Travelling while black: How racial segregation was exposed at an Australian hotel
Oliver Gordon and Scott Mitchell
“I went in the bathroom and seen them chicken bones inside there.”
- When two groups make identical bookings, the Aboriginal group receives a room in an inferior condition
- Accor has launched an internal investigation
- It has been alleged there is a “Bermuda Triangle of unreported racism” because of the arduous complaints process
Gloriana Mokatirinja is standing in room 86 of the Ibis Styles Alice Springs Oasis. She has just arrived and is shocked by what she can see.
The Black and White hotel
A big name hotel has been racially segregating guests, and our undercover recordings captured it. Would you pay $129 for a room with dirty sheets, chicken bones and broken glass on the floor?
Aside from there being a chicken bone on the floor, there is broken glass on the patio, stains on the towels and sheets and other people’s clothing still in the cupboard.
Gloriana paid the same amount for this room as someone who is about 50 metres away from her in room 48, but her room is in a much worse state.
How did this happen?
The policy at the Ibis Styles
In June last year, the staff at the Ibis Styles hotel received an email.
“Hi team,” it began. “Just to keep everyone in the loop we are now only putting hospital linen into rooms 85 to 90. 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.
“Reception ladies, please use a touch of initiative and allocate accordingly on arrival.”
The whistleblower who leaked this email to Background Briefing said they saw this directive being enforced hundreds of times, in less than a year.
“It was pretty much standard,” they explained. “And it wasn’t just people from the communities necessarily. So you’ve got like councillors and directors who are also being put in these rooms, who in any other situation would be treated like VIPs.”
The Ibis Styles Hotel, which is near the local hospital, is convenient for many Indigenous travellers. (ABC: Hamish Harty)
“You’re looking at people who were notable and who were doing charity work or anything like that, who just because they appeared Aboriginal were being given worse rooms that you wouldn’t put anyone else into at all.”
After receiving this email the Ibis Styles whistleblower shared it with the NT Anti-Discrimination Commission.
The whistleblower wasn’t a direct victim of the alleged discrimination and because of this, the Commission could not classify the information received as a formal complaint, only a tip-off.
This meant the NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner could not start the formal complaints process.
The whistleblower told the ABC nothing had changed at their work months after alerting the commission, so ABC’s Background Briefing went undercover.
Barb Shaw is known as an activist in Alice Springs. She found it easy enough to talk some relatives into helping her put the Ibis Styles to the test.
“Get in that car or this one, hurry up — we’re wasting time,” she yelled at her grandfather, Tommy, who was getting in the car before going undercover.
Barb Shaw organised for her relatives to become involved in running a test at the Ibis Styles Hotel. (ABC: Hamish Harty)
A few days earlier two identical bookings were made with the Ibis Styles hotel. Then we sent two parties in to test whether the policy was real.
The only difference between the two groups who arrived at the hotel was that one was Indigenous and one was not. Both groups were charged the same $129 price tag for their three-person rooms.
The check-in of the Aboriginal group proceeded exactly as the email suggested it might.
“I’ll just show you where you’re off to,” said the receptionist as she held out a map of the hotel.
“So this is where ya are here, and you’re just heading over to 86.”
Barb’s relatives were handed over the keycard to room 86, one of the “community rooms” mentioned in the email.
An hour later, our non-indigenous party checked-in. They were given room 48.
To say that the rooms were incomparable would be an understatement. Room 48 smelled better, was more hygienic, was in a better location — and had a distinct lack of chicken bones and broken glass on the floor.
The pain of discrimination
“It’s effectively a form of segregation within hotels and hostels,” says Sophie Trevitt, a lawyer with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, which provides legal services to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
“[Aboriginal] people generally have an awareness of this conduct but also people say they’ve talked to cleaners and talked to Aboriginal staff members who have confirmed that they are told that folks from out bush go in certain rooms and white people and non-Aboriginal folks go in other rooms.”
When you begin to talk to Indigenous Australians about travel, many begin to share their stories.
