NEW YORK, May 27, 2011 (AFP) - The scandal over former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged attempt to rape a chambermaid in New York has put the spotlight on risks run by the hard-working, but mostly anonymous workers cleaning hotel rooms across America.
Most big hotel groups have kept a low profile on the issue following Strauss-Kahn's arrest on May 14. Accor, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Starwood representatives declined to respond to questions.
But Joe McInerney, at the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a trade group, acknowledged there is a wider problem beyond Strauss-Kahn, who denies that the alleged incident in the Manhattan Sofitel occurred.
"We don't know how it happened or what will transpire, but it's a wake-up call for the industry to review procedures," he said.
He said that several companies provide training for staff to protect themselves in what is de facto a vulnerable situation: often female maids alone in bedrooms with a male guest.
Sexual assaults are rare, industry professionals say, but female room staff often face all manner of unpleasant encounters.
Annemarie Strassel, spokeswoman for Unite Here/Hotel Workers Rising, a union, said "our housekeepers have come forward with stories from across North America that reveal a pervasive pattern of harassment and unsafe working conditions for the women -- predominantly immigrants -- who work as hotel housekeepers."
She described frequent instances of "indecent exposure and other indignities from male guests."
Hotel insiders say staff abide by clear guidelines while in guests' rooms and that these change depending on whether or not it is occupied.
Intercontinental Hotel Group, for example, instructs maids on when and when not to close the door of a room.
"If a guest enters a guestroom while it is being serviced, the guidelines advise that the housekeeper excuse themselves from the room and return when it is unoccupied, wait for another team member for assistance or prop open the guestroom door before continuing to service the room," spokesman Stephen Boggs said.
If the guest is absent, the housekeeper should "place their cart in front of the door and work inside with the guestroom door closed."
However, these are just guidelines and the subsidiaries of Intercontinental run their security operations independently.
One suggestion emerging from the Strauss-Kahn uproar is to equip all maids with panic buttons.
New York State Assemblyman Rory Lancman authored a bill that would arm staff with a device able to notify managers of an emergency.
"When you consider these women, primarily women, are in hotel rooms with strange men and they don't have security, it's a recipe for disaster," he said.
Boggs and Strassel supported this, but McInerney said it was premature.
"I do not believe that the industry needs this additional cost when recovering from the economic downturn."