Expat to Expat–Suggestions to help you hire the FDW that’s right for your family

This is my last post from the drafts folder. This has been sitting there since 2016 because this is an inflammatory post. Anything I’ve added for clarification will have a *** *** around it.

I have been debating whether or not I wanted to write this–discussing Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW’s), more commonly called maids or helpers is opening a can of worms. I had to close comments on my post on what I’d learned from a negative maid experience (which largely centered around what I did wrong) because it turned into a maid bashing free-for-all. After writing about the details of that negative experience, I was publicly called out as an example of a horrible employers in a TWC2 (transient workers count too) article for sharing my story. ***Which is why this post has sat in my drafts file for years***

I haven’t really discussed FDW’s because I chose not to have one. Our negative experience, coupled with my realization that I was a bad manager, and flavored with fear that my judgment had been so flawed made us re-evaluate having an FDW, and we did not employ one for three and a half years. But after my near fatal illness last year(***2015***), and the (still ongoing) recovery, we decided that what was right for our family had changed and we once again decided to employ a helper.

This is not her story–that isn’t mine to share. What I will say is that our experiences have been like night and day, and I think I understand why. So with that in mind, I decided to write the article I wish I’d read before we decided to hire someone in the first place.

I’m choosing to refer to prospective employees as FDW’s, which I feel is more respectful than the more commonly used maid/helper (although in day to day conversation, I am absolutely guilty of using helper).

disclaimer–These are my conclusions, based on my experience. I am writing with a foreign expat audience in mind. Your mileage may vary. Both times I chose to hire an FDW who was already in Singapore. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of hiring someone I’d never met, and then having them show up and move into my house. This may not be the right call for you, but I can’t advise on hiring someone outside of SG.

1–Do you actually want to hire an FDW?

Conventional wisdom is that you must hire an FDW to survive in Singapore as an expat. There is some logic in this declaration–when you first arrive you are on your own. It takes time to build a network of friends who become your family, and having a paid support system certainly has its benefits.

That said–you do not need an FDW. Plenty of families, both local and expat, do not employ an FDW. My kids are now old enough to pitch in and help out with the cleaning, and were it not for my health concerns we could make do with just a weekly cleaner for the heavy cleaning chores. There are plenty of cleaning companies (we used Mrs. Sparkles for three years and I have nothing but nice things to say about them). You can easily hire a part-time babysitter to get a break from babysitting (we used Just Us for a year, and then changed hiring a sitter without an agency). If you have groceries or water delivered, you can request that they be left outside your front door. Some play spaces allow you to leave your kids and go grocery shopping in peace (Amazonia at Great World City, and Tiara Society at UE Square among them–both malls have a Cold Storage).

Whether or not you choose to employ an FDW is a very personal choice. I will say that hiring Mrs. Sparkles for three sessions a week of four hours was equal to the average cost of an FDW including the taxes. Privacy comes with a big price tag, but for some families (particularly Americans like us, who practically fetishize privacy) it might be the right trade-off. My goal is to reassure you that while it may not seem like it when you first arrive, there absolutely are families who do not employ FDW’s and are thriving. Do not let someone pressure you into a decision that isn’t right for your family.

2–Take the time to actually conduct a search

My in-laws flew in from Boston and stayed nearly three months while I was in the hospital and post-release. However, their life is in Boston and they couldn’t move here indefinitely. Nor would we actually want to cram six people into our apartment. I wasn’t healthy enough to go it alone with minimal help as I had before. Hiring an FDW at that time was absolutely the right call for us.

The first time I hired an FDW, I called up an agency someone recommended to me and hired the first person they sent over. This was a mistake.

If you have never hired an FDW before, you don’t really know what qualities to look for or what duties you’d like her to perform. Conducting a search will feel as foreign to you as Singapore does.

The most important thing I can tell you is that maid agencies are not looking out for your best interest nor are they looking out for the FDW’s best interest. They will throw candidates at you without listening to what criteria you’re asking for. They will pressure you to hire someone as quickly as possible.

One solution is to search for an FDW without the use of an agency–you can connect directly with FDW’s on Anisya. This allows you to screen FDW’s directly. However, based on my experience, it can be a lot of effort for little reward–many of my interviews conducted over Whatsapp came to nothing, or appointments were canceled, and twice the employer was not willing to release the person I had hoped to employ. I put out a lot of effort and ended up hiring someone via an agency.

Should you go the agency route, my advice is to talk to two or three. That way you are screening a wider range of candidates.

I insisted on doing preliminary interviews–over Whatsapp for FDW’s I connected with over Anisya and at the agency with candidates I was interested in interviewing. Only after passing through my screening did I invite prospective employees to my home to meet my daughters.

