By Teresa Gutierrez
Published Jul 24, 2011 11:25 PM
On June 2 hotel housekeepers who are members of UNITE HERE launched a coordinated eight-city speak-out “to break the silence on the dangers of their jobs.” The workers stated that they were “inspired by the courageous stand taken by the housekeepers in New York against some of the most powerful men in the world.” (www.unitehere.org, June 2)
They were referring to the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is accused of holding captive and sexually assaulting a housekeeper at New York’s Sofitel Hotel on May 14. DSK was the head of the International Monetary Fund at the time.
The union’s website says, “Nearly all hotel housekeepers are women. The majority are women of color and immigrants.” The workers point out in their union’s Hotel Workers Rising campaign that sexual harassment is a pervasive pattern in their work. Many workers have been subjected to indecent exposure and other types of assaults by hotel guests. (www.HotelWorkersRising.org)
As in all capitalist industries today, hotel workers are facing dangerous speed-ups, which lead to difficult working conditions and serious injuries. In most hotels, housekeepers must clean 15 or more rooms per day, often having to work off the clock and skip meals in order to finish. Chains such as Hyatt and Hilton are leading these speed-ups. Some of these hotels are being boycotted in places like Boston and San Francisco.
The union explains: “Most hotels have introduced new room amenities without reducing the number of rooms assigned to housekeepers each day. Luxury beds with heavier mattresses and linens, triple-sheeting, and extra pillows are increasingly common. Other add-ons like coffee pots, spa robes and large hard-to-clean mirrors make room cleaning more difficult and time-consuming.”
These conditions lead to an injury rate that is 40 percent higher for hotel workers than for other service sector workers, with sprains and strains being the most common injuries.
David vs. Goliath
Imagine the courage it took after hours of cleaning toilets for a housekeeper to accuse one of the world’s most powerful men — a potential president of France, a major European power, a man who could afford to pay $3,000 a night for the hotel room, a man whose sense of class privilege and entitlement was so great that he believed he owned the world and everyone in it.
One woman hotel worker, a housekeeper, a woman of color, an immigrant — in the midst of one of the most vicious anti-immigrant climates ever in this country — dared to stand up to the head of a global multibillion-dollar agency. She may have known nothing of his role as head of the IMF at the time, but her instincts must have told her he was on the other side of the class barrier.
It may not be known for decades — or it may never be known — if it was the overwhelming amount of incriminating evidence against Strauss-Kahn that forced law officials to debark DSK from his plane on his way home to France immediately after the housekeeper’s charges. Or whether it was interimperialist rivalry between the United States and France that led to his arrest. Or whether it was his enemies at home, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom DSK planned to challenge in next year’s presidential election.
But the evidence that DSK is a misogynist who believed he could do and say anything he wanted to women is beyond doubt. It does not matter if his spouse or his daughters stand behind him. The evidence is overwhelming that he views women as objects and commodities, to be used for his pleasure, at his will.
Blaming the victim
When DSK was arrested, many members of the public thought the case against him was strong. But suddenly the tables were turned. Once again, the victim of sexual harassment and rape was put on trial in a classic turn against female victims. Now it looks as if the charges could be dropped.
The National Organization for Women writes, “The mainstream media is trashing the ‘credibility’ of the housekeeper. They’re saying she lied on her immigration papers and has a boyfriend in jail — as if that means the rape charges should be dropped. Every day more than 600 women in this country are victims of rape or sexual assault. Routine victim-blaming and victim-shaming, like we are seeing in the case of these allegations against DSK, help facilitate this epidemic of sexual violence against women, and make it harder for women to report such crimes.” (youngfeministtaskforce.blogspot.com, July 11)
If one adds to this pervasive sexism the demonization and victimization of immigrants, then it’s clear that immigrants and women of color are being sent a message: Suffer in silence. Do not stand up to any injustice, no matter the severity.
The slander raised in the media against the housekeeper was leaked by none other than the prosecution’s office, indicating a decision made from high up that may mean: Hands off DSK. Let him loose.
The housekeeper is from Guinea, which is also the home country of Amadou Diallo, who was cruelly shot to death in a hail of 41 bullets by New York City police officers.
Even though Guinea has almost half of the world’s bauxite — which is what aluminum comes from — 70 percent of the population live on less than $1.25 a day.
Grinding poverty and contradictory social conditions led this hotel worker to come to the U.S. The media and law enforcement officials are saying that she embellished claims of abuse in order to gain asylum in the U.S., that she knows someone in prison, that she falsified tax returns, and so on. If any of this is true, her situation is about survival and not a test of her character.
Immigration experts stress that asylum claimants are asked to carry out a nearly impossible task to comply with requirements. Most asylum claims are denied.
However, none of this has anything to do with this case. Nothing at all.
Some say that DSK was a more progressive thinker than some in the IMF and to the left of many. However, the IMF like any capitalist entity remains committed to the free flow of money and commodities. It remains committed to structural adjustment policies that fill banks’ coffers and restrict the free flow of humans as well as force an unprecedented wave of human migration.
The IMF has robbed and plundered Africa for decades. It owes the people of Guinea reparations. If it paid reparations, perhaps this housekeeper would not have been forced to migrate.
But rape is rape. Rape is forced sexual violence, and what happened in that hotel room on May 14 should not be removed from the realm of the reality of sexual violence. If DSK is guilty, he should pay for his crime.
Who will win this case? A powerful European man of extreme privilege or a West African hotel housekeeper?
Tabloids report on DSK dining at a New York Upper East Side restaurant where the bill was $700 for four people. They say he attended a concert in Tanglewood, Mass., and spent the night at a hotel where a suite can run to $2,000 a night on the July 15-17 weekend.
Yet, on July 17 several Black community leaders and organizations, along with women’s and immigrant rights’ groups, held a press conference and rally in Harlem called by State Sen. Bill Perkins to demand justice for the hotel worker. No U.S. press came, but the French press showed up and was not friendly.
If DSK is set loose, it will be an insult not only to the housekeeper but to all the people of Africa. It will send a message to women, immigrants and people of color that they should shut up and stay down.
At a time of reeling economic crisis, it will mean that the capitalist institutions that are forcing workers to pay for their crisis will feel emboldened and free to carry out their plunder. But the workers of the world — with women playing a fundamental role — will soon take center stage and victory will be ours.
For more information, see UNITE HERE’s hotel workers’ campaign at www.HotelWorkersRising.org.