Cleaning for chauvinists

A picture that could be from almost anywhere. Lanzarote, Canary Islands.
Political article
The tourism workforce is predominantly female. Whether tourism as a driver of development is suited to promoting equal rights is down to the working conditions and legal frameworks that the sector provides for women.

Have you already booked your summer holiday? How do you select your travel destination? Do you too sometimes stand in front of a travel agency window and marvel at how little it costs to be able to travel all in to the other end of the world? What may seem positive to us customers at first sight is being paid for by employees in the destination country through poor working conditions and insufficient environmental and human rights protections.

We go on holiday to relax or to seek adventure and escape the workaday routine. When we book a hotel stay, we relish being able to leave daily housekeeping chores like cleaning, shopping or cooking to someone else. We are perhaps also happy to take advantage – at least for a few hours – of the possibility of someone else looking after the children.

These tasks are mostly done by women. According to International Labour Organization (ILO) statistics, more than 55 per cent of tourism industry employees (hotels, catering and tourism) are women. In some countries the proportion is substantially higher. In Thailand for example, 76 per cent of employees are women – whether as chambermaids, restaurant waitresses or as child minders. These are classic-traditional housewives’ chores. There is a concept for this in English: the “housewifization” of the tourist industry. Implicit in the term is a certain disdain for those chores that supposedly require no additional qualifications. Jobs for women in the tourism industry are therefore perpetuating and compounding the structural disadvantages for women.

In a recently published study entitled "Sun, Sand and Ceilings", the British NGO "Equality in Tourism" explores the question of equal rights in the tourism industry. In particular, it compares the representation of women on boards of directors of hotels, tour operators, airlines and cruise companies. It does indeed document a rising proportion of women – 23 per cent in 2018. This remains a pathetic record, however, especially as predominantly female sectors are progressing substantially more quickly. Swiss firms are among the laggards in this respect. The board of directors of Mövenpick Holding for example, domiciled in Barr (canton of Zug), is all male.

In general, women are grossly under-represented in executive positions in tourism. At management level, the proportion of women is 25.5 per cent. This unequal access to managerial positions goes hand-in-hand with blatantly unequal wage distribution between the genders.

Dependent and defenceless

In the poor and poorest countries women face many other difficulties in tourism. They often work in the informal sector as street vendors or as unpaid workers in family businesses. In the informal sector, women are hired for the low-skill jobs. This results in a situation of dependence, particularly in a context of poverty and high unemployment, which is exploited by employers when legal protection for workers is insufficient or simply non-existent. Women who are dependent on extra income find themselves forced to work long hours, to do overtime and to accept on-call work. This often impacts their mental and physical health. Material dependence also means that women employees are unable to defend themselves against sexual harassment. Hotels or bars that suggest that guests "feel at home" erase the boundary between the private and the public, with the result that guests not infrequently behave in a manner that they would never do in a clearly public context. Where the very common motto "the client is king" is implemented with no moral compass, employees will hardly venture to address problematic behaviour, or complaints are simply not pursued.

Women are also disproportionately affected when it comes to major tourism projects. The accusation of land grabbing is often wielded in connection with the building of tourism infrastructure, hotels or leisure facilities such as golf courses. In developing countries, hotel facilities are often built in environmentally sensitive areas that had previously been devoted to subsistence farming or fishing. In this way, tourism displaces the local people and excludes them from the use of free resources in forests or coastal areas. Studies show that there is hardly any such thing as "unused" land, for even land that is not devoted to agriculture contains important life-sustaining resources for various people – by offering pasture land for cattle rearing, places for gathering firewood, fruits and other resources, these areas contribute in many respects to providing and diversifying livelihoods. It is often the most marginalized sectors of the population – cattle farmers, the landless, indigenous peoples, women – who mainly benefit from these lands, most of which are under community ownership. A handful of them may find work in the tourism facility, but typically, under poorly paid or precarious conditions for the most part.

Today's mainstream tourism tends to exacerbate existing structural disadvantages for women. They do the low-skill, invisible and poorly-paid jobs. Women can only be empowered if they have access to visible jobs vested with power and decision-making capacities. Besides, clear legal frameworks are needed both here and in the global South in order to prevent exploitation; minimum standards must be set for working conditions, and trade union involvement for the improvement of working conditions must be protected. Moreover, tourism projects must be audited for their impacts in the local context. Besides respecting human rights and environmental protection, there must be an audit from the gender perspective. If tourism is truly to contribute to sustainable development, it must undergo fundamental transformation. Individual behaviour is, of course, one critical factor in all this: through our demand, we hold the keys to helping sustainable tourism come into its own. Quality always comes at a price.

Las Kellys

In Spain, chambermaids are fighting against worsening working conditions in the tourism industry. They call themselves "Las Kellys", derived from the Spanish expression "las que limpian", which means "those who clean." In the aftermath of the financial crisis, workers’ rights were relaxed in Spain. In the tourist industry it became possible to outsource individual jobs. Such outsourcing without a regulated minimum wage led – in a context of rising unemployment – to a massive deterioration of working conditions. This meant cleaning more rooms in the same time period, unpaid overtime, and declining wages. The stress and hectic work pace augment the risk of accidents and illness. Spain's "Las Kellys" are vociferously and colourfully protesting against this on the streets and on social media. Invisible work must become visible.


The travel portal of the Working Group for Tourism an Development provides information on tourism and sustainable development as well as travel planning tips (in German) or a labels guide (German) for fair and sustainable tourism.