Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hard to Find

One fact of life in the upper income bracket of a poor country—for an expat or a local—is that you’ll likely have domestic help, and that it will be provided by a person of a much lower socioeconomic status.

When I joined my shared apartment we had a maid coming one and a half days a week to sweep, scrub, and do laundry by hand. She spoke and wrote serviceable English, and for the most part she reliably delivered a quality service. For this we paid her a total of just under $75 a month, split across the four of us in the apartment.

Periodically, debates appear on Addis’s online expat forums of what the “right amount” is to pay your maid. Typical viewpoints from each side:
  • How would you like to be paid only (small amount) per month?
  • (Same small amount) is already more than a policeman makes here

Overall, the expats I know all pay their maids well over the going rate among locals (which could be as low as $30/month for the same services described above or more). And it’s relatively uncontroversial that maids who speak good English, can cook foreign dishes, are good with children, etc. can expect to be paid more.

Ultimately, what I’m building up to here is that our maid asked for a substantial raise, and rather than discuss or negotiate with her, our consensus as flatmates was to sack her and find a new maid.

We paid the requisite severance—custom apparently is to prorate this based on how many months the maid has worked for you—and the new maid we took on was out of work after being much beloved by colleagues who had moved on from their old house to places with already established maid situations.

The former maid gave us the impression that her ask for more money originated in part because she had more lucrative clients on other days of the week, such that it was no longer worth it for her to clean our house at the previous rate. The new maid on the other hand was happy to work three days a week at the rate we’d previously been paying for two days.

This rate, by the way, adds up to less in a month than I was paying individually in DC for one morning of cleaning, and that’s even before I split the rate across the four of us. (Not that the US doesn’t have its own economic inequality issues).

I rarely ever saw the old maid, or see the new maid, because each usually arrives after I’ve left for the office. From my limited encounters, both are fairly young traditionally Ethiopian women, expressing themselves quietly and wearing white shawls.

One more story: I recently heard of an expat in Addis who, upon leaving the country, was forced to let go her maid of two years. This woman also had “guards” at her house (basically someone who sits in a shed and guards the compound gate) who she liked well enough to leave some electronics for as well as arrange new jobs. The maid got no such deal—just a customary severance payment and a letter of reference. On the woman’s second to last day in the country, the maid helped herself to several hundred dollars worth of electronics and clothes on her way out.

All of which is to say, the benefit of cheap domestic labor can certainly be great, but it puts one in situations calling for complex economic and moral decision-making. And—at least for someone like myself who likes to hold life to as little complexity as possible—this makes it a double-edged sword.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm actually happy to not be in your shoes. That would be a serious dilemma for me.