IWD — Rebecca Reilly: Activist, Educator, Organiser
On the occasion of International Women's Day, The Guardian spoke to Rebecca Reilly about the issues she has faced as a female union organiser and the experiences and problems facing women workers in the liquor and hospitality industry. After leaving school Rebecca did a diploma in hospitality and tourism management and started out as a rank and file hotel worker at a five-star international hotel. "I was only about 18 at the time. It was a hotel made up of a lot of young workers and management thought that they could advantage of us. "As a young woman wanting to have a voice and be heard, I faced a fair amount of discrimination. I found that management preferred to deal with the older male workers in the company rather than the young women. "We suffered from bullying, and sexual harassment by guests and senior managers. "It was becoming a huge problem and initially we didn't think there was anything we could do about it. "What we did without really knowing what we were doing was to get together and talk about the issues that we faced and collectively address management. "We then negotiated enterprise agreements, with the assistance of the union office, to improve our wages and conditions." Rebecca became very active in her union — the Australian Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union (LHMU) — and was eventually asked to work for them. She started as a trainee, went through the ACTU's Organising Works program, and has continued to work with the union as an organiser. She also sat on the ACTU executive as a Youth representative. "I was 22 when I first started working for the union and to be taken seriously was a big thing, with hotel bosses and quite often within the union structures themselves. "It was often extremely difficult — a young activist that was not university educated and wasn't in the ALP. I thought that you weren't taken seriously and generally young men were taken a lot more seriously, so you had to break down barriers. "I found a number of different people within the union movement who actually supported a lot of young women. They were generally our trainers. They would talk to us and go through the issues which gave us a lot of strength." Organising NESB women "I've found that women, particularly from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds, have jumped at the opportunity to join unions", said Rebecca. "They generally understand the importance of unions, they generally have been in a union before and actually see that as the only way they can maintain any sort of respect or dignity in their workplaces." "It is extremely difficult for many of them", said Rebecca. "They are brilliant and very hard working, but they generally face a lot more discrimination." "They are often considered lowly-skilled workers, "when actually a lot of them are very highly skilled." "They've worked in all sorts of different occupations in the countries where they lived and were born." One of the focuses in trying to organise the women is to give them confidence, by way of helping them with the English language, making sure that interpreters are at hand when needed and giving them the skills and confidence to be able to talk about their main concerns. It is low-paid work, so a lot of the women have to work two jobs at the same time as trying to manage the family unit. This makes it extremely difficult for them to actually be active within their own union, Rebecca said. "We have to be more creative and also to be extremely aware about their concerns and how frightened they are. "We also try to get the union structures to acknowledge that generally working women cannot come to the union office to attend meetings. "We actually visit their homes and talk to them in a space in which they are comfortable, and it has to be at a time convenient for them, not so much as to what's convenient for us." The issues that women face in hospitality and in the workforce are quite often different issues to those that men face. Sexual harassment Rebecca spoke of the problems that the room attendants who clean guest rooms in hotels face on a daily basis. "There is a lot of harassment, particularly sexual harassment from guests. It can be very difficult to get management to take this issue seriously but there have been some major wins in convincing hotels that they have an obligation to provide a safe workplace for everyone, not just men." Rebecca gives an example of a recent win. "He was a long-term guest at a major hotel. He was sexually harassing one of the room attendants. That guest is now totally barred from the hotel and won 't be allowed to stay there at all. "It does not sound like a big win but it is for the industry because they are service-oriented and the guests can do no wrong." Hotels did not have policies in place for women or people trained to handle such situations. Where there was someone the women could report to, it was generally a male. "It has taken a long time to educate these hotels that that's not the most appropriate way. "They [the women affected] are extremely upset about what's happened and they feel extremely violated. So they may not necessarily want to speak to another man directly after a man has just assaulted them in this way." Casualisation Casualisation is a huge issue in the hospitality industry. "More and more women are actually finding it more and more difficult to survive being classified as casual employees. "That generally means that the boss has got the upper hand. They wave a carrot in front of the women basically saying to them that 'you either work the shifts at the last moment or you won't get any in the future' which makes it extremely difficult for them to organise childcare and other family situations. "We are running a case, a convergence argument with the Hotels Discrimination Resorts Award so that a casual employee who has been working regular shifts in a hotel for six months would be automatically offered a permanent position. "In preparing the case we had to go and speak to a lot of casual workers, particularly women. Some of their stories are actually horrifying." In one case, a middle aged woman has been a casual room attendant for five years, has regularly worked four to five permanent shifts a week, is permanently on a roster and also has a permanent floor in which she cleans in a hotel. "Everything to suggest that this woman should be permanent but of course the employers use some of the awards in their interests rather than the employees'. "It takes a lot for one of these female workers to actually approach management to try and be converted to permanent. When they do get the confidence to be able to do that it's met with a lot of resistance. "Management says, 'we'll think about it later', 'you do this shift for me and I might think about it'. "There's a huge amount of broken promises given to casual employees. "This particular woman I was referring to has not been able to have a break for five years because she cannot afford not to have an income. "She is not entitled to annual leave at all, she is not entitled to sick leave. She has a medical condition and needs to go to a hospital every six months for two days, which creates a huge burden on her financial situation. "When she returns after her two days in hospital she generally tries to work seven days to make up for those two days that she had to take off." Stand-over tactics A casual worker's income is totally dependent on how they get on with management and also how flexible they can be. Some casuals will start 7.30 or 8.00 o'clock in the morning and would not know at what time they will finish that day. "It creates all sorts of problems within their own families, within their own social networks. Their lives totally depend on whether the telephone rings — if they need to go to work or not. "If they do say 'no' to a request, that they have already had arrangements made, they are punished and may not get a shift for at least a week or longer." Shift work is a huge problem, particularly for women. That is why many women work in the back house areas of the hotel where there are more daytime hours. These are generally the low-paid areas such as cleaning rooms and the public areas of the hotel. Campaigns A yearly staff turnover rate of over 30 per cent is only one of the problems the union faces when trying to recruit members and run campaigns in the hospitality industry. It is particularly hard to organise campaigns amongst young workers from Anglo-Australian backgrounds. Says Rebecca, "They've been convinced from high school that hospitality is the industry of the future and that unions will only hinder their career progression." The union has also had to cope with the hotel closures and massive layoffs since the Olympics. "We've had some of our major union sites close down which created a huge burden on the number of activists that we have got left in the industry. "A lot of our work at the moment is to try and improve redundancy packages and try to place workers into other hotels to continue with their employment." The union has campaigned strongly for paid maternity leave. They won six weeks paid leave in the 2002 enterprise agreement at Star City Casino in Sydney. This was a first for an employer in the hospitality industry. Another campaign the union is working on at the moment is the upcoming Rugby World Cup. "It's going to be extremely busy. Workers are actually terrified for that period, particularly the room attendants. "There have been newspaper reports that the hotels will be charging as much as $600 a night over that period, or certainly as much as they can get. "Massive profits will be made by those hotels, and we are trying to negotiate a share of that for our workers."