“Only about three weeks ago I was asked if I was a guest at the particular hotel I was booked into for a week in Broome in Western Australia,” said June Oscar. “I was at the pool with a little grandson, a 12-year-old grandson, and a niece who is 32.”
Ms Oscar is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
“The fact that we were Aboriginal was, I think, the main reason for that question to be asked of us,” she said.
She says that in the last reporting year for the Human Rights Commission, they only received 10 complaints about the refusal of service at hotels or pubs based on race from across Australia. Only three of those complaints came from Aboriginal Australians.
In Australia, formal complaints of discrimination can only come from, or with the written consent of, someone who’s been discriminated against.
If a complaint comes from a third party, say a witness like our whistleblower, the commission is unable to formalise it.
Accor Hotels, which operates the hotel, said it was “extremely saddened and disappointed” by the revelations. (ABC: Hamish Harty)
When there is a complaint, authorities prefer to pursue a process of mediation, but a victim of racial discrimination can insist on seeking damages.
Rex Sultan is one of the few to have taken this process through to a tribunal process. We met him in the waiting room before his case was heard.
“I was refused service at the Gap View hotel,” he said in the waiting room before his hearing. “I was refused service on the grounds because I smelt, that I had bad hygiene, which was untrue.
“I know it was pointed at me because of my race.”
Inside the hearing, Mr Sultan said that he had arrived at the hotel, freshly showered and wearing a button up shirt and enclosed shoes. He went into the dining room for dinner, but the bartender told him he smelt and refused to serve him.
During his evidence, Mr Sultan began to cry. He told the tribunal that the incident had affected his ability to work, and his partner gave evidence that it had affected their lives at home with their family.
The bartender then takes her turn to give evidence. By the time it’s all over the bartender leaves in tears as well.
The owners of the hotel say that members of their family are Indigenous, and they wish that Rex would have contacted them directly to discuss the matter.
Cases like Mr Sultan’s remain rare and payouts remain in the low thousands of dollars.
Kamal Farouque, a discrimination lawyer in Melbourne, believes this makes victims of discrimination hesitant to proceed with a formal complaint.
“I think there is a Bermuda Triangle of unreported racism,” he said.
Mr Farouque said that while the damages being paid for sex discrimination and harassment cases rise as community attitudes shift, this hasn’t happened in racial discrimination cases.
The tourist trade
Hotels in Central Australia often attract affluent backpackers, known as flashpackers, who are seeking an authentic and rugged travel experience.
They are predominantly foreign tourists and white Australians from the major coastal cities.
Staff were instructed to use “initiative” and place people from Aboriginal communities into one of five designated rooms. (ABC: Hamish Harty)
“Move over Bear Grylls,” reads the description of one tour marketed at such travellers. “By the time we’ve finished this morning’s Aboriginal ‘Bushtucker’ tour we’ll be all over knowing how to survive in the bush.”
That tour includes a stay at the Ibis Styles hotel. After their stay, they are promised a trip south to “the Indigenous heart of Australia” at Uluru.
Background Briefing spoke to the manager of the Ibis Styles hotel, Jo McKenzie, to ask whether Aboriginal people were segregated at the hotel.
“We have two room types — being standard rooms and superior rooms — and we allocate on how people book,” she said.
She denied the hotel had a policy to racially profile guests.
When asked about the email discovered by the ABC, which she was cc’ed on, Ms McKenzie said it was “not relevant at the moment”.
Accor Hotels, which operates the hotel on behalf of the third-party ownership, said the organisation was “extremely saddened and disappointed” by the revelations.
Accor says it has begun an internal investigation and will schedule cultural training for staff.
A few weeks after the undercover operation, ABC’s Background Briefing team went to pay Barb a visit.
Barb confirmed that like many in their situation, her relatives have not lodged a complaint with an anti-discrimination body.
“Our mob right around Australia, they know what segregation is, they know what racism is, they know what discrimination is,” she said.
“I guess just sitting and thinking about what’s been done and said about our people, it is tiring and it is draining and it’s emotional.
“Segregation in Australia these days should not be happening at all.”