‘Sexual harassment’ in government hotels

Following allegations of sexual harassment, intimidation and claims that staff have been paid significantly below the minimum wage,  the Home Office has been urged to investigate the network of hotels holding thousands of asylum seekers.

Yvette Cooper, who chairs the home affairs select committee, has called on the Home Office to investigate if the private firms running the hotels are ‘fit for purpose’.

A recent joint investigation suggested privately contracted staff at some asylum hotels have been paid little over £5.50 per hour.  Also among the investigation’s findings are that asylum seekers have been unlawfully threatened by private contractor staff that the police will be called if they leave their hotel. There are allegations that women have been sexually exploited inside hotels, with others complaining they feel unsafe.

At least nine asylum seekers have died in hotels last year run by Home Office private contractors, while others have been forced to sleep in parks and streets after being ejected by contractors for breaching hotel rules.

There are further claims that training for contractor staff dealing with vulnerable and traumatised individuals is inadequate.  “The Home Office has to make sure the systems they put in place for these private contracts are properly working and that there are proper checks and safeguards in place”, said Cooper.  “At the moment we are not seeing that, the Home Office has to take some responsibility”.

The low pay allegations involve hotels run by Stay Belvedere Hotels Ltd (SBHL) which is responsible for providing temporary accommodation for asylum seekers in about 50 hotels and hostels in London and the south of England.

SBHL is subcontracted by Clearsprings Ready Homes, which stands to earn up to £1bn for its Home Office contracts despite controversy over its running of Napier barracks in Kent, where asylum seekers have complained of dire living conditions.

Some SBHL staff say they worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week, for as little as £5.77 per hour.  When one employee complained, a WhatsApp from the SBHL manager stated: “I hav plenty of ppl willing to work at even less than what u are getting paid, trust me”.

The firm have replied saying it was committed to ensuring all staff received at least the minimum wage and had launched an immediate review into pay that would rectify issues found.

Some asylum seekers have complained of unwelcome sexual behaviour, inside hotels overseen by Clearsprings.  One current resident said she felt ‘very unsafe’ and alleged she had been sexually harassed.

“Staff use the master key to enter my room and call the women unpleasant names.  The unwelcome sexual behaviour and invasion of privacy makes me feel uncomfortable”, she said, adding that she had complained to Clearsprings staff.  Maddie Harris, from the Humans Rights Network, which documents violations against asylum seekers, said they had recently heard claims from a reliable source that women were being abused in a London hotel.

Harris said: “We have received allegations that young women are being exploited.  This is deeply concerning as these vulnerable women must be protected from harm.  The Home Office must immediately investigate these allegations and ensure that asylum seekers whom they have a statutory responsibility to protect are safeguarded from harm”.

One serving member of staff admitted they know of at least one colleague who had sexual relations with an asylum seeker despite it being ‘forbidden’.  They said: “You’re not allowed to do that.  These people are considered vulnerable people”.

Provisional findings from a data gathering exercise by charity Care4Calais volunteers inside 40 hotels, had recorded contractor staff dismissing an allegation of sexual harassment by a women asylum seeker as ‘not an emergency’.

Clearsprings have said it would fully investigate the allegations but questioned their accuracy and rebutted any suggestion that concerns around safety or security raised were not taken seriously.

The hotels, which are estimated to be holding as many as 6,000 people, form a major component of the Home Office’s solution to coping with the backlog of individuals waiting for a decision on their asylum claims.  However, new evidence suggests a number have imposed arbitrary and seemingly unlawful rules on residents.

One such notice, taken from a hotel in north-west London, warns asylum seekers: “Any absences longer than two hours will be reported to the Home Office and disciplinary action might be taken”.  Under current lockdown rules, there is no limit to the amount of time someone can be outside.

Another poster – to private contractor staff in a north London hotel – simply states that asylum seekers ‘should not be leaving’.  It adds: “If anyone leaves the hotel for more than an hour we need to call the police”.  It also warns that if asylum seekers cannot show proof of where they intend to visit “they will not be allowed back into the hotel”.

A caseworker for Duncan Lewis Solicitors, Georgia Banks, said the Home Office must take ultimate responsibility.  She said there was no legal basis for this policy, ‘which essentially amounts to an unlawful deprivation of liberty for individuals who are already vulnerable as a result of a history of torture and/or trafficking prior to their arrival in the UK”.

Reports have also emerged from at least five hotels where asylum seekers have been ejected for apparently breaking the rules.

Care4Calais, earlier this month received information that one asylum seeker had spent two nights in an east London park after being ‘penalised’ for staying out overnight.

Another asylum hotel in north west London was reportedly locking people out if they left the premises for longer than one hour, but had since ceased the practice.

Founder of Care4Calais, Clare Moseley, said: “Being an asylum seeker means that, by definition, you have suffered something terrible.  This may make them easy to intimidate”.

Further questions over the running of the hotels are also raised by new figures that reveal that nine asylum seekers died last year “in Home Office hotel accommodation”.

The data, however, obtained in a freedom of information response, does not reveal the deceased’s identities or even how and where the individual died, prompting calls for more transparency.

Questions still remain over how privately contracted staff are treated.  One former SBHL employee shared invoices showing that during October he was paid £5.77 an hour, based on the amount he was paid divided by the number of hours he worked.  He expected £7.70 and said he accepted the position and pay because he was desperate.  “Because of this pandemic it was difficult to find a job, and being a student it was even harder during this time”.  His weekly tally of 72 hours worked is significantly more than the 48 hour working week known as the EU working time directive, conceived to protect workers rights.

Other invoices from an SBHL employee at a north London hotel, indicate that during November they were paid less than £6 an hour.

Many of the hotel’s private contractor staff are foreign nationals and South Asian international students who say they also accept the low wages because they are breaking the terms of their visas by working far more than 20 hours per week.

SBHL said: “We are committed to ensuring all staff are paid fairly, at least in accordance with the national minimum wage requirements.  In addition to their pay, many staff receive accommodation and other amenities and benefits”.

The SBHL statement added its staff received ‘thorough training’ including safeguarding that were regularly reviewed by independent bodies.

Clearsprings said it was not aware of any staff or sub-contractor staff ‘currently’ being paid below the minimum wage and pledged to investigate staff working hours and student permits.  “We strongly deny claims that concerns around safety or security raised by asylum seekers are not taken seriously as all reported concerns are investigated and actioned appropriately.  Clearsprings and their subcontractors cooperate fully with any investigating authority”.

It added that asylum seekers were ‘free to come and go as they please’ and could access the 24/7 Migrant Help service for registering complaints or request assistance.

Clearsprings said it had recorded four deaths in hotels run by its subcontractors since March which were all ‘related to ongoing health conditions and not to Covid’.

A Home Office spokesperson said:”We have raised these serious allegations with our accommodation provider and will investigate them fully”.

“Asylum seekers are not detained, they are free to come and go as they please in line with Covid restrictions.

“The Home Office takes the wellbeing of asylum seekers incredibly seriously and they have 24/7 access to a migrant helpline if they need any assistance.  We are deeply saddened by he death of any asylum seeker in our accommodation and our thoughts are with the friends and family of those who have passed away”.