When my parents suggested that we take this year’s annual winter family vacation in Cusco, Peru, I didn’t anticipate that we would find ourselves in the middle of a hotel workers strike. But there we were, in one of Peru’s fanciest hotels, the 126-room Hotel Monasterio, confronted with the reality that while were paying more than $300 a night for a nice room, the housekeeping staff, porters, and cooks were earning less than that – about $250 – a month.
On our last morning in Cusco, I left the hotel to join the rest of city at the bustling Christmas Eve market, only to find a group of 40 workers gathered outside the hotel doors. Police in riot gear stood in front of the entrance next to hotel management, an appropriate symbol of the close ties between Peru’s business class and its political leaders. The workers chanted their demands for fair wages and just treatment while holding signs (in English) stating “Best Hotel in Peru. Worst Paid” and “Stop Harassment of Staff!”
I spoke to several workers and learned of their grievances. “We work hard,” said a cook who had worked at the hotel for 12 years. “We run our own kitchen. There’s no head chef. All we’re asking for is fair pay.” He told me: “My son asks me for money to buy books and I have to tell him no. I work at one of the most expensive hotels in the city – I shouldn’t have to tell him no.” While their wages are among the lowest of any high end hotel in this city, and room rates among the highest, the hotel claims it doesn’t have enough money to raise workers’ pay.
About one third of approximately 130 workers at the hotel have joined the Sindicato de Trabajadores del Hotel Monasterio (Hotel Monasterio Workers Union). Others wanted to join as well but were afraid of the management’s intimidation tactics and threats of being fired. Justo Ccahua Llacta, the union leader, said that the hotel management refused the union’s proposal to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.
Built on a foundation of ancient Inkan stone, the structure of the hotel dates back to 1592 when it was used a monastery. Orient Express, a London-based global hotel chain, purchased the Hotel Monestario in 1999, when rooms averaged $78 a night. The company restored much of the building’s original architecture and took advantage of Cusco’s growing reputation as a tourist destination to dramatically increase room rates.
Orient Express now owns 37 luxury hotels in 22 countries, including five in Peru. Its properties also include luxury tourist trains, rivers cruises, and restaurants. Its U.S. holdings include the iconic 21 Club restaurant in New York City (where the wait and kitchen staff are unionized) and the El Encanto hotel in Santa Barbara, California. Thanks to the hard work of its 8,000 employees around the world, last year the company made $311 million in gross profits and paid its CEO -- J. Robert Lovejoy (who retired in November) -- $1.8 million.
At the Hotel Monestario and other properties, Orient Express is known for its devotion to detail in order to protect the country’s history and culture. But in seeking to preserve the past, the company has ignored the present – the hotel workers and their families who live there and bring the city alive.
Surely this highly profitable global corporation can afford to improve the wages among its low-paid workers in Cusco, Peru. As guests in another country, it is our responsibility to ensure that the money we spend stays in the country, going to the people who generously welcome us and make our stay enjoyable, rather than to the wealthy 1% in the U.S. and England who own these luxury properties and reap the profits from the hard work of the cooks, kitchen workers, and bellhops who make the hotels and restaurants run smoothly on a day-to-day basis.
As a fellow member of the 1%, I know that we have enough. I urge Oriental Express: please show us your humanity and meet the Hotel Montasterio workers’ demands.