I’ve worked in Human Resources in the US–take hiring an FDW as seriously or moreso (given the nature of the employer/employee relationship in Singapore) as you would hiring someone to work in a hypothetical business you own back home.

In total, I spent four to six weeks and talked to easily one hundred candidates. Which is probably overkill, but given that I’d made the wrong call before, I wanted to be certain that I’d found the right person.

3–Insist on seeing the MOE employment record for any prospective FDW (with a work history in Singapore)

I had no idea this was something you could ask for back in 2010 when I was a clueless newbie.

I only discovered you could request this when several agencies included this form for all the candidates. I then requested it for all the candidates I was going to do a second round of interviews with in my home. This is an MOM generated form that lists all the dates of employment in Singapore for the prospective helper. More than once, the records from MOM and the paperwork from the agency did not match up.

For me, a consistent employment history was important. Everyone has one or two jobs that just didn’t work out, and I didn’t hold that against anyone I was considering. But there were many instances of FDW’s who transferred regularly, rather than completing the two year contact. For me this was a red flag, and I chose not to interview candidates with sketchy employment histories.

4–Ask for references

Anyone I was seriously considering had references. Either employers still in Singapore I could speak with directly, or a former employer I could email, and I checked out the references. In several cases, this did change my opinion of the FDW. Nothing dramatic, but rather things like letting children run roughshod over them (Rhiannon is a bully, and anyone I hired would need to be able to stand up to Rhi if/when caring for her). The few references I spoke to that were nasty were generally discounted as crazy people who complain about everything (I’ve met more than a few of these employers in my day to day life in Singapore–any excuse to complain).

5–Know what’s important to your family and ask interview questions accordingly

Things that were important to me included/questions I asked were

  • Are you frightened of/allergic to cats? (we have two)
  • Can you swim/do you feel comfortable alone with the girls in the pool? (they’re learning to swim)
  • Can we include a clause in the contract that if a family member is in the hospital you will work on that Sunday? (we are firm believers in not interfering with an FDW’s off day, but hospital stays are an extenuating circumstance)
  • How do you think children should be disciplined? How would you handle a tantruming three year old who is on the floor, kicking and screaming, in the middle of a mall? (A post for another time, but Rhi has been diagnosed with Sensory delays and can throw spectacular tantrums.)
  • Are you comfortable reading books in English at bedtime on nights I’m not home for bedtime?
  • What would you do in case of a medical emergency? (If a child broke a bone while playing, or I fainted–the latter was a real issue from last June)
  • Are you comfortable with letting our children be responsible for their own chores?

I ruled out candidates who were allergic to cats (important!), and who were uncomfortable with/couldn’t answer the question about medical emergencies. The rest of the questions weren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but factored into our decision.

6–Give your children a say

Out of that original one hundred (roughly) applicants, I did extensive interviews with maybe thirty, and introduced my kids to about ten people.

Elanor and Rhiannon eliminated roughly a third of the FDW’s they met within five minutes. The chemistry was wrong, or the FDW was too meek and sat near them rather than playing with them even after they asked the FDW to do so.

After each person, we talked to the girls. They knew that they wouldn’t make the final choice (and their preferred candidate was not mine, for the record), but that we cared what they thought.

Obviously this isn’t possible if you don’t have children or your children are quite young. But even a three year old will have an opinion and deserves the chance to share it with you, especially as you are interviewing someone who will at least occasionally care for them. (I do most of the childcare, but I have doctor appointments, and sick days, and Wednesdays the girls have to be in two different places at the same time.)

7–Trust your gut

This is a difficult piece of advice for me to give, especially as my gut failed so spectacularly the first time.

That said, listen to your instincts. If that little voice inside says that this isn’t the right person, listen to it. I was reaching a point of fatigue and almost gave in and just hired someone more than once, even despite my instincts saying “maybe this isn’t the right person.” Stick to your guns.

8–Know that there is no guarantee

I’m sure that most of us have taken a job that we thought would be really great, only to realize we hated it. (Hello, retail jobs. Your employee discount didn’t not make up for how sucky the job was.) The same is true of any time you hire someone, whether as an FDW or in another setting.  You try to find the best possible person, and you hire them, knowing there are no guarantees in life.

I never saw B’s MOM sheet. Maybe it would have passed my scrutiny. Maybe I would still have hired her and had everything fall apart eighteen months later all the same. I don’t know.

If you do end up hiring someone, I wish you the best of luck.

***Closing comments because I’m not interested in the maid-bashing that inevitably happens on posts like this.***

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