management would be available to assist in the police investigation of exactly what took place at the hotel. The statement reinforced the hotel's priority to ensure the safety of its guests and staff.
"To protect both guests and staff, Sofitel New York has implemented strict procedures and a whistle-blower hotline to allow employees to report any specific situations. These procedures have been in place for more than a year," the statement said.
Jones also responded to accusations made by a member of the French parliament that the New York Sofitel's management had covered up repeated acts of sexual aggression in the past.
"Management is not aware of any previous cases of attempted sexual aggression," he stated.
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