The Hospitality Industry will only earn respect by respecting those who work within it

Over the summer, London’s annual influx of tourists will swell still further by visitors coming for the Olympic and Paralympic games. The city’s instantly recognisable, traditional yet energetically global image continues to be a major selling point for the Olympic games and its numerous sponsors keen to place their logos and associate their brands with all that is great about London.

The carefully prepared public face of the city will be primed and primped and the many taxpayer-funded public works shined and polished.

Swept along by the Olympics and interest in the capital engendered by the Jubilee Celebrations, the tourism industry and particularly London hotels are anticipating a bumper summer. London has always been the key UK destination for foreign and domestic visitors attracting 26 million visits in 2010 when tourist receipts for London totalled £11.2 billion. This will obviously increase dramatically at the time of the Olympics. The expected influx of extra visitors promise a golden return for the industry – this is to be a year like no other.

The rewards of this boom will not, however, be shared by all of those who work in London’s hotels. Behind the public face of the industry and the welcoming smiles of the reception desks are many others hidden from view.

The hotel industry could not function without this hidden workforce, the cleaners, the housemaids, the porters, the kitchen staff and so many others. They help provide the unique user experience and expected standards vital to the operations of London’s hotels big and small. These unseen workers will see little benefit from London’s big year.

The hotel industry across the capital, and many other parts of the country, has long adopted a model of operation that seeks to minimise any true engagement with many of those who work within it. Across the sector the use of agency staff for many housekeeping functions is routine. Hotels claim this offers them the flexibility to compete whilst offering the level of service demanded by customers. Outsourcing operations allows costs to be monitored and controlled leaving the hotels free to concentrate on building the public face of their brand.

The reality for many workers employed through brokers is less satisfactory. Lightly regulated and with very little meaningful enforcement of labour law, competition is cut-throat, with law-abiding, legitimate business undercut by the unscrupulous, in a desperate race to the bottom. For hotel workers, competition for easily accessed unskilled jobs is fierce and options limited, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Many of the agency workers employed in the sector are migrants, who are even more vulnerable to malpractice and abuse. This exploitation takes many forms including excessive working hours and availability for work, piece-work rates that deny the minimum wage, withholding of wages, and excessive deductions for services, uniforms, food, transport and accommodation through to debt bondage and outright forced labour.

Many hotels claim this isn’t their problem. They argue that the agencies set conditions of work and that the state has a duty to enforce national labour laws. The last thing the industry needs, we are told, is yet more regulation. For the hotels, the advantages of the current system seem clear. Labour costs – the key component of running a hotel operation – are reduced along with “non-cost-effective” employment of regular staff in an industry with fluctuating demand.

But labour subcontracting and less formal employment relationships clearly have a negative side for the industry. Businesses that outsource labour functions and turn a blind eye to malpractice effectively leave themselves open to reputational and, increasingly, legal risk. Exposés on exploited workers in hotels will continue to feature in various media. This scrutiny will only increase as the Olympics approach. Hotels may also find themselves subject to legal sanction by being complicit in exploitation and abuse. The law relating to the new criminal offence of slavery, servitude or forced labour is clear. Companies can be found to have met the standard of “known or should have known” that the offence is occurring if they wilfully disregard the indications that the offence is taking place. Turning a blind eye to working conditions of staff and agency workers and the operating practices of agencies is not an option. Illegal practices rarely happen in a vacuum and hotels can also be exposing themselves and their staff to other forms of criminality.

For the hotel industry as a whole, the low cost business model does the sector few favours. An industry that relies on dubious, informal and often illegal working arrangements damages its own reputation and that of the broader tourism industry. Insecure minimum wage jobs are propped up by taxpayers, who pick up the slack in benefit payments. Effective training structures and skills acquisition by staff are also victims of a short-term profit model.

The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, which were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, make clear the responsibility of all businesses to respect human rights. This is not complicated. Effective due diligence can soon reveal indications that all might not be as it seems. Hotels are more than aware of minimum wage rates and how long it takes to clean a hotel room. For any hotel manager in any doubt, indicative pricing statistics exist. Agencies operating well below obvious thresholds are not super-efficient; they are exploiting staff. Part of a hotel’s human rights due diligence is to examine the operations of current or potential agencies and also the working conditions of employed staff. What is needed is a willingness to look.

To raise awareness of these challenges for the industry, and to offer guidance to those who award contracts within hotels both large and small, the Institute for Human Rights and Business and Anti-Slavery International have launched the Staff Wanted Initiative. The project suggests using a simple SEE formula – Scrutinise, Engage, Ensure, check-list to help identify indicators of exploitation. This week as the Olympic torch begins its journey around the country we are sending details of the Staff Wanted Initiative to all the 1500 hotels in London. For a customer facing industry so dependant on reputation, proper engagement with its responsibilities is the only sustainable option.

For all of us, but particularly those whose work is so often hidden away, a successful Olympics, a successful capital city and a successful hospitality industry can only be built on respect.