Expat to Expat Advice–Lessons learned from my negative maid experience

ETA–In June 2015 we DID hire another maid after I had serious health issues that necessitated more help than outside cleaner and occasional sitter could provide. I’m not going to keep re-annotating this post, but I would advise you to look at more recent posts I’ve written and understand anything I’ve written in the past as a reflection of that moment and not necessarily my present.

I have re-ordered this post and closed comments as of Feb 3, 2015 (3 years post publication).  I am deeply disturbed that this is the second most popular post I’ve written on EB, and that too frequently comments (most of which I’ve never published) have devolved into maid-bashing. Rather than delete the post, I chose to re-order and annotate it.  Anything in red was written on Feb 3, 2015

*If you are here in response to the TWC2 article or my rebuttal, please read the entire post before you comment* Author’s note–I was cited in a TWC2 article highlighting bad employers.  The author of that post quoted this one, but linked to a different post, a dishonest and deliberate move.  I was deeply disappointed to see that move, and that TWC2 did not feel the need to rectify that error.  If you wish to quote me, by all means do, but link to the post where I said it.

It has been almost two months since we fired B.  I have wanted to discuss my feelings on maids and how they’re changed since everything happened, but I also wanted to allow enough time to pass that my response was measured and not just a gut-reaction.

This was originally the second half of the post.  I moved it forward because I feel like people were reading what is now the second half of the post and jumping in to bash maids without ever reading the section where I owned my culpability for how things failed with our former helper, B.

Looking back, I can see that I deserve some share of blame.

Helpers do become part of your family.  But I think it’s important to remember that it’s a process, and that it doesn’t happen overnight.  Trusting too fast too much, and letting the friendship that you develop with them get in the way of honest job assessment is a mistake.

In the end, I have to admit that I am probably not a great manager.  It’s certainly a reason to not get another helper that lives with us.  I felt too invested in and too responsible for B–I’m much happier with the type of relationships we’re building now with the people we’re working with.  A live out cleaner feels much more low stakes (and I don’t feel guilty over putting my jewelry box and our important papers in the office, locking the door and taking the key with me), as does a live-out baby sitter (whom I felt no guilt over being picky about her qualifications). That is what is right for us.

Singapore requires that you take a test my three year old could pass to be an employer.  They even bring up some of this in their videos that you watch before taking the test.  However, the videos are so over dramatic (the  maid who falls out of a window and dies because she didn’t listen to her ma’am, for one) that they’re hard to take seriously.

There is a LOT of peer pressure to hire a live in maid.  Other expats will say “I don’t know how you do it!” or “I’d be so lost without my helper;” hell, I’ve said those things.  People assume that you can be available at any time, and that you have support people to deal with the kids or to be at home for the installation/delivery/pickup of whatever.  It can be exceedingly frustrating to have to explain time and time again that you don’t have that support.  Don’t hire a maid just because it’s the cultural norm for expats…REALLY think about whether you can be a good employer/manager.

There are plenty of people for whom is absolutely the right choice.  Were I to get pregnant again (not going to happen, but just to say “what if”) I would absolutely need far more support, and a live in helper would be the right choice.  If Ravi traveled all the time, like some of my friends husbands do…  If I worked full time…  If I were a better manager… Any of those might make a live in maid the right choice for our family again.

Your family is your decision, and never feel like you should have to justify your choice to have or not have a maid to me or to anyone.

I own that I made mistakes as an employer.  I hope that in owning those mistakes in a public manner like this that others can gain a more balanced perspective of the negatives without the sort of xenophobic bullshit that usually gets slung around, or without trying to paint the employer as a beleaguered saint.  I would never paint all helpers with B’s brush, nor would I ever argue that I’m an innocent with no culpability.

This was originally the first half of the post, which is how I got labeled a “bad employer” and what provoked the negative comment thread. 

While we have decided that a live-in helper is not right for our family, I still think that they can be an invaluable resource for a family.  I think that we had a “bad apple” as the saying goes, and that my experiences in no way should put you off the idea of hiring a maid.  However, that is not to say that I did not learn some life lessons, and were we to hire another maid, those lessons would not affect my relationship with her.

Some of these are probably just common sense, but I think they bear saying.

Lessons I’ve learned from my negative experience

1-Don’t leave your purse/wallet out.  Be aware of your cash.

