Having a Maid…the bad and the ugly

Yesterday I talked about the positive aspects of having a maid.  I wish that this post wasn’t the longer of the two, but I think it’s important to highlight the struggles and challenges of adding another adult to your home.

The Bad/Difficult Aspects

Culture Shock

We are B’s third family.  She worked for a Muslim family in Bahrain, and a Chinese Singaporean family here in Singapore before us.  B is Filipina.  None of those experiences prepared her for the experience of working for an American family.  We do everything from washing our clothes and apartment to cooking to raising our child in a radically different way from anything she’s previously experienced.  Things that seem obvious or intuitive to us are not necessarily so for her.

There has been tremendous (still ongoing) efforts on both sides to bridge this gap.  When we first hired her, B was terrified of every scratch, bump or bruise Elanor picked up while in her care…even if I was right there when it happened.  In previous families, this would have a reason to B to be reprimanded for not watching the child/ren closely enough.  I shrugged and told her I knew my kid was active and was going to get scrapes.  B tried to feed Elanor.  Elanor grabbed the spoon out of her hand or ignored her completely and just ate her food with her own (Elanor’s) hands.  I insisted on pushing the stroller, and B wondered if it was because I didn’t think she was trustworthy.  B has quietly accepted or laughed when Elanor has hit her, and we only have had recent success in teaching B our 1, 2, 3–time out method of discipline.

As the employer, there was guilt that B’s room is very small, and un-airconditioned. I tried to offer her the use of our guest bathroom, which was much larger and nicer than hers so that she would be more comfortable…not realizing that for her, using “our” bathroom made her uncomfortable and crossed lines she didn’t want to cross.

These cultural pitfalls are going to occur.  They come up at the most awkward moments and it is sometimes difficult or frustrating as the employer to be the one who has to decide how they are going to be navigated.

Communication

To become a maid in Singapore, the women must pass an English test.  What is unclear to me is how rigorous the test is.  B speaks English fairly well, but with about the same grammar issues I still struggle with when I’m trying to speak in French (verb tense, awkward turns of phrase, not having the same word that I use for things).  It’s important to realize that American English is not (a) what they learned (apart from television) and (b) not what is more commonly used here in Singapore.  Generally speaking, Filipina maids are generally considered to have the highest level of proficiency as it’s a language spoken in the Philippines alongside Tagalog and is taught in their schools, which is why they are generally the highest paid maids in Singapore (or so says the materials I’ve read on that topic).

Patience is key, as is stressing that you are okay with them asking you what something means or for further clarification.  So is adjusting your expectations…B uses terms that work for her (such as “table napkins” for paper towels) and I’ve often adopted them if I don’t have an issue with them.

Being the responsible party

Although B is 28, and the mother of an 8 year old girl herself…she is not necessarily what I might term “worldly.”  There have been many occasions where she has looked to me to explain something to her that has been awkward (tampons, “massage parlors” in Thailand, etc).  She looks to me to define the boundaries for her as well as Elanor…it took us more than six months to convince her that we were okay with her doing whatever she wanted on her days off and that we didn’t expect her home at a specific time as long as she was in good shape to get up and take care of E in the morning.

Being the “Manager”

The most awkward thing I’ve had to deal with is the occasions when I have had to tell B that I was unhappy with her work.  With my background, I had no understanding of how to do this, and I haven’t always done a great job of it.  The most difficult example of this was that she did not want to discipline Elanor…who at 2 can be a tyrant, and I began to notice that when Elanor was with B, she did things and acted in ways she would never dare to do in front of me (slapping B, throwing toys, refusing to clean up).  It took my saying that it was one of the few issues important enough that if B really felt she was unable to discipline Elanor that we would have to terminate her.  I have never felt as terrible as I did after that conversation and I was terrified that she might decide (even against all logic…she’s complained about how terribly some children treat their nannies here) to leave rather than to learn to give time outs.  We spent a week with my modeling the behaviors I wanted her to emulate…how to use her voice to make it clear that 1 and 2 were warnings, to ignore the tantrum once the time out was instituted, how to express to Elanor what she had done wrong, and how to move on from the time out back to normal play.

The Cost

Labor is ridiculously cheap in Singapore.  That doesn’t, however, make it free.  There are initial costs, an employment tax, twice annual physicals and the maid’s monthly salary and food allowances that all need to come out of your pocket.  For us, though, the cost of employing B is just a bit more than what we paid to have someone come into our home once a week in the US, so we consider it a pretty awesome tradeoff.

