Chicago hotel housekeepers say NO! to workplace harassment … and win!

Unite Here members celebrate passage of Chicago ordinance protecting hotel workers from sexual harassment

While celebrities and politicians being accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault has brought workplace harassment into the national conversation, low wage workers, such as hotel housekeepers face similar instances of harassment cleaning hotel rooms and hope the conversation will help to end the harassment they’ve been fighting for years. Much less attention has been paid to the abuses and harassment low wage workers face, especially in the hotel industry.

A minibar attendant at a Chicago hotel, Cecilia walked to a guest’s door and was let in to a man masturbating at his computer. Given the satisfied look on the man’s face, it was clear that he had planned the encounter. Another guest once answered her knock by opening the door naked. “I felt nasty,” Cecilia recalled, “You’d expect that to happen to people in a jail but not in regular work. I felt like crying.” One of Cecilia’s colleagues confided that a guest tried to embrace her while in his room. Cecilia had to escort the housekeeper to security to report the incident.

Harassment in the workplace is not a new, or one-time, occurrence for housekeepers, who face abuses but are unable to report for fear of retaliation from an already exploitative work environment. Maria Elena Durazo, of Unite Here, has advocated for housekeepers to be given handheld, wireless panic buttons that can alert hotel security when a worker feels threatened: “Frankly, I don’t think much of the public understands what housekeepers go through just to clean these rooms and carry out the work.” The union won workers’ contracts to include the panic button, but the situation of sexual harassment for housekeepers is still dire. Durazo is now lobbying the city council to mandate them for all workers, union or not.

The panic buttons go a long way for workers to feel safe, but the imbalance of economic power between the harasser and survivors cannot solely be addressed by buttons. As Durazo argues, “We have to do something to equalize the power so that women really have the ability to speak up, without having to risk their livelihood. That goes for whether you’re a housekeeper or a food server or a big-time actor.”

To bring attention to the harassment of hotel and casino workers, Unite Here surveyed 500 of its Chicago area members. The majority surveyed were Latinx and Asian immigrants.

  • Nearly 58 % of hotel workers and 77% of casino workers had been sexually harassment by a guest;
  • 49 % of hotel workers said they had experienced a guest exposing themselves to the worker when answering their room door;
  • 56 % of casino cocktail servers said a guest had touched them, or attempted to touch them, without their consent;
  • Around 40% of casino workers had been pressured for a date or sexual favors by a guest.

Outfitting housekeepers with panic buttons started to receive attention and popularity after French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of assaulting housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo in a New York Hotel. Tet next year, the New York Hotel Trades Council won a contract for 30,000 workers that guaranteed the use of panic buttons for housekeepers.

The Chicago campaign to mandate panic buttons for the hotel industry received little resistance from the hotel lobby. President of the Chicago Federation of Labor Jorge Ramirez stated. “We didn’t see them out there with pompoms, but they didn’t speak out against it, either. I think the industry would have a hard time opposing this, especially with everything that’s come to light in the last few months.”

To mark the passage of the ordinance for panic buttons, housekeepers wore “No Harveys in Chicago” T-shirts, hoping that the buttons bring a sense of security and safety to women like herself and the younger housekeeper she had helped a couple months prior, because, “You shouldn’t be scared to work.”

 

(Photo Credits: Chicago Sun-Times / Fran Spielman)

Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!

Barry Farm

“Mixed-income housing was supposed to liberate the poor from the projects. Instead, it has only created more hardship and isolation,” reads the tagline for Maya Dukmasova’s “The Problem with Mixed-income Housing”. While I agree that “mixed-income” housing has increased hardship and isolation, I think it’s for those who have been permanently evicted, not for those who made it into the shiny new buildings.