Of everything that happened with B, the most understandable in retrospect was the theft of money.  Ravi and I were careless with our wallets, we didn’t monitor how much cash we had in our wallets, and in many ways, we created a situation where it was pathetically easy for B to supplement her income, regardless of how generous it might have been by Singaporean standards.  When you compare the peso or the ringgit to the SGD or the USD, the income differential is staggering.  Most people are honest, but most people will also give into temptation when it is presented on a platter.  I can’t say I’ve never cheated on a test when a teacher made it easy to do so and I didn’t study enough.  The theft of money wasn’t right, but it is understandable.  Were we to hire a new helper, I’d bring my purse into my bedroom at night, and I’d be more aware of my cash, removing temptation. I stand by this.

2-You are the employer, not their friend.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be friendly with your helper, or that a friendship can’t develop.  I am saying that you can’t let “friendship” get in the way of an honest evaluation of work.  If I’m truly honest with myself, there were lots of “little” issues that had been ongoing for a while–little things like the cat box wasn’t being cleaned daily as I’d requested (and could not do while pregnant)–that I didn’t bring up because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by critiquing her performance.

Her standards slipped, and I allowed them to slip by not providing appropriate feedback…because I felt uncomfortable saying “you’re not meeting my expectations” to a friend.  A friend does you a favor–but a helper isn’t doing you a favor, they’re doing work for pay, and when you put “friendship” before employer/employee, you do both of you a disservice.  I also let “friendship” blind me to the cash theft, and it was the reason I wanted to believe her instead of Elanor when E told me that B had slapped her–I didn’t WANT to believe that a “friend” would steal from me/hurt my child.

You also can’t let concern over what would happen if you fire them blind you into giving too many “extra chances.”  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I worried about how her daughter’s school would get paid for if I ever let B go.  That I let things slide because I didn’t want to be responsible for repatriating her, or making her go to an employer she might be less happy with.

I don’t know that I have great advice as to how to achieve this goal, other than to advise you to remind yourself of the relationship, and perhaps to build regular job performance reviews (monthly? quarterly?  I’m not sure) into the routine.  My discomfort with this sort of relationship and the fact that I’m just not good at this sort of balancing act are why I probably shouldn’t be an employer. I stand by this. Friends of mine have had successful relationships with helpers in part due to a list of responsibilities and regular reviews.  This was a management and personality problem on my part.

3-Unless you actually do share a culture, don’t project your cultural values onto them

This is another delicate balancing act.

Part of the reason she’d been able to take things of mine over a long period of time was that I had never so much as poked my head in the door of B’s room.  I have a strict fairly American notion of “privacy” and because of that, I not only treated B like a friend, but I treated her like a roommate–and I would never go into a roommate’s room without her permission or invitation.  However, if we hired another maid, I might stick my head in every so often and just glance around, or ask for things like performance reviews to happen in her space.  Part of the reason I have decided against hiring a new maid is that I’m not sure I actually could do that.

Further, when B asked to go out at night, I shrugged and said sure.  I had no problem with her going out dancing.  What I figured out afterward is that she was likely moonlighting at Orchard Towers as a prostitute (I found a LOT of hotel room keys–rooms that would cost a significant portion of her monthly salary, and a lot of clothes that lent themselves to that profession, rather than the one I was paying her for).  Now, on one hand, I have no issue with prostitution.  I do, however, have an issue with the fact that as time passed, she was staying out later and later…which affected her job performance for us. There is also the secondary issue that we could be held legally responsible were she ever arrested in a raid.

Again, I chose not to address the staying out late with her as things were mostly getting done, and I wrote it off as the kind of antics I pulled when I was 21 and went out to a club the night before a mid-term was due.  The difference, of course, was that I made those bad choices in college…she made them before she was taking care of my child.

Does that mean the slap from September 2011 happened?  I know E can push my buttons a hell of a lot easier when I’m sleep deprived.  As much as my American cultural values go counter to this, were we to hire another maid, I would think very hard about a curfew on working nights…not because of the prostitution (although, again, had she been moonlighting and gotten arrested WE would have gotten in trouble–so we have my values versus actual consequences there) but because it affected her job performance, and she was not mature enough to realize that she needed to party less during the week.

We gave her far more freedom than she’d experienced at any previous job…and I think she lost sight of her priorities.  Which doesn’t make it our fault…but I think if we were to hire a maid, I’d remember the cardinal rule of classroom mangement from my teacher days–you can ALWAYS lighten up, but it’s almost impossible to become strict after giving students too much freedom/responsibility too fast.

This remains the second reason I haven’t and will not hire a maid.  Because Singapore does not allow for FDW’s to live out, there is not only the employer/employee dynamic at play, but also what feel uncomfortably like a parent/child dynamic.  I don’t want any part of that.  Which again is a personal decision and is not meant to be judgment on anyone else’s opinions.

4-Think long and hard about leaving your maid alone in your home for weeks at a time.

