When Mel Jones first got the job, there was no mention of deadly diseases. She was hired to work in a hotel laundry, stripping linen and returning it to housekeeping staff fresh and clean.

Four months later, she found herself working daily right on the border of our national bubble.

The bus ride to work became an exercise of keeping as far away from other commuters as possible. She sacrificed her hobbies, line dancing and aqua aerobics, for fear of spreading the virus.

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Something as simple as popping into the supermarket for that last minute dinner ingredient became unfeasible, with Ministry of Health advice suggesting MIQ workers go straight home to shower and clean their clothes before hugging their families.

Now Mel spends a chunk of time and change in a local laundromat every evening, making sure her work uniform is free from contamination.

Most of the country said goodbye to Level Four restrictions almost a year ago, but MIQ workers like her remain essentially locked down. “I feel very isolated,” she said. “I see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Covid-19 has heaped stress, fear and responsibility on the shoulders of these workers – yet for most, there has been no additional compensation.

Over the last year, 32 hotels around the country – one in 10 – have transformed into facilities on the front lines of the pandemic. These are principally staffed by hotel workers who have seen a drastic change in their daily routines.

‘It’s kind of a slap in the face’

Grace wants out, but it’s not that easy. She had been a housekeeper at a hotel near the airport for nearly four years when it became an MIQ facility. She found herself spread across a number of tasks as the workload grew faster than the amount of staff.

“What I do every day has changed a lot. One week I’ll be doing rooms and another I’ll be getting guest requests, or helping food and beverage.”

But the work Grace (not her real name) and other MIQ workers have put in has gone largely unnoticed.

“The pay just isn’t enough for the amount of work we do,” she said. “It’s kind of a slap in the face, to be honest.”

She tried to leave her position at the beginning of lockdown, but failed to find anything better. “It’s hard.”

Late last month, Crowne Plaza Auckland agreed to pay its MIQ workers a living wage after petitions from Unite Union.

“We’ve only heard [the government] has asked the hotels about their intention to pay the living wage – but this isn’t enough, these workers deserve more.”
– John Crocker, Unite Union

However, Unite Union national secretary John Crocker says there are too many workers who are unfairly compensated.

“We are pleased that Crowne Plaza Auckland is finally recognising staff’s hard work,” he said this month. “But there are still hundreds of workers in MIQ facilities earning below the living wage.”

Speaking to Newsroom, he said he was optimistic other hotels would eventually follow suit, with another hotel entering talks this week with the union. He would like to see the government speed up the process. “We still haven’t received any commitment from the government.”

The government is currently in renegotiation for the MIQ facility contracts, which Crocker sees as the perfect opportunity to set living wage conditions. “We’ve only heard [the government] has asked the hotels about their intention to pay the living wage – but this isn’t enough, these workers deserve more.”

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment expressed gratitude for the work the MIQ workers have been doing. It was less clear about whether it would ensure wages were lifted across the sector.

“No hotel worker expected to be on the front line of New Zealand’s health response to Covid. It’s not what they trained for.”
– James Doolan, Hotel Council Aotearoa

“We undertake discussions with [hotels] regarding payment of the living wage to their employees wherever feasible,” it said. It had asked each hotel the “specific question” of whether workers were paid living wage.

The Hotel Council Aotearoa called last month for MIQ workers to be recognised as heroes, alongside the defence force and frontline medical workers.  “No hotel worker expected to be on the front line of New Zealand’s health response to Covid,” they said. “It’s not what they trained for.”

The council’s strategic director James Doolan said the stress was not just being felt by hotel workers in MIQ facilities. A lot of hotel workers had seen many of their colleagues made redundant, yet were seeing nothing in the way of sector-specific support from either central or local government.

Scared and stressed

Mel Jones said workers in her South Auckland hotel were still waiting on a pay increase.

“We are overworked and short-staffed,” she said. “I know girls who get bombarded with guest requests in the morning and they are often on their own.”

Working under strict precautions made the job difficult.

“Even going into work is stressful,” Jones said. “You’ve got the Covid tracer app, and then you sign in with the military and give them your details – then you go in and have a health check and get your temperature taken by the nurse. Only then can you clock in.”

And at the end of the day, you do it all in reverse.

“A lot of people I work with are really scared. They are afraid of coming into contact with the virus.”
– Mel Jones

The added stress is coupled with the fear of contracting the virus or spreading it to people out in the community. 

While it hasn’t always been the smoothest road, she acknowledged both the hotel and the Ministry of Health had improved how they deal with Covid-19 precautions.

“I feel safe nowadays, but there were times when I didn’t,” she said. “I was stuck in the staffroom one day because there wasn’t a new facemask for me. Now they’ve really refined the process – I’ve not been stuck since.”

Nearly 3,000 people have signed a petition from Unite Union for these workers to receive a living wage.

“A lot of people I work with are really scared,” Jones said. “They are afraid of coming into contact with the virus.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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