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Hyatt Hotel Housekeepers, Fired After Protesting Sexual Harassment, Rally for Better Treatment

Hyatt has a funny way of showing appreciation for its housekeepers; first it tapes their faces onto pictures of bikini-clad babes, and then it fires them.

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But it’s also a case about the devaluation of housekeepers and other hotel workers; the Reyes sisters were taking an extra 10 minutes on their lunch breaks, but not because they were lazy and unmotivated. Like many hotel workers, they were forced to because they couldn’t take their legally mandated 10-minute break in the morning as a result of having such cramped schedules. Housekeepers are tasked with tight quotas and when a hotel is at full occupancy, it’s difficult to get rooms turned over in time while also taking breaks. Like many other Hyatt housekeepers, Martha and Lorena made up their breaks where they could, and that was often during lunchtime.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to routine violations of workers' rights at Hyatt. The hotel where the sisters were working has a history of labor violations, including intimidation and harassment of workers involved in union organizing. Hyatt housekeepers are underpaid and overworked in a very gendered field, which ties in with the sexual harassment issue. 

Women workers in low-ranking positions, like housekeepers, are often presumed to be sexually available, a recurrent issue for women working in large chain hotels, who may be sexually assaulted or harassed by guests as well as other staff. In 2011, this issue made international headlines when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, was accused of assaulting a housekeeper. Frequently, hotel staff have limited legal recourse and protections for fear of retaliation, and thus suffer these conditions in silence. Providing a safer environment for housekeepers would reduce the incidence of harassment and assault, but it would also add to the hotel company’s bottom line, so the industry has been resistant to the idea.

And it’s a case about race; the Reyes sisters are among thousands of hotel housekeepers employed in California, many of whom are Latina. Representation of women of color among hotel workers is significant, and many are of undocumented or unclear immigration status, which makes it even more difficult for them to report work and safety violations. Troublingly, chains like Hyatt are turning to private contractors for cleaning services, which allows them to escape legal and moral liability for abuses in their hotels. In this culture of fear, many women may be intimidated into remaining silent about sexual harassment because of worries about deportation and other retaliatory actions.

The sisters note that one of their hopes for the outcome of this case is more community support for immigrant women who are currently too afraid to speak up about harassment and abuse. Martha says “the kind of work that we have is the dirtiest work that there is, and we do it as immigrants. It doesn’t give them the right to humiliate us because we’re immigrants.” A notable element of the Reyes sisters’ story is not just that their faces were taped onto bikini snaps without their permission, but that the bodies of the women in the photographs were white. The sisters weren’t just forcibly sexualized and turned into objects of amusement—they were also deracialized.

The Reyes sisters were considered disposable by Hyatt not just because they were housekeepers, with few legal protections and a limited social status, but also because they are Chicana, and thus the hotel thought it was unlikely that their case would attract attention. It would have been right, if the sisters hadn’t been determined, and backed by a union that was willing to go to bat for them even though they weren’t members, for which the sisters are grateful.

The parallels with this and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case are inescapable. Kahn was accused of sexual assault by hotel worker Nafissatou Diallo, who was also  represented by UNITE HERE. Diallo was raked through the coals by the media, which repeatedly identified her as a maid and stressed her immigrant status, attempting to suggest she was lying for profit.

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