The Ugly

Racism/Classism

Maids are often very mistreated here and looked down on by some Singaporeans.  There was a recent article on Asia one that talked about how 18 out of 20 condos polled didn’t want maids using the building’s pool, and companion piece that cited a condo that didn’t allow maids to use the regular elevators when not accompanying their families, instead requiring them to use the maintenance lift.  I was shocked to read these stories, but it was the comments in the forum that really sent my blood pressure into orbit, among them…

Of course not!

Imagine if I am the owner who pays so high price for the condo and the facilities, and the maid actually enjoys it “on my behalf”. How can? I rather not allow my children to swim without me accompanying them.

And, if the condo is crowded with all the maids, the price will sure drop! Who will enjoy the stay there?

and

Have to agree maids, dogs and all kind of animals (domesticated or otherwise) not to be allowed into condo pool. One guy even brought a dog for a swim. I even see notices at high density condo facilities are for residents only probably due to over utilisation by outsiders brought in by residents. Anyway, it is the management to control.

Obviously, not all Singaporeans feel this way.  There are comments on the thread from locals defending their helpers.  A friend of mine, Kirsten, who is also Singaporean has made a point of blogging about her disgust over this.

However, this is not just an isolated experience.

  • A friend’s helper, M, was verbally abused at Paragon Shopping Mall’s playground when she put out a hand to prevent another child from kicking the child in her care’s face, instead allowing the blow to land on her arm….by the kicker’s mother.
  • B was verbally abused by a taxi uncle.
  • When we came back from the US, the building manager made a point of calling me and tattling on what he perceived as “bad behavior” on B’s part…having a female friend over for a movie (something we’d actively encouraged her to do).  Security said her friends needed to sign in when they came over…and I called them on it as no friend of mine has ever been asked to do the same…the difference of course being that my friends are expats, white, or local.

It is common to run into?  No–in our case, two isolated incidents in a year.  But from all the stories I hear…you should be prepared to stand up for your helper at some point.

The Helper’s Lack of Rights

As an American, I think I’m particularly bothered by the lack of rights maids have here that anyone who isn’t a foreign domestic worker does enjoy, and I’m particularly bothered by the lack of reproductive freedom.

Primarily they have little to no access to birth control and none to abortion, while the rest of us have access to both.  Make whatever argument you like, but I’m hardly going to fault another woman for seeking emotional (or financial…some maids make only 300 SGD a month including which also includes their food allowance…and all of them are sending as much money as they can home to support their families) comfort in a foreign country where she is alone.  The Philippines are a Catholic country, and I’ve learned that few, if any maids are informed about contraception in any form.  There is a cultural stigma surrounding condom use–a perception that if someone asks you to use a condom that you are dirty.  The maids are not the people who hold the power in the relationships they are in, and if their male partner has no interest in protection, they don’t have many choices.

Maids undergo a blood test looking for pregnancy and STD’s every 6 months (most maids I’ve spoken with about this only know that they’re looking for pregnancy).  If anything turns up, the maid is deported.  There are no consequences for her partner.  At all.

Basically, if any consequences result from sex, even if the partner is local…it is the maids problem.  B saw a friend sent home just a few weeks ago.  Her friend was pregnant, and was going to have to return to a country where abortion is illegal and a husband will likely beat her for becoming pregnant with another man’s child.  I wonder what that poor woman’s life is like as I write this.

You may argue that they shouldn’t be having sex.  I say that they are living their lives in Singapore.  Legally, the employer is only required to send them home for 2 weeks every other year.  To think that they have less emotional needs or are entitled to less comfort when not on the job is to think of them as less human or just less valuable than yourself.

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Personally, I argue that the trade-offs are worth it, if it fits into your family’s budget and lifestyle. As I said yesterday, we were incredibly lucky when B joined our family.

I hope that she chooses to stay with us for our duration here, as she has also become my friend.

The important thing that I’ve learned is to never stop talking to your helper about how things are going, to never let your helper become the primary care giver if you are a stay at home mom, and to keep checking in with yourself.  You’re going to screw up…I’ve done things  that, looking back, I could have handled better.  Remind both of you on a regular basis that you are a work in progress too.  Try to put yourself in her shoes.

Best of luck!

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9 Responses to Having a Maid…the bad and the ugly

  1. Jeff says:

    Absolutely gripping post.

    I knew how non-westerners, e.g. filipinos, were treated as 2nd class citizens, but I hadn’t heard how badly they’re discriminated against. The comments you shared are gut wrenching.

    Beyond 2nd class….the part where maids are grouped with animals “domestic or otherwise” was awful.

    Thanks for sharing… and good luck as manager, employer and as a parent!