We found photos of a mostly naked man in our home on her phone.  There were, apparently, according to other helpers (NOW they tell me) wild parties in our home while we were out of country.

In the future, I would hesitate to leave a helper alone in my home for weeks on end (we are often gone for 2-3 weeks at a time).  Most agencies will let your helper stay with them when you are out of country.  I scoffed at that as disrespectful.  Now I might.

I’m not saying don’t do it…I’m saying think long and hard first.

I have no idea what to do about this piece of advice. On one hand, I stand by it in that after a maid threw parties while we were gone, it would be difficult for me to trust an FDW in my home while I was out of the country for 4-6 weeks.  On the other, I don’t know that maid agencies are the best place either–they send the maids out to work with other families, often give them poor living conditions, and demand that they work for the owners of the agencies.

Perhaps the best advice I would give now is if you aren’t comfortable with your maid being alone in your home for a month +, send her home.  We offered to send B. home more than once, but she refused (which always seemed odd at the time, but in retrospect makes sense–she wanted time with her friends in Singapore).  Although you are legally obligated only to send a maid home for one week once every two years, it is the best possible solution–she isn’t in your home, but she also isn’t with an agency that may abuse her rights.  Plane tickets to the countries FDW’s are most frequently from are cheap.  There’s no reason not to.

In the end, all my advice boils down to one thing–don’t be so blindly trusting.  Let trust be earned, not just given blindly.  Stop and re-examine if your helpers are still worthy of your trust from time to time, and don’t let yourself be blind to things you just don’t want to see.

Edited to add–This is, by far, the most popular post of the last year on my blog.  If you want to know how things are going one year after firing B, you can read this post: “Reflections on 2012-The Year without a Maid

I have received a large number of racist, inflammatory and objectionable comments on this post.  If you disparage a maid, your comment will not be published.  The point of this post was to discuss my culpability as well as management, not to create an opportunity to bash maids.

Updated Feb 3, 2015.  I have closed comments (partially because of this post I am now closing comments on all posts 90 days after they are written) and deleted several comments.  There are many I never chose to post, and I am tired of the consistent racist maid-bashing comments.

This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Expat to Expat Advice, Helpers, Singapore. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Expat to Expat Advice–Lessons learned from my negative maid experience

  1. KJ says:

    Great post. Well thought out.

    We don’t have a helper for many reasons but my main one is that It just would ot make me happy to have someone else living in our house. There is enormous pressure in Singapore to employ a helper and I have heard all manner of arguments to persuade me, but I know it wouldn’t make me happy. Sure, it excludes me from social stuff when my husband is away but that’s the only downside. Never having had a helper I’m not accustomed to being unshackled!

    We have a weekly cleaner and I’ve been mindful to keep my distance a little, and not try to be her friend. She cleans and irons and leaves and that suits me perfectly!

    • Crystal says:

      Yeah, the sharing living space thing is…awkward. We are MUCH happier with a pantry and just our family under the roof.

      I feel like I owe several people apologies for how hard I pushed having a maid in the past. But the pressure to get one is really intense…my part time cleaner actually asked when I was getting a new one and then told me I was working too hard and should think about getting one and was baffled that I’m happy not having one. I have no response to that.

      Our part time cleaner actually offered to babysit too, but we decided to keep the two jobs of babysitter and cleaner separate. If we had to fire one, we didn’t want to lose both…and it gives us more distance with both.

  2. Maria says:

    I often felt like the only expat in Singapore without a maid. Once, as I was getting ready to leave a restaurant, I mentioned that I had to get home because I was expecting a delivery. The woman I was with said, “If you had a maid, you wouldn’t have to rush off like this just for a package.” That didn’t seem like a good enough reason to hire a maid, somehow! I managed well enough with a part-time cleaner, even when I was working. Everyone has to weigh the pros and cons and decide what’s right for them. For me, the potential hassles outweighed the potential benefits. It sounds like it’s the same for you. I did just fine, and I’ll bet you will too.

    • Crystal says:

      Recently, it’s been a frustration because Ellie’s school required that a parent come on the field trip and I had to explain 17 times to various people that we didn’t have a maid to leave Rhiannon with (nor could I because I’m still breastfeeding–a whole other thing people don’t get), and when scheduling things. No, I can’t just “have the maid let X in” or “sign for X” because they don’t exist.

      It definitely is a positive outweighing negatives thing for us, too. I like not having a full time maid, even if that does occasionally make planning a bit more involved.

  3. notabilia says:

    We’ve been without a live-in helper and will continue to do so. TOns of expats do; I agree, don’t bow to the pressure.

  4. bookjunkie says:

    Another wonderfully thought out post. I have a problem with blindly trusting people all my life. Am slowly learning….but it’s painful.

