Expat life and domestic staff: from the outside looking in.

This week a friend of mine who is not an expat, has never been an expat and probably never will be an expat, asked me a question about one of the topics I cover in my book. I am really grateful to this friend of mine, because she didn’t have to buy or read the book – but she has, to support me. I don’t expect people who have no connection to the expat life to read the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, even good friends and family members. So thank you to this friend, she is a good friend.

Anyway, as she made her way through the book, she reached the chapter about employing domestic staff. And she asked me a question. Earlier in the book she had read about how to find ways to occupy yourself. Then she came across the chapter about employing staff to do your cleaning, ironing, gardening etc – all those things that we get people to do for us when we move to certain parts of the world. And she, quite reasonably, asked why not do the work yourself – wouldn’t that at least partly solve the problem of trying to find ways to occupy your time?

It’s a good question and one I do tackle in the chapter my friend was reading on Domestic Staff: Finding Them, Keeping Them and Treating Them Like Human Beings (perhaps she just hadn’t read far enough into the chapter). From the outside looking in, as my friend was, this is one of the aspects of Expat Life that is hard to understand. I did explain to her that not every expat has domestic staff – if you are in Europe or the States, you’re probably looking at a cleaner a couple of hours a week if you’re lucky.

But many of us do, and it is one of those difficult topics that’s hard to discuss with people who haven’t lived in certain countries in the world. I know a lot of us don’t particularly enjoy having staff to do all the crappy jobs in our house that we could do ourselves…if we really had to….but we don’t, because we can afford to pay someone else to do it, and because it’s so damn hot, and the house is so damn big….

Our helper, Ansa, in Islamabad with my younger daughter.

Our helper, Ansa, in Islamabad with my younger daughter.

But how does it make you feel to be sitting on your sofa reading a book, or lying by the pool, while someone else is down on their knees scrubbing your floor? It feels pretty bloody awful doesn’t it?

So how do you deal with it?

Well, the advice I give in my book is first and foremost to treat your staff with respect. And treat the work they are doing with respect as well. It may feel like crappy work you don’t want to do, but it’s an honest job that helps people earn an honest wage. A wage which will almost certainly be supporting a family, possibly even an extended family. It may be paying for their children’s education (in Pakistan, our helper Ansa’s wages were paying for her daughter’s schooling), or for your staff to make a better life for themselves  (in Jamaica, it ensured my helper Anne-Marie was able to move away from the dangerous inner-city and allow her and her daughter to live in relative safety). It would almost certainly be difficult, if not devastating, for that member of staff to have their job taken away from them – just because it made you feel awkward.

Yes, it’s hard – I hate being in the house when anyone is cleaning it, whether in this country (the UK) or abroad. I usually find a reason to be out of the house, but that’s easier when it’s two hours a week than when it’s two days a week. Or longer – in some places it’s quite common still to have live-in maids. But it’s MY awkwardness, not theirs. And my problem, not theirs. And I shouldn’t make them know that I feel awkward because that would mean that they would know that I thought there was something wrong with what they are doing….

…it’s a tangled web, isn’t it?

There are things you can do to make things easier between you. Sit down to lunch with your staff, make it for them or serve it to them. Find other “chores” to do while they are cleaning, like cooking or tidying the bedroom. Lock yourself away in a study with your laptop and furiously beat away at your keyboard, very loudly, so they know you are working too. Help them (but don’t get in their way. They know what they are doing and are probably a lot better at doing it than you are). Just talk to them, ask them questions, use them to find out more about the place you live, their views on local politics, where to shop etc – it’s amazing what you will learn.

These are all my tips, but I would love to hear from you. If you live somewhere with staff working in your house, do you find it difficult? If so, how does it make you feel? Or if you’ve never been in this situation, how do you think it would make you feel? Or if you yourself have been a staff member, cleaned someone’s house or gardened – did you ever think about this at all?

In the meantime, I’ve got to go. My cleaner will be here soon and I really need to be out of the house……

click here to buy

Advertisements

18 thoughts on “Expat life and domestic staff: from the outside looking in.

  1. seems to be a hot topic this week! I have a domestic helper and I am not ashamed and it is not awkward. We are blessed and priveledged to have such a wonderful person working in our household and we never take her for granted.

