Wednesday, December 28, 2005

How Do You Sleep?

Three recent articles deal with the hotel industry’s Cold War-style amenities escalation. Two from fairly reputable papers, the SF Chronicle and the Washington Post, and a more sympathetic but rambling account in the East Bay Express.

For folks who don’t know about this, here’s the gist from the Chronicle.

Travelers are raving about the enormous, fluffy new beds that the nation's biggest hotel chains are spending millions on as they one-up each other in an escalating mattress war...The same beds that are so kind to travelers' backs are wreaking havoc on hotel housekeepers who wrestle with the behemoths -- not to mention the amazing array of pillows, duvet covers, down comforters, 300-thread-count sheets, shams, bed skirts, bolsters and bed scarves that need daily tending...Federal statistics show it's a real problem, and a study published in July by UCSF researchers found 3 out of 4 hotel housekeepers experience "very severe" pain...The problem, according to union representatives, doctors and those charged with keeping those beds made, is housekeepers are being forced to clean the same number of rooms per shift even as the beds grow ever bigger and more elaborate, requiring more time to change. The housekeepers are hurting themselves trying to keep up.

In upscale hotels, this problem has been obscured for so long that chronic injury and medical complications, as well as frequent over-reliance on pain medication have become the status quo in hotel housekeeping. And it’s not limited to housekeepers. According to the BLS, hotel workers suffer an on-the-job injury rate second only to healthcare workers.

The hotel industry, as it struggles to make amenities more and more luxurious, is literally breaking down the bodies of the women and men (it’s overwhelmingly women, and low-income, immigrant women at that) it employs.

I brought all this up not because if its relationship to my job, but because I think it’s worth probing the concept of luxury, and its “unseen” cost. Luxury is the next frontier, or rather the only remaining frontier, for American companies looking to beat out their foreign competitors (assuming they aren’t interested in challenging the various norms of the market). It’s critical that we recognize both the visible and obscured cost of luxury, in whatever segment of the economy. We have a tendency to equate the cost of luxury with its price, when of course the relationship is much more complicated. This holds true whether we’re talking about sprawl, household appliances, hotel amenities, technological development, or whatever luxury offers consumers something above and beyond their expectation. Paying for the luxury somehow seems to both justify it and distance consumers from its consequences.

To me, UNITE HERE’s rhetoric and framing of housekeeping workloads effectively closes that gap, and thus offers an ideal example for how to approach this kind of problem. It confronts consumers with the less savory side of their own satisfaction. It forces them to recognize not just the impact of their thirst for luxury, but also their basic identity as consumers. Their comfort relies on underpaid, backbreaking physical labor, and their money makes them partially responsible for the welfare of those who serve them.

Lots of implications for the Wal-mart campaign as well, but that’s another thing.

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