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Kahn and able - in India
Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged sexual assault on a Manhattan hotel maid is making it to conversations in subways and magazine covers across the globe. While some are quick to draw parallels to Tiger Woods or Arnold Schwarzenegger, others are keener to see who will replace the International Monetary Fund managing director. But closer home, one remark is a common refrain: "If this were to have happened in India, word would've never got out."
It's a cold, brutal truth that few would like to publicly acknowledge, but fewer can disagree with. Ask Shweta Sinha. A guest relations manager at a plush hotel in suburban Mumbai, the petite Sinha was known for her excellent networking with VIP guests. Then, one day, she saw what happened to her colleague, another guest relations manager. "The guest, who was the chairman of a group of companies, asked for her on the pretext that he was not served food as per his preference. When she went in to the room, he calmed down almost immediately and sat her down. He started telling her about how well she knew him and started patting her knee. Next thing she knew, he started kissing her and trying to unbutton her blouse. She screamed and ran straight to the duty manager." The hotel manager was called in, but the guest calmly denied any such incident. "He had the gall to be outraged at being accused of any such thing and threatened to stop all business from his company. " Sinha's colleague was given a week off to 'recoup'. And that was that.
Sinha was so disillusioned that she quit. A few months later, she joined an insurance company. "You're talking about an IMF MD. In India, even a local MLA can do what Strauss-Kahn did and get away with it, " says a bitter Sinha.
Often what bothers the staff is not just the likelihood of an attack, but the fact that if an attack were to happen, there is precious little one can do about it. Hotels try hard to keep such incidents from becoming public and keep their reputation intact among guests. In doing so, the safety of the employee tends to take a backseat. Remarks loaded with innuendo and guests getting touchy feely with staff - which are grounds strong enough to file a sexual harassment case in any other industry - are ignored by hotel managements.
The ministry of tourism issued a 'Pledge and Undertaking Code of Conduct for Safe and Honorable Tourism', in 2008, that "urges hotel managers across India to address harassment claims effectively and adopt a zero tolerance policy towards sexual complaints from hotel staff."
At GRT Hotels, a Tamil Nadu hospitality chain, a team of housekeeping staff (a man and a woman) cleans rooms only when guests are not in the room. There is a security guard on every floor. "So if a guest misbehaves, the security can be called immediately to control the situation," says T K Natarajan, CEO of GRT Hotels. "And we discourage any socialising between the staff and guests. Even a dinner together is frowned upon."
In most hotels, the staff is trained to sharply tell off guests who try to come on too strongly. In every department, teamwork is followed with men and women working together. As far as possible, hotels avoid having women on the night shift.
Radhika Singh, marketing manager for Crowne Plaza, Gurgaon, says that staff members, especially women working in the housekeeping and food and beverage (F&B ) departments, are as part of training made aware of anti-harassment policies.
However, stories from the staff don't always concur. Ameeta Goyal, who works at a five-star hotel in Delhi, can't forget an incident of harassment five years ago. "It was 2 am and there were just three staff members in the front office, including me. One of our regular guests from Mumbai asked me to get him some water as there was nobody else around. As soon as I left my table, he grabbed me and offered me money to sleep with him," recalls Goyal.
She somehow got herself out of the place, threatening the guest with serious consequences. When she complained about the incident to her senior manager, she was told the hotel would take strict action against him. "That man still visits the hotel frequently. I don't think he was even warned by the hotel and I didn't complain again for fear of losing my job, " she says.
The condition of male employees, it turns out, is no better. "The media thinks only women are victims. Do you have any idea how many gay/bisexual men and bored wives we have to encounter? Especially on night duty," says Adil Karma, who used to work in the room service department on a cruise as part of his traineeship. Varma was summoned into a room by a woman, who was accompanying her husband as part of a corporate outbound programme. Her husband had just left for the day's session and the woman asked for Varma on the line. "She told me that she needed a bathrobe, which was unusual, because the housekeeping had placed one. " Varma took one in any case and found the room door open. He walked in and the woman called out from inside. "I walked in and saw her only in a towel. 'Will you join me?' she asked. I got so scared that I just left the robe on the table and ran."
What annoyed Varma more was what followed. Not just did no one take his complaint seriously, some people started laughing when he narrated the incident. "My manager actually said, 'Guest nahin hoti toh kar lena tha' (if she wasn't a guest, you could've done it). I'm sure he wouldn't have said this to a woman, " he said. A disillusioned Varma quit, did an MBA and now works in a bank.
Clearly in India, the choice is either suffer and stay or quit. The industry could take a cue from the Sofitel (Manhattan), which not only registered a complaint by a maid against someone with immense global political and economic clout, but continues to stand by her.
With inputs from Ruchika Rai
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