I don’t object to “mixed-income housing” per se. My mom practiced it in her own way: when we emigrated from Jamaica, we lived in a studio apartment in NW Washington, DC, where my bedroom was the walk-in closet (if you need tips, I can show you how it’s done), and we lived in the last low-income housing in Chevy Chase (now pricey townhouses). The idea was to live among the better-off to access their schools, but it didn’t hurt that their groceries and drug stores and libraries and dentists and employment opportunities were also a step up (my mom’s side hustle after her full-time secretarial job was babysitting, like for Robert McNamara’s kids — yeah, that Robert McNamara — while I was in Jamaica at Grandma’s/boarding school). We weren’t welcomed, and I felt ashamed of the busted up road in front of our Chevy Chase apartment, and definitely felt the class differences, but no one could stop me from shining at school, or shopping or even just browsing at the store. The park was open to all, even kids with second-hand tennis rackets and balls they found in the underbrush on the way to the court, and safe, even for girls. There’s no accounting for how many magazines I read in the air-conditioning at People’s Drugs, or records I listened to at the then-new library on Arlington Road, to evade the summer heat — and learn something, just through the exposure.

Dukmasova’s description of the current version of “mixed-income” housing, where the poor are barely admitted or tolerated, and thoroughly policed, is not quite that. On paper, at least, it looks better: planned, and state-funded. But the cynicism of its roots are showing in its actual practices of exclusion and the drive to privatization that results not in the replacement of public housing, but its near-elimination in favor of maximizing market-rate units and minimizing subsidized ones. For those who have made it into what seems to be a mere 10% return rate for prior residents, I must admit I’m less concerned about how folks manage once they get there. It is possible to act prouder than the rich folk and carry on with finding what’s usable and needed — we took buses all over the place to meet up with other West Indians; when Grandma visited, she found the all-day Black church for Sunday worship — and to talk about the snobby neighbors in the privacy of one’s family and friends. The real exclusion happens right at the beginning, where so few former residents squeak through, and so many more are discarded forever, because of a police record, or credit record issues, etc.

Still, the ultimate exclusion is where I live now, in Ward 8, at the center of concentrated poverty in DC. I can’t uphold that. I can’t romanticize the compound effect of generational impoverishment, shit schools, absent health care, only recently improving libraries, absent employment opportunities, high transportation costs to other parts of the city, vibrant illegal and violently dangerous economy, and it goes on and on. Yes, we have each other’s backs, mostly; yes, we speak on the street, and there’s a gracefulness to how most folks relate. But I don’t know one young person who doesn’t know their future lies in getting out of SE, some way or somehow. And sometimes that’s no further than NW for workshops and bringing back the stuff they’re learning to the community. But even that is a Very Big Deal and hard to get hold of.

So yes, there are problems with the current version of mixed-income housing that need to be addressed, but nothing excludes like concentrated poverty and living with the daily knowledge that the greater society has deemed you disposable and forgettable. The folks in Barry Farms here in Ward 8, who have seen how few came back when the Douglass and Stanton Projects were torn down and replaced by Henson Ridge I and II, know this, and are fighting to make it different. Their first concern is who gets to come back and how many. I’m pretty sure that if someone tried to say some folks can have grills on their balconies and some can’t, they’d call bullshit, and invite some lawyer to go have fun with that.

 

(Photo Credit: Truthout / Rania Khalek)

 

State sexual violence haunts the world

Eman Al Obeidy burst into a hotel dining room in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday, and struggled to tell the story of how she’d been raped and beaten, for two days, by Qaddafi’s forces. She was then attacked, in the hotel dining room, and carried out. Journalists present were disturbed, as much by the treatment they witnessed as by Al Obeidy’s account. The latest report suggests that she is being held hostage at Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Salwa al-Housiny Gouda was one of the proud citizens of Tahrir Square, in Cairo. She was also one of seventeen women, arrested by the Egyptian army, imprisoned, tortured, stripped and subjected to a `virginity test.’

