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Mallorca hotel cleaners fight exploitation

November 7, 2022

Without the women who clean hotel rooms every day, Mallorca's tourism industry would come to a halt. The so-called Kellys are fighting for better working conditions.

Umbrellas and beach chairs at Mallorca's Palma Beach.
Working conditions for locals are atrocious in many of the tourist hotspotsImage: Augst/Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

For the past 19 years, Sara del Mar has been working as a housekeeper in a Magaluf hotel on the Spanish island of Mallorca, which is especially popular with British holidaymakers. The 52-year old says she is perfectly healthy, although few of her colleagues are as fortunate. Housekeeping is strenuous work that entails constant bending and lifting to clean rooms and make beds. Despite this reality, del Mar has avoided developing spinal disc herniation, carpal tunnel syndrome or lateral epicondylitis, better known as tennis elbow. Such health problems blight many of the 30,000 hotel cleaners employed on Spain's Balearic islands.

Sara del Mar looks into the camera.
Sara del Mar has been fighting for better working conditionsImage: J. Martiny

Tough working conditions

For the past six years, del Mar has headed the Mallorca housekeepers' association. Almost all cleaners are women, about half of them are immigrants. They call themselves the "Kellys," short for "Las que limpian," or "those that clean" in Spanish.

Their line of work is nothing short of break breaking. Every day, del Mar must tidy and clean 24 hotel rooms in just six hours — a quota that's practically impossible to meet, she says. Other cleaners face even bigger workloads. "The pressure is enormous, few of us can afford to take lunch breaks, let alone drink anything, because we can't afford to lose time going to the toilet," she says.

Their working conditions have attracted considerable attention in Spain lately. So much so that Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez met with a group of cleaners while visiting Mallorca in early October. In a press statement released after the meeting, Sanchez promised his government would work with determination to improve their working conditions, and that without cleaners, the "economically essential tourist sector would cease functioning."

A group of housekeepers pose with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez
Spanish leader Pedro Sanchez (pictured at the back) is under pressure to ease the plight on hotel workersImage: Fernando Calvo

After all, the women put in hard work that often translates into health problems just to feed their families and keep the one of Spain's biggest economic sectors, the tourist trade, ticking along. Prime Minster Pedro Sanchez's meeting with Mallorca housekeeping representatives therefore carried huge symbolic significance.

Since organizing in 2016, the "Kellys" have already pushed through a spate of improvements: Many physical ailments common among housekeepers are now recognized as occupational illnesses. And a wage agreement established for the Balearic tourist sector guarantees workers a monthly take-home income of €1,400 euro ($13,900) — more than most Mallorca employees.

Hoteliers forced to install height-adjustable beds

Lawmakers on the Balearic islands recently decided that all hotels must install height-adjustable beds to improve the working conditions of housekeepers — a decision that sparked resentment among hoteliers due to the major investment costs involved. Members of Mallorca's hotelier association, for instance, do not understand why so much attention is devoted to housekeepers yet so little to cooks, receptionists and servers.

The President of the Balearic Islands, Francina Armengol, and Melia Hotels International founder Gabriel Escarrer inspect a hight-adjustable bed
Hotel owners have installed height-adjustable beds to ease working conditionsImage: CAIB

One reason lies in in the cleaners' determination to improve their situation since banding together. "We achieved all this because we took to the streets," says del Mar. "We staged protests on the major squares in all key cities."

Arbitrary work quotas

That said that their most urgent request — that hoteliers be barred from setting arbitrary high daily work quotas to keep labor costs low — has not been fulfilled, says del Mar. She wants to see an agreement reached to determine how many rooms a housekeeper can be reasonably be expected to tidy and clean in a day, with an independent body assuring this quota isn't exceeded. The "Kellys" have, however, successfully pushed for a study to determine what workload should be considered too onerous for housekeepers.

A housekeeper cleans a hotel room
Patrons should not take a freshly made bed and clean hotel room for grantedImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

Sara del Mar's good health might well result from her willingness to stand up to her employer. Most recently, when she felt her hotel was asking too much of her, she filed a complaint with the labor inspectorate. It found that her workload was indeed too high. And "one day later, the hotel hired an extra housekeeper," says del Mar.

This article was originally published in German.

Jonas Martiny -  Travel Online-Autor
Jonas Martiny Reporter, correspondent