Vania Arana is the spokesperson and president of the union organisation Las Kellys Catalunya. In 1992 she arrived in Madrid, coming from Peru, the country of her birth. In Peru she had studied to become a high school teacher, however when she arrived here, she was unable to validate her degree as there was no official correlation with which to evaluate her studies. This is when she began looking after the elderly, however a couple of incidents made her look for something else. “On the first day of caring for an elderly man, he died while sleeping. It was a shock. After several other experiences, I decided to start cleaning houses. I did that for a month, and then an opportunity came up, in Andorra!” And Vania started working in hotels in this small country in the Pyrenees.
In 1996 she started working with temping agencies, and during this period she gained more experience in cleaning rooms professionally. “Apart from the practical experience, since I started working as a room cleaner, my professional training has been in the hospitality industry,” she explains. She also studied Hispanic Philology at the Spanish Distance-learning University, but she stopped because she wanted to be a teacher, and her studies were not directed towards the profession.
Vania acknowledges that it was only when she became pregnant that she became aware of the precarious conditions in the sector in which she worked. “I had a very bad, very problematic, complicated pregnancy. The temping agency I was with didn’t respond adequately to the situation, and I felt abandoned at work. They made me sign a voluntary resignation document.” After the pregnancy and during the following years, she had problems with harassment at work, which provoked an episode of depression.
Little by little, Vania and her work colleagues came to realise that no one was looking out for their rights as workers, or their well-being, and they organised themselves through periodic encounters in which they shared experiences.
The turning point came in 2014. A large Barcelona hotel chain, decided to implement a a change of contractual model; some room attendants were immediately laid off, and the conditions of those who were not fired worsened considerably. “We were cleaning 30 rooms in 8 hours, or 10 hours, or whatever was required. Sometimes it got to seven in the evening and we couldn’t leave. We were fed up. Apart from the increase in work, we were not entitled to (in official terminology) “resting during the working day, eating or drinking’’. The harassment was unique and the situation became impossible to deal with. What’s more, they didn’t fire people, but they did expect us to take voluntary leave.” That was when the cleaners organized themselves and filed a class action lawsuit.
The lawsuit against the hotel in question was the first major victory for Vania and her colleagues. In 2018, the room attendants came to an agreement with the hotel and no trial took place. An agreement was reached and the hotel was forced to readmit those workers who had been fired. Furthermore, all hotel staff contracts were made internal, even those who had not taken part in the lawsuit. “I remember it as a moment of euphoria. What we achieved was great! It was immensely satisfying for us. It was a turning point in our lives, and it allowed us to continue to fight for our rights” Vania adds.
The name “Las Kellys” is a play on words that shortens the Spanish expression “las que limpian” (those who clean). The group was created via social media in 2014 —Vania acknowledges that these networks helped them to unite in their discomfort and dissatisfaction and forge bonds with other groups to gain strength in a joint struggle. In 2016 they were founded as an association and in 2018 they became a union. Las Kellys is currently operational in eight areas: Barcelona, Benidorm, Cádiz, Fuerteventura, La Rioja, Lanzarote, Madrid and Mallorca. Each regional group works as an independent association.
Room attendants face many problems, challenges and obstacles: social invisibility, low wages, poor professional recognition, irregular, temporary and part-time employment, a heavy workload, outsourcing, pressure, and others. This translates into statistics that reveal the status of the group. According to the Spanish trade union Comisiones Obreras, 95.9% of room attendants suffer from clinical symptoms of anxiety, 70% say they experience muscle pain, 71.5% use drugs to alleviate discomfort and 4 out of 10 room attendants have symptoms of depression.
Given this situation, the demands of Las Kellys are firm: early retirement, recognition of work-related illnesses, the disappearance of outsourcing (i.e. the amendment of Article 42 of the Workers’ Statute), the incorporation of the Kelly Act,the management by the state employment bureau, the INEM, of job vacancies, the shielding of hospitality agreements, increased inspections of working conditions, compliance with Chapter III of the Occupational Risk Prevention Act, the undertaking of ergonomic studies to calculate and restrict workloads, and compliance with Article 34 of the Workers’ Statute with respect to work-life conciliation, among others.
