The international hotel giant Accor has launched an investigation into allegations that staff at one of its Australian hotels have been segregating Aboriginal guests in lower quality rooms.
The French multinational company said on Friday it was “extremely saddened and disappointed” at the revelations, which were reported by the ABC’s Background Briefing program.
Accor said it had taken “prompt and decisive action” and ordered “cultural training” for staff.
It was alleged that the Ibis Styles hotel in Alice Springs had directed staff to place guests from remote Aboriginal communities into designated rooms.
“These rooms are to be referred to as community rooms and we will try to limit them to just that, those coming from the communities,” said an internal email obtained by the ABC.
“Reception ladies, please use a touch of initiative and allocate accordingly on arrival.”
An anonymous Ibis Styles employee told the ABC this policy was then broadly applied to any Aboriginal guest who checked in. The broadcaster sent in two groups of people to test the allegation. The group of Aboriginal guests were sent to the community rooms.
Photos and video of the rooms revealed the “community rooms” were dirty, and poorly maintained, with broken glass, leftover food, and discarded clothes found inside and on the patio. The rooms cost the same as other, cleaner rooms where non-Indigenous guests were placed.
The Australian government has pledged to investigate the allegations, with federal minister for Indigenous affairs, Nigel Scullion, saying the alleged actions “smacks of racism”.
“I’ll be ensuring that that’s acted on, because that sort of behaviour from Australian businesses is completely unacceptable,” Scullion said, suggesting it could breach anti-discrimination laws.
“It’s very difficult to know that you are a victim if you weren’t aware that you’d been put in a room on the basis of your ethnicity because you wouldn’t know that,” said Scullion.
Accor, which owns thousands of hotels in more than 100 countries, told the Guardian it had launched immediate cultural training at the central Australian hotel.
“Since Accor was made aware of the matter raised on the ABC at Ibis Styles Alice Springs Oasis, we have initiated an investigation into the allegations and are taking prompt and decisive action on this incident at the highest level,” it said.
“We are extremely saddened and disappointed by this as it completely goes against our values and track record as a company with over 17 years of engagement with our Indigenous community, through our leading Indigenous programs.”
“Accor prides itself on being an inclusive organisation and has strict anti-discrimination policies and practices in place. It is our number one priority to ensure that we make every hotel employee and guest feel welcome, safe, valued and equal.”
The story has sparked outrage across Australia. But Alice Springs residents contacted by the Guardian expressed more surprise that the directions were formalised in an email than they were about the discrimination itself.
Bronte Lloyd said she believed she had been put in the segregated rooms when she traveled to Alice Springs in December from Yulara, near Uluru at 36-weeks pregnant.
Lloyd was flown out as a medical emergency with pregnancy complications, and had told the hotel she was coming from a remote community.
“As soon as we entered the room you could physically see the dirt” she said. “The linen was stained and my mother, being a professional cleaner, was disgusted.
“We pulled back the sheets and discovered that the bed had been made, but with dirty sheets ( food crumbs and dirt and rub marks from the previous occupants’ feet).”
Lloyd said everyone in their block was from an Indigenous community, and they noticed that another block appeared to be all tourists. After they complained, she and her mother were moved to different rooms.
“Can you imagine having to wrangle the idea of bringing a tiny baby back to that room or even being post-operative,” Lloyd said on social media.
Chansey Paech, the Labor member for the Namatjira seat covering more than 350,000km square, including part of Alice Springs, said the incident showed there were a lot of people who thought this kind of segregation was OK.
“That’s the major issue here – this highlights that there’s still so much work that needs to be done as a community, that needs to be done to address this level of discrimination,” he said.
Paech, who is of Aranda and Gurindji descent, said while there were many places in Alice Springs that were welcoming, he had often experienced different attitudes when booking rooms on behalf of his constituents.
“As soon as I say it’s not for me … there’s a complete change of tone and language,” he said.
Paech said it appeared the hotel was working under an assumption that people from remote communities were not likely to complain, and it was a reminder that people needed to call out racism in Australia more often.
“Even if they come to their local members or the anti-discrimination commission, we need those complaints to act,” he said.
The Australian human rights commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, June Oscar, said racism was alive and kicking and she experienced it regularly as she travels the country in her role.
Oscar told Background Briefing she had repeatedly been racially profiled in hotels.
Almost one-fifth of the population of Alice Springs is Indigenous, but the town also serves as a major hub for the remote communities spread across the central desert region. The communities have very few services, and people regularly travel to the town for healthcare. However, affordable accomodation is limited.
The Guardian has previously reported on the case of one man who was forced to sleep in a dry river bed while he was in Alice Springs for renal dialysis.
The ABC’s Background Briefing audio report is here.