  5. looking says:

    i just googled and found your blog. I just wanna say that its a good balanced perspective to managing maids. Thanks for sharing.

    • Crystal says:

      Thank you. It’s important to me that people see balance…there is NO black and white when it comes to the subject, and too many people treat it as if there is; that X are good maids but Y are bad maids, or that all Z steal or blah blah blah. I wanted to be someone who could own where they screwed up and who looked at their negative experience as one with an individual person.

  6. Kate says:

    I found your blog whilst doing research on maids in Singapore.

    This is a very well thought out post. I also had a maid (but for a much shorter time, and she was lovely), but now have a live-in flatmate who does babysitting (set hours a day). She is actually a student. If you had the space, you could think about this option (I advertised on the property classifieds).

    I also have a part-time cleaner.

    As a re-joinder to those who would criticise: “I am providing employment for local Singaporeans, what do you do to help the local economy?”

    • Crystal says:

      Thank you for providing another great alternative. I think new expats just aren’t given a full picture of their options, and may end up defaulting into a situation that isn’t the right one for them.

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  8. Crystal says:

    I think it would be easier to find a maid if the agencies would allow lengthy interviews and if there weren’t such pressure for them to present themselves in a specific light. I know when I was trying to interview, the woman we didn’t hire was being screamed at by her current employer during the entire conversation to get off the phone and wouldn’t let her talk again, for example. If you’re hiring a first time maid, she’s not even in the country to interview.

    It is in the agencies interest to keep shifting “bad” maids around as they make money off each transfer.

    But we do need to keep sight that while there are bad maids, it’s no different from bad taxi drivers, bad teachers, bad policemen or bad politicians. There are people who are just “bad apples” in every profession. There are many hardworking, wonderful maids in Singapore…and we don’t talk enough about them, sadly.

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  10. We use Mrs Sparkles for cleaning ( http://www.mrs-sparkles.com.sg/ ) and Just Us ( http://www.justus.com.sg/ ) for our sitting service.

    Sorry that things didn’t work out–it’s really discouraging and frustrating when that happens. Best of luck with whatever arrangements work for your family!

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  12. AppleGal says:

    I’m so glad I found your post. It makes me feel as if I’m not alone. People look at me as if I’m weird because I don’t have a live-in maid. Many of them are Americans, who I know didn’t have live-in maids when they were in the U.S. I tell them I don’t have a full time job and I have only one child so I don’t think it’s justified. I’m often the only parent on the playground at the condo. I’ve even had other maids ask me if I have a maid. Some other kids have asked me where my child’s “aunty” is. I say he had 6 aunts in the United States, along with 6 uncles. They get a confused look on their face.

  13. True. I kind of get it though-you’re alone in a foreign country-who wouldn’t want some physical comfort after a while?

    Maids don’t have access to hormonal contraception or abortion here, and there’s major cultural bias against condoms. This is further complicated by the fact that as a Catholic country, there was no sex ed in place, so most of the women who come here as maids have a lot of misinformation about sex and how pregnancy works. I did some safe sex seminars with maids and the misinformation blew my mind–everything from peeing after sex will get rid of the sperm to condoms break all the time and so forth.

    I actually feel really bad for any woman going back to the Philippines pregnant. You can moralize it all you want, but none of that changes that there are serious consequences. The stigma against a single mom is significant. A family could turn her out. Or if they do keep the baby, the baby often ends up in the care of a female relative and they end in a foreign country working as a maid again–can you imagine living so far from your baby and not seeing them grow up–possibly even not being allowed to contact them regularly if your employer is one of those “I hold your cell phone” types? A married woman coming home with another man’s baby–physical abuse is incredibly common.

    All of this is keeping in mind that their husbands can be unfaithful to them, with very little (if any) cultural shaming.

    Personally I have no issues with a maid having a boyfriend.

    I don’t think there’s a magic bullet in finding a maid who’s going to be a perfect fit. I’ve done HR, and I’ve been a job candidate–we all tell selective truths in our interviews (and plenty of candidates lie outright). But the stakes certainly are higher when you’re hiring someone to live in your home and take care of your things versus hiring someone to make sandwiches at the Subway where you’re an assistant manager–and thus when someone doesn’t work out, there’s a major emotional component as well as personal stakes.

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  15. I think different things are right for every family.

    I manage with the help of a cleaning service and a regular babysitter, but I also only have two (with my eldest in K1 and my youngest in daycare) and no new baby. If you want to try without a helper, I’d encourage you to do so, but not to feel bad if you do need that support.

  16. The system is somewhat set up for everyone to fail. Which is frustrating.

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