After finishing her first job as a housekeeper, Vee said she swore she would never stay at a hotel again.
- Housekeepers have told the ABC they were often rushed and unable to clean thoroughly
- Conditions for cleaners are “the perfect storm” for exploitation, a labour expert has said
- Past studies found faecal matter and other germs were easily found in hotel rooms
“When you always visit five-star hotels, you think you are getting the best services, clean linen and everything,” she said.
“But when you actually go behind the scenes to do the work, you realise that not everything goes as you expect.”
The 19-year-old student, who worked at a five-star hotel in Melbourne, said it was common for hand towels to be used to clean toilet bowls and for housekeepers to be rushed from room to room.
At a smaller hotel, she said, doona covers and comforters were very rarely changed, and practices were “the same” everywhere she had cleaned.
It’s been an issue of concern for years, but up-to-date research data is limited. A union-commissioned investigation in Melbourne in 2010 found a “hygiene crisis” in five-star hotelsthat was attributed to lack of time given to cleaners to clean the rooms.
Two years later, a study published in Scientific American found hotel room remote controls, carpets, telephones and cleaning items had high levels of bacteria — and about 81 per cent of hotel room surfaces sampled had at least some faecal bacteria.
Vee, who did not want to use her full name, said her advice for travellers was not to trust what they saw on the surface and “carry extra towels”.
Another former housekeeper, Jane*, told the ABC that even though her motel employer prioritised cleanliness, staff had limited time in each space and could often only do surface cleaning.
“Being a business, housekeepers are not provided enough time to clean the room,” she said.
‘Like sharing your bedroom’ with hundreds
Julieta, who worked at a four-star hotel on the Gold Coast, said when it was busy the goal was for everything to simply “look clean”.
Marylouise McLaws, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases control at University of New South Wales, said staying in a hotel could be like “sharing your bedroom” with hundreds of other people.
More than 7.1 million visitors aged 15 and above spent time in Australian hotels in 2016, according to the most recent data from the Tourism Accommodation Australia.
Professor McLaws said “high-touch” areas like chairs, remote controls, light switches and desks were likely to be the most germ-filled parts of hotel rooms. Because bathrooms were regularly and thoroughly cleaned, “the toilet is probably the cleanest thing”, she said.
“Most of those bacteria are not going to cause you a problem … but you don’t know that,” she said.
Jane, who now works in hospitality, said the worst part of the job was the mess left behind by guests — including one who left condoms on the floor, underwear stuffed in bed linen and mouldy water jugs.
“It was hard to even breathe,” she said. “We had to clean the room three times before we could rent it out again”.
‘The perfect storm for exploitation’
Advocates for workers have said dirty rooms are just one casualty of a sector in which workers are routinely underpaid and overworked.
A 2016 inquiry by the Fair Work Ombudsmanfound housekeepers working at four and five-star hotels in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne were not being paid correctly.
Many of the employees were international students and backpackers on the 417 working holiday visa, mostly from China and Korea.
In a statement, the Accommodation Association of Australia —the peak body that represents represents hundreds of hotels and motels — said compliance training for its members had since been stepped up.
“This practice is certainly not widespread among the Accommodation Association of Australia’s (AAoA) members, and in fact we provide an audit service as part of the membership to assist with best practice,” it said.
But Sarah Kaine, a workplace relations expert from the University of Technology Sydney’s Business School, said there was cause for concern.
“We know the characteristics of people engaged with housecleaning in hospitality are the types of characteristics you see associated with lower conditions, exploitation, those kinds of issues,” Ms Kaine said.
“A workforce made up of predominately women, often non-English speakers, often relatively low-skilled, is kind of your perfect storm for exploitation, for the skirting of industrial conditions.”
Last year, it was discovered sham contracts had been used to underpay MCG cleaners after AFL games, and a Tasmanian senate inquiry was established into the “horrendous” and “systematic” exploitation of contract cleaners.
Controversy over cleaners’ pay in Victorian state schools has led to an overhaul of contract cleaning.
Ms Kaine is on the steering committee of the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF), which was established in 2018 and aims to reward businesses for paying cleaners properly. Housekeepers are not yet a part of that framework.
“In some sectors … we see the prevalence of contracting, sub-contracting, sham contracting, types of work arrangements that are deliberately used to make sure that those types of workers aren’t able to access, or aren’t given, the entitlements they should be receiving,” Ms Kaine said.
The AAoA said its National Advisory Board for Employment, launched in April, would support and encourage more training.
“A lot more innovative tools, such as chemical-free products and microfibre products, are now being used,” the association’s statement said.
“These assist in achieving a better and more sustainable workplace and environment.”
* Name has been changed.