During these years, in addition to continuing their struggle to secure respect for their rights as workers, Las Kellys Catalunya have carried out several initiatives. On the year they formed as a union they promoted a seal of quality that was approved by the Parliament of Catalonia. To this day, It has still not been implemented or developed due to “lack of political interest.” The seal recognizes those businesses that respect and apply decent working conditions for women workers. They also introduced a Kelly Directive in Brussels to end the outsourcing of services, and they recently embarked on an ambitious project: the launch of a Booking Centre with hotels that have acquired the Kelly’s seal. The aim is to provide a database of hospitality businesses that respect the working rights and conditions of room attendants and other workers. The project was launched through a highly-effective micro-funding campaign with the slogan “I book with Las Kellys”. They are currently developing the initiative even further. The booking centre is due to enter into operation in the summer of 2022.
What has been essential in the success of Las Kellys?
To get to where we are today, we have had to get around several rules imposed by society and the system. What does it mean that we have to wait three months to talk to someone? We’ve stood our ground many times in order to talk to people and we’ve achieved a lot of victories. When we took part in the Hospitality Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, for example, this was the first time that outsourcing had been discussed.
But outsourcing is allowed in the hospitality industry.
Outsourcing is allowed as long as the people who carry out the main activities required are not subcontracted This means that the people who clean the facade of a hotel can be outsourced, or if one day a convention is held and a special catering service is hired. This is not the case with room attendants.
What is your relationship with other workers’ groups?
It’s very good. We would not be where we are without them. They have given us constant support and help At first, when we had no material for banners, they gave us some, they held events with proceeds that went to our association, they allowed us to put up stands at events, and so on. If I had explain everything they did, we’d be here forever.
And what is your relationship with the larger trade unions?
We met with the UGT and Comisones Obreras, but the experience was not a very good one. We felt abandoned. We were also very determined to join together as Las Kellys. We saw that the relationship would not be beneficial from the beginning.
Where do you get your money from?
We have merchandising, we make food, we work with the domestic workers’ union Sindillar. Sindillar, has set up a textile workshop and we have been studying sewing with them; we also now belong to their workshop With respect to legal issues, we have always worked with the LAIE legal firm, who help us free of charge. They have helped us to obtain our quality seal, form a union and go to Brussels.
What did you go to Brussels for?
To introduce the Kelly Directive. We managed to do this thanks to a lot of people and groups. In recent years, we have also exchanged experiences with Kellys from Germany. France, Italy and the United Kingdom. We presented the directive together with them.
Have you reached any conclusions?
In Spain the situation is highly complicated. Outsourcing is killing us and it needs to be banned.
What role have the media played in recognizing Las Kellys?
In our case, the media has been instrumental. It is true that we always have to be extremely careful about what we say and how we say things, but they have helped make our problems visible and raise awareness in society. We have reached the screens of many homes through mainstream media sources, however it has been the alternative media that have followed our cases and accompanied us throughout this journey. They spoke to us in depth about our problems and allowed us to get in touch with other groups such as La Marea Blava or La Marea Pensionista. Pan y Rosas has been with us from the beginning.
I assume that Covid-19 and the crisis caused by the pandemic affected you a great deal.
Yes, very much. Many colleagues were fired, especially those whose work was contracted externally. Many were made to sign voluntary redundancy letters. Those with a permanent seasonal contracts were also put on the streets. As Kellys, we had to talk to a lot of politicians, on both the right and left. The pandemic has allowed us to get to know each other better, and we have come to realize that solidarity comes from society, like neighbourhood associations.
Why characterize yourselves as Las Kellys?
