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A Microcosm of Extreme Stratification

August 2, 2011 by and tagged , , ,

This article by Rachel Sherman (whose excellent book I reviewed here) is your must-read of the day. Remember that Sherman engaged in some participant observation in a couple of luxury hotels and focused on strategies through which employees dealt with the system of extreme inequalities.

In typical Goffmanian fashion, in luxury hotels, you have the front region:

“The arrests in New York of former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Egyptian businessman Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar, who were alleged to have sexually assaulted hotel housekeepers, have made the power relations between hotel workers and guests explicit. The outcry makes it clear that there are services to which hotel guests are not entitled. What has been less discussed is what services luxury hotel guests are entitled to — what they pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars per night for — and the jobs and conditions of those who create the luxury hotel experience.

Luxury hotels are known for their beautiful rooms, with distinctive décor, upscale linen and amenities. Yet managers claim that service is the most important amenity, “because we all have beds and bathrooms” according to a sales manager (1). Workers lavish personal attention on guests, addressing them (and often their pets) by name, responding immediately to their desires, and remembering their preferences. One guest wants her breakfast papaya sliced with a straight edge rather than a serrated one; another dislikes open showers, so her bathroom is fitted with a curtain. A smoker might find his favourite cigarettes in his room; if not, someone is available to run out and get them. Workers anticipate guests’ needs, placing an extra box of tissues next to the bed or offering soup to a guest who has a cold. As a guest summed it up, luxury hotel workers “do things for you in a way that’s, like, better than your mother!””

And then, there is the back region:

“It takes dozens or hundreds of workers, doing very different jobs, to produce luxury service. As in most hotels, these jobs are broadly seen as belonging to the “front of house” or “back of house”, depending on whether interaction with guests is a significant part of the work. This distinction also often aligns with demographic characteristics of the workers.

The back of house, especially in US cities, is usually staffed by immigrants from Latin America, Asia, eastern Europe and Africa, who do physically demanding work, primarily in housekeeping — cleaning rooms, providing evening turndown, and running around the hotel picking up or dropping off guests’ laundry and newly shined shoes. Workers in the back of house have little autonomy. Room cleaners, almost always women, are regulated by a daily quota (12-14 rooms in upscale hotels): they lift heavy mattresses, scrub floors, polish glass and push vacuum cleaners. They change duvet covers and up to 10 pillowcases, hang bathrobes in closets, and replace towels and toiletries in bathrooms. Turndown attendants, among other tasks, close drapes, turn on the radio, lay out slippers and leave cookies by the bed. Sometimes these workers must skip breaks to finish shifts; a room cleaner told me she lost 10 pounds in her first weeks at the hotel.”

And social life is a stage and in service industries, that involve all sorts of performance and emotional labor:

“The front of house comprises doormen, bellmen, valets, front desk agents and concierges, workers who are more likely to be white and/or born in the US or western Europe. Beyond the physical labour of carrying luggage and standing all day at the desk, they provide “emotional labour” in interactions with guests (2). They need the freedom to deal with whatever guests may ask of them, so their work is less constrained. But they are almost constantly onstage, responding to whatever guests need and whatever mood they happen to be in. Doormen, bellmen, and concierges also derive a significant part of their income from tips, making these relationships crucial to their livelihood.”

And these are workers who are subject to double discipline, from managers and from customers:

“Like most people in interactive service jobs, hotel workers are subject to the authority of customers as well as managers. Management encourages guests to voice complaints and provide feedback through comment cards, making them responsible for the evaluation of workers. Many hotels hire “mystery shoppers” who pretend to be guests and then report back to managers.

Although back of house workers interact little with hotel visitors, guest actions affect them significantly. For housekeepers, every shift is a race against the clock to meet the quota, and guest behaviour either speeds up or slows down that. Messy rooms take longer to clean; housekeepers fear those where children have left fingerprints on every surface, spilled their juice, or wet the bed. Guests who sleep late leave room cleaners standing anxiously in the hallways. Those who leave towels strewn all over the bathroom create more work for evening attendants. Guests influence the order in which workers perform their tasks, slowing them down.

Housekeepers also live in fear of potential complaints that might give them “a bad reputation”. These workers told me about guests who called the housekeeping office to report a hole in a sheet, a mark on the wall or even hair in the bathtub (which the guest had already used). The possibility of guest surveillance leads workers to discipline themselves, making extra efforts to preclude dissatisfaction.”

But workers do get revenge in subtle and symbolic ways (something that is extensively detailed in Sherman’s book).

But the bottom line is this:

“In the US, the belief in egalitarianism makes people uncomfortable with class inequalities immediately visible in luxury hotels — both material disparity and unequal entitlement to labour and attention. The reciprocity guests show toward their workers helps both workers and guests feel that they are equals, rather than servant and master. The small acts of revenge level the symbolic playing field, but the unequal entitlements remain. The union presence goes a long way toward making sure these workers labour with dignity and without poverty. But the everyday workings of the hotel are based on the implicit idea that some people (guests) are entitled to receive attention, status and human labour, while other people (workers) provide it.”

Posted in Labor, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

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