Union Local 75 continues to speak out on behalf of hospitality workers who are losing hours and benefits because of Marriot’s “Make a Green Choice” program, one they argue isn’t all that green anyway.
FOR MANY ROOM ATTENDANTS in the hospitality industry, their job isn’t what it used to be, thanks in part to new programs being introduced by major hotel chains with the stated mandate of environmental sustainability.
Sustainability, of course, is an ever-present hot topic in the news, with the United Nations warning in October 2018 that there are only 12 years to curb the effects of climate change and the Canadian government set to put a price on carbon starting next year.
It’s no wonder, then, that environmentally friendly business practices have become a cornerstone of corporate social responsibility. It is a trend particularly evident in the travel and tourism industry, where airlines, hotels and tour operators have an array of programs designed to boost their own sustainability cred.
And it seems to be what travellers are looking for. A 2015 study by the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration found that guests are “generally willing to participate in sustainability programs,” and also found that they “have an increased willingness to participate when hotels offer incentives, such as loyalty program points, for participating in environmental programs.”
But in recent years, unions representing hotel workers have been raising their voices against some of these programs, citing an array of issues affecting room attendants in particular, from reduced shifts to challenging conditions dealing with rooms that have gone uncleaned for days – all results of “green” programs.
Across North America, Unite Here, the union representing hospitality workers, has been staging protests against Marriott over its “Make a Green Choice” program, which allows guests to refuse housekeeping services for up to three consecutive days on a stay of two or more nights. Marriott’s position is that by opting out, less water and fewer toxins are used, from in-room cleaning to laundry services. By opting in, guests are rewarded with Starwood loyalty points (if they are members) or meal vouchers for hotel venues.
Unite Here has organized protests, strikes and even a leaflet distribution campaign aimed at informing guests about what hotel workers think of the program. A representative for Unite Here Local 75 in Toronto says the union wants people to know about what it calls the “dark side” of the Make a Green Choice program and others like it.
“It has nothing to do with the environment. Because the hotels are not planting herb gardens, we can’t control how much water the guest is going to use,” says Kay Drummond, an organizer with Unite Here Local 75. “We feel that this is just a way of cutting labour costs while plastering it under the cover and umbrella of ‘green’ so guests think they are helping the environment.”
“Eliminating the use of single-use plastics like straws, water bottles and disposable shower amenities are some suggestions they’ve brought forward as alternative ‘green’ initiatives.”
Union representatives have called for Marriott to implement sustainable programs that don’t affect the livelihoods of its workers. Many room attendants are women of colour, a group that the union says continues to be systematically oppressed by corporate decisions such as this. Eliminating the use of single-use plastics like straws, water bottles and disposable shower amenities are some suggestions they’ve brought forward as alternative “green” initiatives.
The program, introduced in 2009 by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, did not initially worry the union. But months in, they noticed that “workers were staying home,” Drummond says.
According to Unite Here, attendants are typically assigned 16 rooms to clean per shift. If enough guests sign up for the Make a Green Choice program during their stay, attendants are left off the schedule until rooms need attention, Drummond says. This not only affects workers’ take-home pay, she explains, but working fewer hours can affect whether an employee qualifies for benefits. The union also says room attendants suffer injuries from rushing to clean rooms that haven’t been touched for days in the same amount of time allocated to rooms that have been cleaned daily.
“They feel exploited in a way; foregone wages are paying for the guests’ points,” Drummond says.
In Toronto, the union took the fight over Make a Green Choice to contract negotiations with the downtown Hilton, which is now part of the Marriott chain and had been set to begin offering the program. The union dug in on the issue back in July, and by the beginning of December, a new agreement was reached in which the company agreed to scrap the plan to bring Make a Green Choice to the hotel.
“All the workers are excited,” Drummond says.
A spokesperson for Marriott did not answer numerous specific written questions about the program, including about the union’s concerns for workers and whether Make a Green Choice is having its intended impact on the environment.
In a brief statement, Marriott spokesperson Sabrina Bhangoo said the program started “as an additional way to increase sustainability and reduce the hospitality industry’s environmental footprint. The program allows guests to be part of that sustainability effort when it fits their needs, giving them an opportunity to reduce water, energy and chemical usage.”
Bhangoo noted the recent agreement with Local 75, which she said will “address the union’s concern that the program creates additional work for our room attendants.”
She did not respond to follow up questions asking for further details about the agreement, or how the program is fulfilling its mandate of reducing the company’s environmental footprint.
But Sonya Graci, associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University, says hotels have been offering programs like Make a Green Choice since the 1990s, and workers’ concerns about them date back nearly as long.
“Be it businesses or individuals, everyone needs to act on climate change and make decisions with environmental sustainability in mind,” she says.
“We can’t stop progress when it comes to sustainability,”Graci says. “And the whole reason why these programs are coming up is, one, it’s a cost savings for the hotels themselves, and two, it means they use fewer resources: less water to wash sheets, fewer chemicals are used in terms of cleaning, less energy is used.”
She said the debate over workers’ hours and compensation comes down to the hotel ensuring their workers are not only happy but perhaps re-trained to do other jobs as operations continue to evolve.
“I don’t think we can blame something that’s been around for almost 30 years,” Graci says. “Really, when we discuss the social implications of the hotel industry, it is how do you retain staff, how do you keep them full time, and what can you get them to do otherwise?”
Green programs that reduce room- and linen-cleaning, and other sustainability measures are here to stay, Graci notes, as businesses recognize their “duty” to do their part for the environment.
“It’s a big part of corporate social responsibility,” she says.
Still, representatives of Local 75 dispute the claims that programs such as Make a Green Choice do in fact reduce the use of water and chemicals. They observe the opposite as more of these resources need to be used to clean days-old messes.
While companies still have to figure out how to keep workers happy, it’s clear that customers are looking for ways to bring environmental stewardship into their own lives, be it through eating organic produce, switching to chemical-free cleaning products or choosing greener modes of transportation.
As the Cornell study shows, “the link between environmentally sustainable programs and improved customer satisfaction is weak compared to standard drivers like facilities, room, and food and beverage quality.”
But it also points out that “hotels are increasingly expected to maintain sustainability programs as a regular feature of their business,” adding that environmental sustainability programs don’t negatively impact guest satisfaction.
Certainly, there are enough companies offering such programs as to make them the norm, and there are brands founded entirely on environmental responsibility, such as Six Senses, Tivoli and Aqua-Aston, whose properties are built sustainably and where operations include supporting “green” initiatives in neighbouring communities.
“People are looking for companies that have this integrated into their business model,” Graci says. “That’s because people are looking at their own health, in addition to the environment. I think as knowledge increases and there’s more pressure in society to reduce your impact on the environment, consumers will choose companies that align with their values.”
As for Make a Green Choice, Local 75 knows it can’t roll back a program that’s been in place for nearly a decade through contract negotiations alone. In the United States, union representatives are trying to get the number of days a guest can opt for the program reduced, Drummond says.
What’s more, the union will continue to fight the program’s spread to other hotels, and will keep up its public relations campaign aimed at guests, who Drummond points out, are still paying for housekeeping in their room fee whether they opt for the program or not.
In the end, the union would support a program that doesn’t take money out of workers’ pockets or make their work more difficult.
“It’s not fair of the industry to do this to the workers,” Drummond says. “It’s not fair for them.