In order to be coherent, and to be honest, to be frank and to show ourselves as we are. We are transparent, which is an adjective that is often said too lightly. We have never hidden the fact that we are people of different ideologies, backgrounds, with different ways of doing things, etc. What matters is that we respect each other. We are a very mixed group. This respect and trust we has provided us with group therapy, while we were unaware that, by sharing our experiences, we were helping and looking after each other.
What would you say was important about the group?
Being in Las Kellys has helped us to get to know each other, as well as the people we work with and who are by our sides. This is priceless, because we have managed to create very strong bonds of friendship. It makes us feel like family. We are seeking to change society and we are working as one. A bond has been created through responsibility and love, but if there is one word that defines us and that has brought us to where we are, it is love. The love we have for ourselves, for each other and the love we feel for our work. Because although I didn’t start working as a room attendant because I liked it, in time I ended up loving the job.
What do you like about your job?
I have been giving talks through the Las Kellys organisation for some time now. It’s just as rewarding for me to talk at a university as it is to finish a room. I guess there are a lot of people who don’t believe that, but it’s very satisfying to finish cleaning a room that you found as a complete mess. You feel proud. Cleaning a hotel room has its own technique and not everyone can do it. We only need to go back to 2008, when the economic crisis broke out.
A lot of unemployed men came into the group. They didn’t last very long at all and they asked us how we managed to do it.
Have you been treated with paternalism?
Not in hotels; quite the opposite, because it is very difficult for our work to be recognized. Outside of our strict work environment, sometimes, we are. Sometimes we are also treated as if we were the least important thing and we are treated with disdain.
Where did the idea for the booking centre come from?
A lot of people contact us to ask about hotels that respect women workers, and that’s where the idea came from. We wanted to address these concerns. Even if the room attendants are employed staff members, this does not mean that their contractual rights are respected. Our first main aim was to make ourselves known, and make people informed and aware of our situation. Because what happens to us could happen to anyone. So, if a hotel has the seal of quality, this means that the room attendants have been taken on by the hotel in question, that the contracts respect the Collective Agreement of Hospitality Industries, that there is an adequate work-life balance and that the matter of health issues is respected, as well as potentially-necessary work adaptations, among other topics. This final issue is provided for in law, but it is not often applied. Everything is underway, with the aim of it coming into operation in June. We’ve had trouble finding a legal firm that will take this on for us, us, not outsourcing any services. In fact, we already had one, but the lawyer read all the documentation and we realized that there were outsourced services.
Regarding the matter of illnesses, your manifesto calls for “Compliance with Chapter III of the Occupational Risk Prevention Act and the Law for the Coordination of Business Activities and for ergonomic studies to be carried out to calculate and limit the workloads according to the characteristics of each hotel.”
Yes. The health disorders that room attendants suffer from are usually musculoskeletal, although we do also suffer from illnesses and psychological disorders, such as anxiety or depression, which are caused by the pressure that we work under. We work with waist-support belts, ankle supports, etc. We work fully equipped! We are a sick group.
You’ve been denouncing this for a long time.
I have colleagues aged thirty who are sick. It is very difficult for a room attendant to retire at the age of 65, as in other professions. We usually retire earlier. Twenty years ago, however, decent agreements could be reached with the bosses, who respected you and cared for you. This is not so common now. Work has been dehumanized, and external companies are responsible for it.
What is the seal of quality?
The seal of quality was approved by a total parliamentary majority in November 2018. No-one voted against it and there was only one abstention. We were told that the act would be worked on and applied, however nothing has been done to date. The Minister for Employment, Social Affairs and Families, at the time, Chakir El Homrani, had already told us that it would not be implemented. We have continued to protest about this, however the confederation of employers is very powerful. The new minister has also told us that it will not be carried through.
Does the confederation of employers oppose it?
The confederation says that the seal is discriminatory. But in what sense? This is the question we have to ask ourselves. If the hotels respect the working rights of women employees and no legal violations occur, and the confederation assures us that this is the case, then there should be no problem, right?