Following on from yesterday’s post on the book Dirt Cheap, a very different but related book is the anonymously authored Hotel Babylon. It’s a first-hand and unashamedly voyeuristic account of a 24-hour period in one of London’s finest five-star hotels. The story is told by an employee working a double shift on the reception desk, and was subsequently made into a tacky BBC series by the same name.
If nothing else, the book is an entertaining read, though when I read it a few years back I wanted to hide the cover from view. Honestly, it feels like you’re on your knees peering through a keyhole! At a deeper level, it’s a good reminder of the large number of very poorly paid workers who hover in the background of the hospitality industry, especially those establishments with a high-gloss veneer of sophistication. These minimum-wage workers are rarely seen: the ones who clean rooms, do laundry, scrub toilets and bathrooms, many of them who toil away in the dark of night in basements and storage rooms while guests sleep unaware.
At one point, the author sits in the staff cafeteria amongst a group of ‘chambermaids’, or room cleaners, during a lunch break:
‘These women all work hard and, for some reason, they seem to take pride in what they are doing. Why they would take pride in putting a chocolate on someone’s pillow or placing a facecloth at the correct forty-five-degree angle from the basin, is anyone’s guess. But apparently they do. I take a bite of my bread, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to deal with skid-marked sheets for a living. At least, I have the possibility of moving on and up in my job … But these women sitting opposite me can’t even dream … they are destined to clean up after other people forever. Chambermaids don’t get promoted; they just get fired … Chambermaids start cleaning up toothpaste, and they end cleaning up toothpaste.’
Accounts like this are challenging for me. As a teacher in tertiary institutions, I have spent so much of my life surrounded by people preparing for and expecting fulfilling and stimulating careers. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that my office rubbish bin sits magically empty each Wednesday morning, the carpet vacuumed, and the toilets cleaned. I often wonder what all the talk of vocation and meaning that pervades ‘faith and work’ literature has to say to people for whom work is simply a necessity—the day-to-day drudgery to make ends meet.