Interview to Sylvie and Rachel (Paris) by TSS PLATFORM

For the series of interviews towards the global feminist strike of March 8th and 9th, we interviewed Sylvie and Rachel, two migrant women who work at the Ibis-Batignolle Hotel in Paris as waitresses and housekeepers. They fight every day against infernal working conditions, exploitation, and harassment. The interview shows how the strike has been an important tool for women to denounce publicly the oppression and violence which migrant women face every day in public and private space. Sylvie and Rachel encourage all the women to strike, speak up without fear on March 8-9 because they say if they don’t do it themselves, nobody will do it for them.

Read the previous interviews #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

TSS: What’s your job? And what are the working conditions? Have they changed within the past few years?

Sylvie: I am working as a waitress at the Ibis-Batignolle Hotel in Paris. The working conditions were unbearable, and that’s why we started a strike. The strike is difficult; obviously, it is not a pleasure to come here to the picket every morning and go around talking about our fight in the cold. We broke our silence because the working conditions are not good at all: they impose infernal rhythms on us, they exploit us. Each of us has a different contract: some work four hours, some five, and some others have seven hours. Those with a four-hour contract have 14 rooms, those with five hours have 18 rooms, those with seven hours have 24 rooms because we are not paid by the hour, but by the number of rooms cleaned. Often when we arrive in the morning, we find ourselves with thirty, forty rooms to be cleaned. This situation made us angry because the labor law was no longer respected, the work itself was not respected. The materials were missing, nothing worked properly.  The infernal rhythms were not just for one or two days, they became the order of the day. When you clean forty rooms thinking you are doing overtime and instead you end up with your 20-room salary, it means that you don’t get paid. It’s not for nothing that we’re out here. We denounce the truth, real facts, the exploitation, the Accor group, and the SNT (cleaning company). They don’t want to give us anything but crumbs, but we do nothing with the crumbs, and we definitely reject them. We told ourselves that we had to do something because if we didn’t do it, nobody would have done it for us.

Rachel: I have been working at the Ibis-Batignolle Hotel in Paris as a housekeeper for sixteen years. The working conditions and infernal rhythms are unbearable. They always put pressure on us and lack respect. We are morally and sexually harassed.

TSS: Does being black and woman affect the way you were treated at work?

Sylvie: In most of the hotels in Paris, black women work in different conditions. Why is it only the hotel sector that works with procurement? Because it is the hardest sector and the one in which does not provide allowances, meals and does not respect the labor rights. There are only your salary and your job: you arrive, you work, you don’t speak out, and you go away. If we were French who know their rights, we would not have been treated like this: they treat us in this way because we are black women. We told ourselves that if we do not do anything, neither the state nor Macron will do anything for us. We are the ones who have to raise their heads up, break the silence, and tell the Accor group and the SNT that is enough. We want dignity, respect for our work. We are not slaves. I didn’t move to Europe to end up in slavery. I came here to find a job. Being a waitress doesn’t make me proud. Yes, maybe pride comes little by little. This is just what I have found in the beginning. I could do better, but I found this because I need to pay the bills. However, I remain precarious, and if I don’t speak out now, I will end up receiving a lower pension later. The employer does not pay retirement contributions properly.  This is why it is now time to denounce everything. They must understand that women are intelligent, at the beginning they manipulated us, now they can no longer.

Rachel: Of course, being a black woman has effects at work. It is always migrant women who do this job. The white women come to do one-day stages, but they say that that is already too much. They tell us that we are brave. We do it because we leave our homes, our countries to come here and learn to live like the French people, but we only find this type of job. Most of us haven’t studied, we don’t have diplomas, and therefore we can’t have a good place to work. Since we are black, we are destined to suffer from racism, this is reality.

TSS: Have you ever witnessed violence in your workplace? Or even on the street or with the family?

