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05.19.11

DSK Accuser: The Dangerous Life of a Hotel Maid

Many in the media have focused on how sexual assault allegations against the French politician will affect his career, but the affair underscores the tough challenges hotel maids face working in isolation, and for often unsympathetic bosses, writes Jesse Ellison.

Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar, the former chief of Egypt’s Bank of Alexandria, was arrested in New York City Monday night for sexually assaulting a hotel maid. Omar, 74, was staying at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue when he allegedly groped, kissed, and “gyrated” against the woman Sunday night. Police say he summoned her to bring tissues and locked the door behind her. “I'm not up here for that," the woman told him; he then allegedly asked for her phone number. The New York Post says she gave him a fake number, at which point he allowed her to unlock the door and leave.

The incident, along with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegations, underscore the tough challenges hotel maids face working in isolation, and for often unsympathetic bosses, writes Jesse Ellison.

Is it any wonder that most of the media response to the sexual assault charges leveled against Dominique Strauss-Kahn have largely focused on how his career will be affected? Until word of his arrest broke, his future was so bright that many in France immediately assumed that his arrest was the result of an elaborate attempt by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to remove the main opponent in his upcoming reelection effort.

But that Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, reportedly an African immigrant, was a hotel housekeeper whose story was discreditedlegitimately or not— by a slew of voices, speaks volumes about the housekeeping industry in which the woman works, and the challenges workers like her face.

“It’s absolutely no surprise that this happened,” says Priscilla Gonzalez, director of the advocacy group, Domestic Workers United. “Being a historically disenfranchised and devalued, invisible kind of work, people who work in this industry do face a lot of forms of abuse and exploitation, and sexual abuse and harassment are certainly one of those forms… The reality is that the women who do this work are not seen; they’re not recognized. For every woman that comes forward with a complaint, there are hundreds of others who don’t.”

It’s a perfect storm of factors that make the job so dangerous: Housekeepers often are tasked with cleaning whole blocks of rooms, so they’re alone in isolated wings or halls of their hotels, without security or any means of calling for help. The women who fill these positions tend to have humble backgrounds, have few means, or are illegal immigrants—and may indeed have all those characteristics. They consequently are less likely file complaints or speak up about mistreatment, for fear of jeopardizing their jobs. And there’s an inherent power dynamic at play, wherein a hotel’s management is eager to please wealthy clients—even if that means turning a blind eye to the complaints of one of their staffers.

Yasmin Vasquez, a single mother who has worked as a housekeeper in a Chicago hotel for nearly a decade, says she and her coworkers are subjected to harassment regularly, especially on the weekends, when guests have have been drinking. Once, when she complained to her boss about a client who exposed himself to her, not only was no action taken, the hotel apologized to the guest. “One has to tolerate a lot,” she says in Spanish. “The bosses tell us to be pleasant, smile, say thank you, and offer good service. But some guests think this is an open invitation for other things ... There is no sense of security.” When she was working in California, Vasquez says, one of her coworkers—who was undocumented—was sexually assaulted by a guest, but when she reported it, the hotel accused her of lying. “It doesn’t matter if you are legal or illegal. It gives no right to be touched,” she says.

“The bosses tell us to be pleasant, smile, say thank you and offer good service. But some guests think this is an open invitation for other things.”

Working as a housekeeper is difficult in any circumstances. Cleaning hotel rooms involves lifting mattresses that can weigh more than 100 pounds in order to tuck in sheets, which typically are flat, not fitted; extended periods of kneeling; and stooping over to scrub bathrooms and walls. It’s the kind of repetitive stress that frequently leads to slipped discs and other back injuries, and as a result, housekeepers are twice as likely to get hurt at work than the average American worker. A 2002 study by the University of California-Berkeley’s Labor Occupation Health Program found that more than three-quarters of hotel housekeepers said they’d been injured at work.

“It’s just unbelievable,” says Tho Thi Do, general vice president for Immigration, civil Rights, and diversity at Unite Here, the country’s biggest union for employees who work in service industries. The union is currently backing a California bill that would require hotels to switch to fitted sheets and provide housekeepers long-handled brooms—changes the industry is reluctant to adopt because, they say, it could cost them up to $20 million. But according to Do, it’s a small price to pay. “The physical pain, the possibility of being physically disabled for life… The comfort of the guests is at the cost of these women’s bodies,” she says.

The woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of attempting to rape her reportedly didn’t know who he was when she told her supervisors, and then the police, about the assault. She surely couldn’t have predicted the international attention the incident would receive. But advocates for hotel employees hope there might be a silver lining here, for housekeepers as a collective, if not the accuser herself.

“High-profile cases like this bring the issue to the surface,” Gonzalez says. “It brings these workers literally out of the shadows and it sparks conversation. And hopefully, it will also spark action and communicate to other workers doing this kind of work in this industry that they have the right to come forward and reclaim their dignity.”

—With Michael Cruz

Jesse Ellison is a writer and editor for Newsweek, covering society, culture, business, and health. She also co-authors the Equality Myth and can be found on Tumblr.