    I never get time to feel awkward; with 3 tiny tots running around the house there is always something to do, for me and her. She switches from housekeeper to nanny when she can see my hands are full and another child needs minding; I do the cooking while she pushes them on the swing; I’m wiping bums while she’s mopping puddles.

    Her salary is not huge compared to my husbands, but she can support her extended family in the Phillipines while I can spend more time with my children than doing domestic chores. I believe she is very happy and this is reflected in the quality of her work always with a smile.

    Once I got my head past these ladies being separated from there families (this still breaks my heart) I understand the importance of the financial support she gives them, our job is to make her experience as pleasant as possible and respect her.

    People who have not lived in this situation do find it difficult to grasp the concept of domestic help. Not everyone is a ‘good employer’ unfortunately but the vast majority are and treat their help with the same respect we do.

    Like

    • Yes when you have very small children and work as a “team” it must be easier – they’re not doing the dirty work, you’re doing it together. But that’s it, respect them and makre her job as pleasant an experience as possible. And hope that the money she is sending home to her family will mean that her children WON’T have to be separated from their own children in order to make a living.

      Like

  2. seems to be a hot topic this week! I have a domestic helper and I am not ashamed and it is not awkward. We are blessed and priveledged to have such a wonderful person working in our household and we never take her for granted.

    I never get time to feel awkward; with 3 tiny tots running around the house there is always something to do, for me and her. She switches from housekeeper to nanny when she can see my hands are full and another child needs minding; I do the cooking while she pushes them on the swing; I’m wiping bums while she’s mopping puddles.

    Her salary is not huge compared to my husbands, but she can support her extended family in the Phillipines while I can spend more time with my children than doing domestic chores. I believe she is very happy and this is reflected in the quality of her work always with a smile.

    Once I got my head past these ladies being separated from there families (this still breaks my heart) I understand the importance of the financial support she gives them, our job is to make her experience as pleasant as possible and respect her.

    People who have not lived in this situation do find it difficult to grasp the concept of domestic help. Not everyone is a ‘good employer’ unfortunately but the vast majority are and treat their help with the same respect we do.

    Like

  3. I totally agree, my mother always took an interest in the families, the children, and attempted to help as much as possible. I can’t count the number of children my parents have put through school and I’m really proud of them for that. However, I’m still doing my own housework in London 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I grew up in the Philippines and most everyone had a helper. My mom insisted on calling them helpers and not maids, because to her having a “maid” made it sound like we were rich. They stayed at our home the whole time, ate the food that we ate, and had Sundays off. We’ve had several over the years from the younger ones to the more mature ones, which my mom preferred. The really good ones stay longer. And I remember crying over one who I got close to when she left to go back to her family. So because of this background, I never feel awkward around them, in fact, I miss them sorely when we first moved to the United States. Big culture shock!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a great post, Clara. I am like your friend–never have been, never will be an expat and we never had help when I was growing up. But you sound like the perfect person to work for, because you ‘work with.’ Such a huge difference. And I love what you did for Ansa.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I wrote about a similar situation where I was living in Lesotho and found it so awkward to have a lady washing our clothes (in our bathtub) when I wasn’t working. It took me some time to get used to the idea and often, I did leave the house. When I was working in Cambodia, I felt less uncomfortable about it as I wasn’t around to do the housework and there was no way I was going to kill the chicken on our porch and then cook it. A difficult post to write, I know, but something that is an issue and needs to be considered as an expat.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Expat life from the inside looking in |

  8. You put it very well. All I can say that it’s difficult not to have help and keep your house as spotless as everyone else’s if they have help and you don’t! After not understanding at all why people had help, a few months in to our stay in Brunei we hired a part-time amah and it was great because I could dedicate my time to doing things I enjoyed. Since I had my son it has become more of a necessity with us being as far away from our families as we are. I can never sit around when she is here though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I defintely think it’s easier to understand why you need that help when you have small children. It gets harder when they are older and at school but hopefully people can understand that we continue to pay people to clean etc not because we are lazy but for the other reasons I mention. Funnily enough the cleaners were still here when I got home from the opticians just now. I took my lunch and went down the road to a bench in the sun to eat it rather than getting in their way!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s