These women’s stories are critical to any understanding of the ongoing struggles in particular places, such as Libya, such as Egypt. They are also part of the treatment of women in prisons around the globe. There are more prisons and jails now then ever before, and women are the fastest growing prison population, globally and in many regions of the world. Across the world, nation states rigorously refuse to address sexual violence. At the same time, across the world, nation states build more prisons in which sexual violence against women intensifies and spreads.

From the United States to Jamaica to South Africa and beyond, rape kits sit unprocessed for months, some times years. In the United States, many cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have failed to process rape kits in a timely manner … if at all. When called to task for the failure, the administrations stonewall or, if forced to reform, drag their feet. Illinois just this past week passed a law “that will force law agencies to submit DNA evidence for testing.” They had to pass a law to make agencies process DNA. In New Jersey, also last week, the State legislature passed a law banning the practice of charging rape victims for the cost of processing the rape kits.

In Jamaica, rape survivors wait an average of two years for their attackers’ cases to be heard. In South Africa, the State has failed to adequately educate police about the appropriate procedures to follow in cases of sexual violence. Sometimes the training is a pro forma run through, with little follow up or evaluation. More often, there’s no training at all.

This is the state of the world. This state is made most manifest in the asylum and immigrant detentions centers. When the United Kingdom set up its fast track asylum processes, it did so with complete disregard for the women asylum seekers who are fleeing sexual violence. For example, one woman applied for asylum. She was part of a dissident movement in Angola, had been tortured, raped, and suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome, among other mental issues.  The first official to hear her case, in 2008, decided she was `lying’. She was detained at Yarl’s Wood, despite compelling evidence of both torture and mental illness. All part of the system.

This is just one of many such tales. The asylum system has been described as “simply not equipped to handle rape, slavery, the threat of ‘honor killings,’ or other complex claims”. The simplicity of being unequipped is this: the state chooses not to equip, because women, and especially women of color, don’t matter.

At the same time, women prisoners suffer sexual violence at the hands of prison staff. Jan Lastocy is a woman prisoner in the United States, and hers is a typical story. She was raped, repeatedly, by a corrections officer. The warden made it clear that any reports of problems tagged the prisoner as a troublemaker. Lastocy was a few months from release. For seven months, three or four times a week, the prison guard raped Jan Lastocy. Terrified and desperate, she kept her silence. Upon release, she reported the assaults, and now suffers a sense of great and intense guilt for her silence. According to recent US government studies, the vast majority of sexual violence committed in prisons is committed by the staff.

Prison rape is a human rights crisis in the United States today. It is a crisis in juvenile prisons. It is a crisis in women’s prisons across the globe. This crisis is not accidental nor is it exceptional. It is the crisis of predictable consequence. Rape today is being used in Libya as a weapon. That is terrible. Rape has been used, across the globe, as a tool in the construction of so-called criminal justice systems, in the construction of more prisons with more women prisoners. That too is terrible, and to continue to claim shock and surprise at the use of rape is unacceptable. State sexual violence haunts the world.

 

(Photo Credit: suzeeinthecity/ Mira Shihadeh and El Zeft)

 

The Security of Sex: Hi-Tech Sex

A detective `monitors’ Craigslist’s “Erotic Services” category

Earlier this month, a Chicago-area sheriff’s office sued Craigslist claiming that the website facilitates prostitution through its “Erotic Services” section which Sheriff Tom Dart claims to be “one the largest sources of prostitution in the country”.  The Cook County Sheriff’s Department is asking a federal judge to both force the site to close the offending section and repay the sheriff’s department $100,000 in funds that have been used over the years to police the website.  Dart goes on to claim that the site’s ads are often masks for pimps, child and forced prostitution.  He also claims that Craigslist is at fault for an increase in volume of workers that the force has had to battle and that it allows criminals to elude police more easily.  Craigslist may also be responsible for spikes in teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and global warming; but that’s for another day.

