In the Philippines it is expected that you have household help. It is estimated that 2.5 million women work as domestic help here. Aside from having access to them, it supports the economy to employ domestic staff. Why do we need help here? Back home we just got on and did it all. Well, over here in Manila we spend so much time stuck in traffic and doing things like grocery shopping (up to three days to do a full shop, if you are determined to get everything on your list. Heaven help you if you are having a fancy dinner party), that you need help to get things done. Just stuff like keeping your house clean. Back home you can get away with mopping your floor once a week, here because of the dirt and air pollution you need to do it three times a week. I can expect to be in the car in transit for up to five hours a day. While you can get creative in a car, you are still limited. Back home I could write a to-do list with fifteen items on it and at the end of the day most of it was done. Over here if you achieve three things you are winning.
I do drive myself around now, but not always. We have a driver who is awesome and he deals with the tricky stuff such as parking in busy areas, finding out of the way places and sorting things like the car servicing and paying the registration. That can take hours, or a whole day to do. It is also extra security.
Some advice for the new expat on hiring and managing domestic help
It is a Privilege Not a Right
When you move to a country where you can afford domestic help, remember it is a privilege, not a right. You must be respectful and treat everyone with dignity. Saying that, you do need to understand that things are done differently here. Expectations are different to perhaps what you would expect back home. There is the language barrier, the cultural barrier and the sociological barrier.
A lot of what I have written here will seem like common sense. I write it though because I have heard too many stories, and read too many terrible things about how expats treat their helpers. Some people come from cleaning their own toilets to here where they don’t even make their own bed or take their children to school anymore. They seem to get this sense of entitlement going on and they turn into insensitive people. I heard of one woman who marked the water level in her dispenser before leaving the house to make sure her helper did not drink their water. Seriously now. We all bleed red, we all love the same, feel the same, sing and laugh. Let’s remember that.
I wish it was my story to tell, how the expat told the new domestic help to scrub her thongs every week, ‘really get in there and give them a good working over, they get very dirty’. The poor girl’s look of horror made my friend realise her mistake. Where we come from we call flip flops ‘thongs’; underwear ‘thongs’ we call g-strings. Whoops…
Speak slowly and clearly and help your worker understand your requirements. Set strict boundaries and stick to them. Follow through on expectations.
Write up a contract for work. In it be explicit about expectations – start time, finish time, days off, termination, discipline, pay breakdown, payday, core duties, etc. You get the picture. In your country, contact the local expat community and ask for a template. We have a contract for our Driver as well. It is the same, with details of pay, work hours and duties obviously changed to suit that role. Make sure you explain the purpose of the contract and go through it with your helper. They may not be familiar with it and may feel frightened. Help them understand it is to be clear about expectations for the job. In your workplace you would have a contract, it is the same with the domestic role. Be sure you find out your legal obligations regarding pay and benefits for your staff.
Write a detailed daily schedule of jobs to do. Include ten minute breaks to check the kitchen for dishes, no kidding – make it explicit. I have a word document with a table, it has a standard day on it, then text boxes to the side for various times of day giving alternative jobs to do that are weekly. I did not used to have one of these, now I do on the advice of friends and I wish I had known about this earlier. It has made life so much easier for both of us. For the inexperienced helper this is part of their training. Once accustomed to the role they won’t need it so much. My helper now just gets her work done. She knows what needs to be achieved each week and she manages her time extremely well. Be sure you are clear about break times and be fair.
Write out a list of household rules which includes personal hygiene requirements and cleaning requirements (For example using hot water for mopping floors and which sponges and cloths are used where).
When your helper starts, be sure to work with them to explain your requirements, show them and teach them. Do not make assumptions that they ‘should know’. Everybody does things differently and has their own requirements. I use boiling hot water to clean floors, friends of mine are happy with cold water.
Help your helper understand a few cultural differences so they can manage their relationship with you, your children and your friends. A previous employee called my 5 year old son gay because he wears nail polish, and I have spoken to a few people about not calling my three year old daughter sexy – explain why, don’t just say ‘don’t do that’. Then there is the old ‘please do not comment on my friends/child’s/my physical appearance, in our culture that is disrespectful’. In Filipino culture it is not considered so. By explaining you are setting boundaries for working in your home, with your family too.
Be kind, but not a pushover. Give compliments, talk to your helper, give them access to food, water and work at building a relationship with them. That way if there is a problem they are having, they will feel better able to talk to you about it.
Remember that you need to find the right person who will fit into your family. That is what trial periods are for. If your helper asks things of you, trust your instincts and reach out to your expat community and ask for advice. Seeking advice will help you learn the lay of the land without getting burned. When you find the right person, and you will, they become an extension of your family. It is a special relationship because you are entrusting them with your home, children, pets and life. I have learned, through making huge mistakes, that it is important you invest the time in your household help and that you work at rearranging your way of doing things, to fit the new culture. That has been the hardest part for me personally. However the time you put in will reward you in the long term. We have finally found someone, who aside from a few cultural hiccups we deal with as we go, cares deeply for my children and Noodle-Bug, and is a fantastic support to me.