    -jeff

    • Crystal says:

      Jeff–It truly is disturbing how that sort of race/classism can so easily exist here. It is one of the things I will miss least when we move on. Thanks for your support–I’m still very new at all three!–C

  2. bookjunkie says:

    I keep thinking of how easily I could have become a maid myself if I was born under different circumstances. If I were a domestic helper, I have to admit that I would prefer an American employer like yourself over a Singaporean one…. any day. At least you treat B like an employee and not a servant like some Singaporeans do. The situation is as terrible as you state it. I think it’s also because the authorities don’t have stricter rules and regulations in place and decency is left to the employer. I think it’s wonderful how you treat B like a friend.

    I must confess I am a terrible manager and work better as an individual contributor (am using an office analogy). I just feel uncomfortable delegating tasks, instructing, coaching and correcting. I think you have done a great job in that area. I am sure B loves working for your family. I wish more bosses would put themselves in the employees shoes the way you do.

    • Crystal says:

      I’m far from perfect, but thanks.

      I think the hardest thing for me to understand is what life in their home countries must be like that becoming a maid is their best chance at a better life for themselves or their kids. B has spent more time away from her daughter than she’s had with her…and as a mom I can’t imagine how hard that must be.

  3. Missy says:

    I’m a visitor to your blog and find it a rather enjoyable read.

    I’m Singaporean but left in my late teens overseas – I’m very familiar with Singapore but it still is ‘foreign’ to me, if that makes sense.

    I’ve lived abroad for a long time and visit Singapore occasionally.

    About maids, I see where the problem is. The Government takes an incredibly pragmatic and sterile approach to it which makes it very unsettling for people not used to the way the Government handles its affairs (i.e expats, visitors).

    What I see with Western countries is the more humanist and surface approach they deal with issues. As long as the people are happen with the tag line they are giving, they pretty much do what they like. There’s more in a ‘feel good’ factor in Western Goverance than anything.

    I’ve seen how some S’poreans deal with their maids and I find it disgraceful. I’m not going to launch into a ‘X country does it worse’ or ‘Have you seen what they do to maids in X country’ as I’m not too keen to compare Singapore to the lowest benchmark here in terms of treatment of maids (i.e. Middle East, etc etc), but there are many S’poreans who do treat their maids with respect.

    An example was my family.
    We had four maids to manage the children, take care of house hold affairs and be a helper/carer to my grandmother, who lived with us as is common with most Singaporean Asian families.

    My Mother paid them a higher salary than most maids at the time or even, today.

    SG$800 – SG$1000 each, depending on their qualifications – we had a maid who had nursing qualifications and another maid with a bachelor’s in childhood education and used to work as a teacher to supervise the other maids.

    All maids had minimum degree qualifications as my Mom has a belief that letting an uneducated person manage a child/family is dangerous for practical and personal reasons. (i.e. likelihood of belief of dangerous superstitions, passing on uneducated beliefs and behaviour to children which could be dangerous, bad, etc, having a more developed mentality and psychology being educated, etc).

    To my Mom’s credit she had chosen them based on very strict guidelines and allowed us to have the final say in her line up of selected maids so we would adjust and behave well with our chosen maids as children.

    They were all church-going ladies, pleasant, cheerful and intelligent. They were surrogate Moms to us, we really loved them, yet respected and to a certain degree back then, feared them because my Mom allowed them to discipline us via guidelines she set out for them.

    Sundays they had off days to do whatever they wanted, and we were so close sometimes we used to accompany them to church or they would bring us to try out filipino desserts at Lucky Plaza.

    As they were quite religious (My Mom didn’t deliberately choose the religious ones, btw) they didn’t have boyfriends or pre-marital sex, at least, not that I know of.
    But they were very responsible ladies, they were quite adamant that boyfriends were a waste of time because if ever, they wanted responsible, educated and decent men, so they were not interested to ‘play around’ or fish around for lower quality male stock when they were paid a decent wage and were a strong and integral part of our family.

    Whenever we went on overseas trips we would bring them along as well. They weren’t condemned to any ‘kiddie/maid’ table during family outings – they ate with us at the table, we ordered dishes together and shared dishes together as a family.

    I still am in contact with them till date even though they do not work for us (we outgrew maids, lol) and when we do get the chance, we meet up and catch up.

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  5. Lindsay says:

    Fascinating. Sounds a lot like the situation with domestic helpers here in Lebanon. I didn’t realize that maids were treated so poorly in Singapore as well. As an American I’m not used to the idea of a live in maid/helper so it has been interesting witnessing that here. I think I would have had the same approach you described but it never occurred to me that that might be awkward or almost unwelcome by the maid because it was so different from what she knows. Very interesting post!

    • Crystal says:

      I think any country where the maids live in, and are foreign born is probably setting up a system ripe for abuse.

      Of all of the culture shock I’ve processed…I’m still working through the whole maid thing.

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