Sexual abuse, hotel maids and why unions matter

Do rich and powerful men ever commit rape?  Evidently many people – including Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher, and Ben Stein, the conservative American writer and TV personality – think that the eminence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, could be guilty of the charge of attempted rape brought by a hotel maid who, as they both point out, is a mere nobody.

Public opinion polls indicate that a majority of the French people, and an overwhelming majority of French socialists, think Strauss-Kahn was set up.  And judging by the comment threads of some of the on-line articles I’ve read, there are many Americans who think a white Frenchman who pays $3,000 a night for a hotel room is inherently more credible than an African immigrant maid.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

The fact is that hotel guests who sexually abuse hotel maids often get away with it.  Hotels want to please their guests.  Hotel maids – often women of color, often poor immigrants, sometimes illegal immigrants – are often working on the margin of economic survival, and know they can easily be replaced.  If a hotel guest gropes them, or exposes himself, or worse, it is risky to mention it.  The hotel has every incentive to believe the guest rather than the maid.

If you can do something with impunity, a certain number of people will do it.  There are rich people who think their wealth gives them impunity.  There are international civil servants who think diplomatic immunity gives them impunity.

The maid allegedly raped by Strauss-Kahn was a poor immigrant from Guinea, in West Africa.  She might not have spoken up if not for a supportive employer, the Sofitel hotel corporation, and a strong labor union, the New York Hotel Trades Council.  Holding a union card, being protected by a union contract, meant that she did not have to face with wealth and power represented by Strauss-Kahn on her own.  As the old union song, “Solidarity Forever” goes, What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? But the union makes us strong!

My newspaper training tells me to use words like “allegedly” and “accused of” so as not to assume that someone is guilty of a crime until the person has been found guilty in a court of law.  I will say that, based on the facts that have come out, the police had probable cause to make an arrest, and prosecution to bring charges, and let it go at that.  But the burden of proof is on the prosecution, as it should be.  Dominique Strauss-Kahn will, I am sure, enjoy the full benefit of the law in presenting his defense – if the case even goes to trial.  I’d say the odds are that the alleged victim will be offered a huge cash settlement to keep the charge from ever coming to trial.

Click on Hotel Housekeepers at Risk  for an article about hotel maids and abusive guests by Jacob Tomsky, a veteran hotel manager, in the New York Times.

I’ve worked in the luxury hospitality business from New Orleans to New York, from valet parking to front desk to housekeeping management for 10 years, and I know that the country’s 250,000 housekeepers are in a difficult position. They’re often alone on a floor, cleaning a vacant room, back to the door, the vacuum’s drone silencing all sound. A perfect setup for a horror movie.  ……

Housekeepers perform the most physically demanding work necessary to operate a luxury hotel. Assigned 10 to 14 rooms a day on average, they strip beds, dump sheets down laundry chutes, remake beds, scrub bathroom floors, clean tubs and toilets, empty trash, polish mirrors, clean glasses, vacuum carpets — and the work does not end there.

On top of that, they have to be sexually accosted by guests? Sadly, yes. And more often than you’d think. It’s not an everyday occurrence but it happens enough to make this question all too familiar: “Mr. Tomsky, can you give the new girl Room 3501 until next Tuesday? That man is back, the one who loves to let his robe fall open every time I try to clean.” So, yes, we assign the room to the new girl.

But not before hotel managers roll up to the room, flanked by security guards, to request that the guest vacate during cleaning, or at least promise to remain fully clothed or risk expulsion. Often it need not be discussed in detail: those guests who can’t seem to tie their robe properly usually know exactly what they’re guilty of. Typically, an unsolicited phone call from management inquiring if the service in their room is up-to-standard, and offering to send a manager to supervise the next cleaning, improves their behavior. I remember one exhibitionist guest, in New Orleans, cutting me off before I could get down to business:

“Sir, this is Jacob, the housekeeping manager — ”

“O.K., fine, O.K.!” And he hung up. That was that. ……

But for all their difficulties, housekeeping jobs have advantages, especially in New York City. Many are union positions — the housekeepers at the Sofitel are members of the New York Hotel Workers’ Union, for example — that offer decent hourly wages, overtime and perks for picking up extra rooms. There is job security, shift seniority (Christmas off after 10 years’ service!) and health care.

That is an awful lot to lose. For the Sofitel housekeeper, the encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn brought nothing good at all.

via NYTimes.

Click on For Hotel Housekeepers, Sexual Affronts a Known Hazard for an article by Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times.

Click on The Dangerous Life of a Hotel Maid for an article by Jesse Ellison in The Daily Beast.

Click on Diplomatic immunity and the culture of impunity for an article in The Guardian of London about how international officials use diplomatic immunity as a shield for sexual abuse.

Click on Dominique Strass-Kahn and the union maid for an article by Dean Baker in The Guardian of London.

Imagine the situation of the hotel worker had she not been protected by a union contract. She is a young immigrant mother who needs this job to support her family. According to reports, she likely did not know Strauss-Kahn’s identity at the time she reported the assault, but she undoubtedly understood that the person staying in the $3,000-a-night suite was a wealthy and important person. In these circumstances, how likely would it be that she would make an issue of a sexual assault to her supervisors? ……

There is a special irony to this situation given Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s prior position. The IMF, along with other pillars of the economic establishment, has long pushed for reducing the rights of workers at their workplace.  Specifically, they have pushed countries around the world to adopt measures that weaken the power of unions.  The IMF has also urged western European countries to eliminate or weaken laws that prevent employers from firing workers at will.  These laws, along with unions, are seen as “labor market rigidities” that prevent labor markets from operating efficiently.

In the dream world of the economists’ textbook policies, all employers would have the ability to fire employees at will.  There would be no protective legislation and no unions to get in the way.  In that economist’s dream world, then, powerful executives could be fairly certain that they would have license to molest hotel workers with impunity.


Click on Bernard-Henri Levy Defends IMF Director for Levy’s defense of Strauss-Kahn on The Daily Beast.

Click on Presumed Innocent, Anyone? for Ben Stein’s defense of Strauss-Kahn in The American Spectator.

Click on Dominique Strauss-Kahn Defended Witlessly by Bernard-Henri Levy and Ben Stein for commentary by Jason on Huffington Post.

Click on Answering Ben Stein’s Question and Oops for names of other economists accused of sex crimes.

[Update 12/3/11]   The true story of what happened may never be known.  Click on What Really Happened to Strauss-Kahn? for Edward Jay Epstein’s review of the evidence and unanswered questions in the New York Review of Books.  Both the accused and his alleged victim behaved in ways that are hard to explain based on the known facts.

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