This suit has not only ignored the fact that Craigslist has been exceptionally cooperative with police in many cities by adding requirements such as payments and proper ID for the “erotic services” section, removal and reporting of illegal ads and supporting undercover officers placing ads with no legal requirement to do so, but that law enforcement seems to have an easier time policing the website because of the digital fingerprints as well as faces in photos posted, credit card and active phone numbers that can be traced.  Workers who are online are also less likely to use public strolls and are able to safely and discretely work indoors.  Likewise, Craigslist and workers on the site are potentially protected by certain legal loopholes.  Websites cannot be held liable for the postings of users, which is the entire basis of sites like Craigslist; they also post a number of legal warnings on the site itself.  Also, many workers utilizing the “erotic services” section have been to place disclaimers on their posts claiming “Money exchanged is intended for time/companionship services only. Anything else that may occur is a personal choice between two consenting adults of legal age and is not contracted for, nor is it requested to be contracted for any other matter. This is NOT an offer of prostitution!!! Contacting me constitutes acceptance of these terms”.

Despite this, the suit continues.  However, any more, most major cities have devoted staff, sometimes full time, to policing the site.  This is often done under the banner of searching for underage or trafficked children.  The FBI has also jumped on this bandwagon, starting a full-scale campaign against “child prostitution” in June 2003 called “Operation Cross Country”. The FBI also blames the internet for a growth in instances of child prostitution.  However, neither the FBI nor police seem to question whether or not it is actually more common or just more visible and identifiable by police because of the accessibility of the internet. An article from last October concerning the latest FBI push points to discrepancies in this discussion saving child workers.  The article celebrates the fact that 518 consenting adult workers were arrested while rescuing merely 47 children ages 13-17 and arresting only 73 pimps.  Such disproportionate numbers of adult arrests as well as an account from the Boston Globe about a sting by this team involving another 5 adult arrests (the FBI does not claim that they suspected any of the women to be minors) hints that there is a much larger mission being undertaken by the FBI.  Special Agent Robbie Burroughs comments on the arrests in western Washington state, that most will be charged by the state but only 3 of the 35 will be prosecuted for pimping children.  If getting children out of the sex trade is really the goal of “Operation Cross Country”, why are predominately adult women workers being targeted, abused and harassed so blatantly? The message is clear; either the rights of adult sex workers are not respected by lawn enforcement and are scene as a necessary and deserving casualty of this attempt to “save the children” or “saving the children” is merely a cover for a larger campaign against workers.  The harassment and targeting is justified because the police in this instance are simply claiming to be an extension of the larger “help industry”.

So what is gained by battling Craigslist and other sites of internet-based sex work?  It’s a symbolic victory most. The internet, it seems, is being as heavily gentrified and policed as downtown Washington. This policing is just as violent towards workers, taking away one of the safer modes of work.  Critics of the networking site fail to acknowledge why the site may be so popular for workers, the vast majority of whom are not underage and work for themselves.  Sites like Craigslist provide a safer means for workers to advertise and screen clients.  Workers on the streets have a much higher risk of being attacked or abused because strolls in D.C. and other major cities are being moved into progressively less established, less secure and poorly lit areas due also to heavy policing. Shutting down legitimate websites where workers can network and advertise simply pushes the industry further underground and back onto the streets. Advertising on the web allows workers to skip this traditional step of walking the streets where they are also more prone to manipulation from pimps and blackmail by police in exchange for petty protections.  Workers also need not rely on pimps or brothels for advertising and safety, allowing them to keep more of their own profits.  Stings are also highly disruptive with police claiming computers and cash (often several hundred dollars worth) as evidence while also imposing fines or jail sentences, disrupting business, and requiring the worker to pay for attorneys.  All of this pushes a worker with no labor protections potentially further into debt and further decreases their ability to have legal work, if they so choose, due to their arrest record.  Regulating and policing abuse and slavery within the industry is one thing, using that as an excuse to endanger women is another.

(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Kirk Condyles)