Jeff Bezos — richest man in the world, bane of the brick-and-mortar store, space joy-rider — summed up perfectly the advantages of the “platform” economy: “We are consumer obsessed.” What is true of retail goods is perhaps more so for travel and tourism. Apps and websites allow consumers to browse for the best hotels, with deals that offer them the cheapest prices. The casualty of this convenience, though, have been the workers who actually make hotels run — and their financial and social precarity has only been enhanced by the pandemic. Now, at last, a labour union formed by chambermaids in Spain is trying to use technology to even the playing field.
Las Kellys began as a WhatsApp group in 2014 in Barcelona, started by mostly women workers frustrated at the inability of traditional unions to represent their interests. In the hospitality industry — as in transport and retail — hotels, particularly the big chains, have increasingly begun to outsource the employment of staff, particularly cleaning crews, to avoid paying the state-mandated minimum wage and benefits, including maternity leave. Las Kellys has raised funds to start its own booking app. Now, in addition to a room with a view and pool-side cocktails, patrons can judge hotels by how they treat their staff and whether, while being “consumer obsessed”, they are also decent to their workers.
The Spanish experiment, if successful, could form a meaningful way in which to use technology and the internet to bargain for the basic rights of the most marginalised workers. The major hiccup, though, is that the model relies on people being more conscientious. Will enough consumers, as they swipe through the endless array of options at their disposal, pay a little bit extra to reward establishments that treat their staff with dignity? Hopefully, the average traveller has a little more concern for the well-being of working women than the average owner.