'We Don’t Give Up!'


October 11, 2018

One of most visited cities on the planet, Paris is renowned for its luxury hotels. While a one-night stay often costs several hundred euros, it can take workers, many of them immigrants, weeks to earn the same amount.

In the face of such rampant low pay—as well as the industry’s infamously tough working conditions—many have turned to the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) union. Its Hôtel de Prestige Economiques (HPE; hotel workers) division counts hundreds of members across the French capital.

With the city’s Fashion Week in full swing, CGT-HPE housekeepers at the Park Hyatt hotel are the latest to say ‘enough is enough.’ - Cole Stangler

Written by Amandine Cailhol and Gurvan Kristanadjaja, translated by Joe Hayns and Roberto Mozzachiodi. Originally published in Libération Thursday October 4, 2018.

Outside the Park Hyatt hotel, only a few metres from the place Vendôme1, a group of neatly-dressed tourists looked on, half-curious, half-amused: In front of them, thirty or-so employees of the prestigious establishment formed a human chain.

Other striking workers banged empty plastic bottles, chanting “On lâche rien, on lâche rien, on lâche rien!”— ‘We Don’t Give Up!” — and one, dancing, gave out flyers from the CGT’s hotel workers’ branch, with the capitalised inscription “Hyatt is lying to its clients”. “They’re made to believe it’s a luxury, when we’re exploited” says one of the workers, holding up a sign — “it’s class struggle”, they added.

On September 25, staff at the five-star hotel — cleaners, dishwashers, housekeepers, and others — began an “indefinite” strike2. Every morning, from 7am, they bang instruments underneath the hotel’s windows - “we wake the clients”, laughed one housekeeper. They have two demands: that the establishment stop sub-contracting, and increases wages.

The Palace which pays the least

“After two years of negotiation with management, we have decided to start striking, since it’s our last option”, said Sameh, delegate of the CGT union, standing beside the larger group. He is directly employed by the hotel; other striking workers are employed by a cleaning company, STN. This is their third strike since 2013. “Thanks to past actions, they got STN to increase their salary to €1900 a month, plus bonuses”, explained the cégétiste.

According to Sameh, STN workers better paid than workers hired by Park Hyatt directly, earning over €3 per hour more, with free transport to work. “It’s the palace which pays least of all”, despite being more than profitable than many hotels, argues Sameh: “We’ve had access to the accounts. When we saw that they make €8 million profits in 2017 whilst categorically refusing to the increase the lowest salaries, that was the spark”.

Wandé, also a member of the CGT, dances a little away from the makeshift drums. Showing his titre de séjour [residence permit], Wandé came to France from Mali in 1990, and has washed dishes at the hotel for seven years. His starting salary of €1300 per month has never been increased. He said he’d received a bonus from his employer - once.

At 63 years old he’s three years from retirement; this is his first strike. “The noise, it’s going well”, he said, looking at the hotel’s windows which, he assured us, have been empty since the start of the strike. “Ne pas lâcher” (‘Don’t Give Up’), he said, arm-in-arm with his colleagues.

“Everyone together”

Sameh, at the Hyatt for four years, has seen numerous people pass through the hotel. “The turnover is important. It’s a hotel well-known for being #un lieu de formation#, a training place”. This explains the low wages, and the fact that the strike is supported by around only 35% of Hyatt staff, said Sameh. “How can you convince younger people that have only been here a month to join us?”, he asked. The current mobilisation initially attracted only the older workers, those who “are not able to take the risk of changing hotel”, though other workers have joined the strikers’ ranks over the last few days. Amongst sub-contracted workers, the ratio of strikers is far higher, at around 75%, said Sameh.

The question of money is at the heart of the conflict The small raise granted by management after the preceding strike was “not enough” said one of the striking housekeepers - workers want to be hired by the Park Hyatt itself, at the higher rate.

“We’ve got rent to pay, and sub-contracting is risky for us. One day the Hyatt might say ‘we’re changing companies’, and we’d disappear in a flash”, said another worker, adding that “whether we’re sub-contracted or not, we’re all demanding everyone’s right to be employees of Hyatt, and to being paid properly”. According to the CGT-HPE, management are blocking dialogue.

Cited by the AFP3, the hotel’s general manager, Claudio Ceccherelli, has affirmed that the sub-contracting of housekeeping “is part of the economic model of the Hyatt chain’s hotels across the world”, and cannot therefore be changed by the establishment.

“No barbeque on Peace Street”

That strikers rely on donations from passers-by, and an online fund. The CGT has promised them €42 per strike day. Some of hotel’s clients have slipped them a note; a few days ago, a rich neighbour even wrote the CGT a €20,000 cheque. “He signed it on the bonnet of a car”, laughed a worker. But, some of the guests leave the hotel with sour faces, the strikers said. In the background, a valet admits that the noise has its impact: “Customers are leaving, yes. Some will probably not come back.” Despite everything, the workers maintain that the atmosphere is, in fact, “peaceful”. They brandish a photo on their phone to prove it: “A customer comes to dance every morning with us! Look, here he goes, into a Bentley. “

As the days go by, the mobilization settles in for for the long haul. On October 3, the union had planned a barbecue in front of the hotel, but it was turned into a picnic, “because the prefect said ‘no barbecue on rue de la Paix’” says a striker. Instead of a eating merguez sausages4, Hyatt and STN workers took to airing their grievances through a microphone.

Two railway workers and the radical MP Clementine Autain attended the protest, showing support for the workers’ struggle; last Friday (October 28) they were granted the right to protest outside the Hyatt de la Madeleine.

“If the boss agrees to our demands, we’ll resume work tomorrow. If the boss doesn’t agree, we’ll stay put”, said Wandé.


  1. A central Paris square.  

  2. On the same day, CGT members held a vigil for their colleague and comrade Issa Coulibaly, who was found dead on September 3 following an unbroken week of work for cleaning company ONET.  

  3. Agence France-Presse, a Paris-based news agency 

  4. A Maghrebian sausage, usually of spiced lamb or beef. 


authors

Joe Hayns (@JoeHayns)

Joe Hayns is a student (UCU), and works in the arts industry (IWGB). He writes about the Maghreb, and trade unions.

Roberto Mozzachiodi (@ucu_rankfile)

Roberto Mozzachiodi is a student, teacher, and organiser (UCU) at Goldsmiths College. He writes on postwar French Marxism and the border struggle in Calais.