They work “back-of-the-house” hotel positions, cleaning as many as 16 rooms daily and providing business travellers and tourists a “home away from home.” But many hotel workers, mostly immigrant women, are still sacrificing their health while supporting their families with low wages and little job security, labour activists say.

Hotel workers now want to share in the prosperity that their hard work generates, according to UNITE HERE Canada. The union is composed of more than 50,000 workers in hotels, casinos, industrial laundries, food service, airport concessions and restaurants, as well as textile and general manufacturing. It also represents workers in a variety of apparel sectors including manufacturing, distribution centres and retail. A high percentage of members are African-American, Latino and Asian immigrants, the majority of whom are female.

“Hotel Workers Rising” is the unions’ newest movement ensuring safer middle-class jobs and stronger communities. UNITE HERE Canada organizer, Andrea Calver, says, “The majority of positions in the service sector are characterized by low training, low skill, low paying and high turnover.

“When we’re talking about poverty in Canada, we’re not just talking about people on social assistance, we’re talking about people with jobs. And hotel workers are among those who have to work as many as three positions to get by. That has a huge cost to our community.”

During the last decade, the service sector has rapidly consolidated and expanded. The hotel industry used to be dominated by local players, but it is now dominated by multimillion-dollar international corporations like Starwood, Marriott, Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, Hilton, Hyatt and Four Seasons.

Chains in Toronto are prospering particularly well, recording their highest profits in 2004. These gains have come with higher luxury standards like bigger beds, triple sheeting and heavy duvets, according to UNITE HERE Canada.

The union says severe understaffing, coupled with the increase in room amenities, is hurting hotel workers. Lower numbers of room attendants and servers are expected to do the extra and often heavier work, resulting in their soaring injuries. The Creating Luxury, Enduring Pain study, compiled from hotels’ mandatory injury records and released by the UNITE HERE union, said hotel housekeepers had a 10.4 per cent injury rate, while non-housekeepers experienced a 5.6 per cent injury rate.

Workplace musculoskeletal disorders, which are linked to ergonomic hazards, are now prevalent among staff, employer records reveal. Employees face repetitive strains, sprains and overexertion so disproportionately high and severe, that more than 60 per cent of workers claim to take pain medication or visit a doctor. More than half of those were reluctant to report workplace pain to supervisors.

Still, the average hotel housekeeper’s salary in Toronto is $29,800. Varying from city to city, their median hourly wage is $10.48. On average, union wages are higher, with housekeepers earning roughly $14 every hour. Meanwhile, the poverty rate for immigrants has increased by at least 125 per cent between 1981 and 2001, according to United Way statistics provided by UNITE HERE Canada.

In the 1990s, incomes of two parents dropped by 13 per cent while those of single-parent families decreased by 18 per cent. Many Canadian children, as a result, now live in low-income families (those who make less than $22,500 per year). Guatemala-born Carolina Velasquez, who is employed as a banquet server at the Airport Hilton in Toronto, claims the hotel employment takes its toll on workers and their families.

“Slowly, (hoteliers) have been cutting (jobs) and they don’t replace them. Today, people work two or three times more than before … but we are not given many hours per day. So we have to go from one hotel to another looking for hours to fill up our week. I don’t have time to go home and cook and do all the things I have to do for my family.”

She continues, “Visitors don’t see what problems we have inside the hotels. They just come and see nice beds and workers with big smiles, without realizing the sacrifices that the hotel staff make in their lives to do this work … Meanwhile, our managers just say we’re getting older whenever we tell them that we are hurt.”

The symptoms of numbness, stiffness, swelling and burning pain experienced by hotel staff never goes away, according to Myrna Stoller, a native of the Philippines who has been a room attendant at Toronto’s Fairmount Royal York for 15 years.

“The big hotels expect so much from us workers who are doing all the tough jobs. It’s really, really hard,” she says. “We respect our employers. We respect our jobs. But we expect to work every single day without injuries.”

Both Velasquez and Stoller argue that their “hard, honest” jobs warrant fair treatment from employers — and dignity.

In January, 23 hotel contracts expired in the Greater Toronto Area. By June, four-year contracts in more than 400 North America hotels will be up for renewal. Strategically, the 4,000 workers in this city are pushing for groundbreaking collective agreements to be signed.

UNITE HERE Canada strongly recommends equitable wages; humane workloads and reasonable quotas; comprehensive re-designs (i.e. beds, carts); ergonomically designed tools (i.e. long handles); increased staffing; enforced break time and health and safety training for supervisors and employees. As well, they want increased support for studies on hotel housekeeper hazards and interventions. Taking a “high road to prosperity,” hotel workers say they envision a partnership with hotel owners, one that sees training initiatives with community colleges.

Calver maintains that the majority of service sector employees want ESL (English as a Second Language) courses and computer training, but hoteliers just want to teach them how to “make a bed faster and make a better drink.”

“This is a long-term struggle. There’s a really important role for faith groups and the churches, because they have been left with running food banks and clothing banks (for the working poor) — a patchwork of social services,” she says, adding that unionization is the most effective anti-poverty program.

“The service sector is the future of work and if we’re going to have good jobs in our community, hotel jobs have to have higher standards.”