Sylvie: There is a huge debate about that now. I did not experience violence in the family. If my husband had beaten me, I would have responded in the same way, I would not have been silent. At my workplace, there is a type of physical violence: the threats of the bosses. These threats of dismissal really kill us. There is continuous intimidation. Before we did not know our rights, but now that we know them, we cannot suffer in silence. The director of the Accor group who worked here raped a waitress, but I don’t know the details well. I didn’t see anything, I don’t know how it started and how it ended. The case is currently under investigation. Now we talk about it. Before, when we talked about it in the corridors, they threatened us. The Accor group sent emails to the management, asking to silence us if we didn’t want to lose our job. But now that we are on strike and we denounce it publicly because people need to know what is going on in hotels. They wanted to shut us up, but we didn’t want to, the strike has been an opportunity to say everything without fear.

Rachel: Sexual harassment is common in hotels. Many women say they have been subjected to violence in hotels, they don’t lie, this really happens. The boss does not threaten us sexually. It happened to one of our colleagues. We do not endure sexual harassment, but harassment related to work. When we say we do not want to clean thirty rooms, they tell us that if we refuse, they will fire us. If we refuse, we are threatened. For example, they gave me 140 rooms to inspect in one day. When I said I wouldn’t do it because I wasn’t feeling well, the housekeeper told me that if I didn’t, I would have suffered the consequences, and in fact, they sent me emails. Violence against women is very common, some women are killed. It is frequent. Women are mistreated at work, in homes. Frankly, I don’t really know why a woman should suffer like this. What people tend to forget is that women are smarter than men, women are more courageous, they know how to organize themselves and make better savings. Men do everything to subdue women. In Africa, for example, they always tell us to subjugate ourselves. When we speak, they tell us not to speak, they tell us that we cannot say no. There the husbands don’t listen to us, we are nobody to give advice. Here we have more possibilities, there are feminist associations that fight against this system. Women are not protected by men. They tell us that we don’t have the strength, we only have the words to defend ourselves. People underestimate women, we are precious stones. Women are not wild, men do not consider women and do not know their value. When you respect a woman, when you see the value of a woman, then you understand her importance and become proud of her. This is why they say that there are always great women behind great men.

TSS: Have you ever heard of the women’s strike that has taken place in many countries around the world every March 8 for the last four years? Women go on strike to show their role in society and to make it clear that if they stop, the world stops. Women strike to denounce the violence they suffer at all levels, at work, at home, and in society.

Sylvie: Yes, I’ve heard of it. I have to say that before I went on strike, I didn’t know anything, I didn’t care. When I was on strike, I discovered many more things, I appreciate the women who strike. I encourage them.  It is right to go on strike because women work outside and at home. They have to prepare everything and clean for their husbands, who arrive, sit on the sofa and spend time on the computer. As soon as the woman comes home, she must think of her children and prepare food. So, we as women have a second job. Now it is normal that women claim their rights and break the silence. I do it here. It’s our fight. We will be in the square on March 8.

Rachel: I’ve heard of it. I don’t know much about it, but I can still say something. Women do anything that men do; indeed, women do more. If women stopped working at home, men wouldn’t know what to do.  Men need women. Even men who marry each other if they want children, they need women. Truly without us, the world stops. For this reason, they must respect us.

TSS: What would you say to women who face the same kind of problems you face every day?

Sylvie: Everyone has their own way of fighting, some of us don’t even talk. But I would tell women that if they want to get out of the silence, they must simply do it, the time has come, women must denounce certain things, they must raise their heads up because we are in the 21st century. Women must gain independence and go beyond what they think of women. Let’s unite. Let’s take our lives if men can do it why we shouldn’t do it too. Let’s go out, talk, don’t be silent.

Rachel: I would like to say to women in France not to lower their heads, never think that men can do more than we do. I am here, I am like a statue, nobody can move me away. They can’t tell us not to talk, we have rights, men and women are equal. Unfortunately, because of this system, we have been submissive for a long time. Now, women must raise their heads up and say enough. Because we are the same, indeed, we are more than men. We are smarter, better at organizing ourselves: we have children, we take care of them, we go to work every day, we go home, and we take care of everything. Men do not do all this and cannot do it. Women can do many things, we must show our skills to men, and we must never lower our heads and keep silent. If something does not work for us, we have to say “no, this doesn’t work for me, I don’t agree with that.” We cannot let men weaken us, never. We have to hold our heads up and walk, even if we have Macron in front of us, we must have the courage to say that we don’t like what he does. Women have to understand the value they have. We have to speak up and say no when we don’t agree with men.