Among domestic help, maids are arguably the second most important member of the expat staff. India is a breeding ground for bacteria, ash, pollution, and dust, all piled atop normal wear and tear like heaping mounds of peanuts on an environmental ice cream sundae that sends Oscar the Grouch cowering in the depths of his garbage can. The best way to keep up with the tidal wave of needed cleaning is to hire the right maid.
Hiring a maid can be daunting. Are all maids created equal? Should we hire part-time or full-time? If there are only two of us, what exactly is she going to do all day?
The Right Maid Stuff
Not all maids are created equal. It is tempting to assume that every potential maid you interview understands the basics of house cleaning—vacuum cleaner deployment, dish washing, mopping fundamentals, laundry do’s and don’ts, iron usage, hangar employment, bathroom maintenance, kitchen counter “no-no’s,”—but, sadly, the basics are not as universally understood as one might hope.
Most maids know how to clean the way they were raised, which is to say they can sweep a dirt floor with a bunch of branches tied together with twine, rinse dishes in cold, bacteria-infested water, create mud with a mop, clean clothing by hand and hang it to dry in the brutal Indian sun, send shirts to be pressed by the guy who heats his iron by the fire, fold-everything hang-nothing, and wipe the sinks and counters with the same towel as they use to clean the toilet. In other words, when it comes to hiring a maid, don’t assume they know how to do anything the way you want it done.
Unfortunately, you can’t count on the interview to sort out what a maid does and does not understand. Any questions about skills asked during an interview is guaranteed to elicit a positive response. Can you use an Iron? Yes. Do you know how to use a washing machine? Yes. Is there any hope that you’ll arrive on time, stay for your entire shift, work instead of gossiping with the driver, not ask for excessive time off, and avoid bringing your kids to my house when they are out of school? Yes. The interview—as described in more detail in a previous article—is not the place to evaluate skills, it is where we assess personality and work ethic.
Happiness is not something ready maid. (The Dalai Lama, sort of.)
Maids are remarkably trainable, perhaps more so than drivers. Once the “work ethic” issue is handled—which, to be fair, is no easy obstacle to overcome—pretty much all maids want to do a good job, and in this case a “good job” is the job that keeps them employed and gets them the occasional raise. Unlike drivers, who should already know their job and may just need to make small changes to accommodate their new employer, maids may be required to learn new skills, change their routines, accommodate unique personality quirks, and adopt unfamiliar cultural nuances with each new employer. They need to be adaptable.
We hired Salma on the recommendation of our driver, the famous Rawoof. We liked her right away during the interview, getting a good vibe right off the bat, listening to her commitment to the job, feeling like it was a match maid in heaven. As expected, she answered all our questions with “yes,”—ironing, vacuum cleaner operation, washing machine fundamentals—you name it, she could do it. She just couldn’t do it all the way we wanted it done.
The thing is, expat’s are a peculiar lot. One expat friend noted, “Whenever you hire a maid, you need to show her everything.” Another expat explained, “Tell her that you will try her for the month and demonstrate the use of any appliances. My domestic help does not read or write but they are pretty good at learning new things.” Our odd behaviors, individual needs, and disparate backgrounds put maids at a disadvantage from the outset. But unless you’ve made a horrible hiring mistake, there is a steep learning curve taking them from experience with other families to experience with your family.
I taught Salma how to do our laundry, wash and cut vegetables, which color cloths to use for different cleaning, how to use the vacuum on the rugs, how fitted sheets actually fit a mattress, and how to juice limes for the evening cocktail. It’s not that she didn’t know how to clean, she just didn’t know how to use the little laundry detergent pods we brought from the U.S., our preference for chips versus chunky carrots, the need to use only blue cloths to clean toilets, the intricacies of vacuuming, fitted sheet dynamics, or proactive juicing for a multi-cocktail weekend. Once she learned our needs, she totally rocked the maid thing for two solid years.
I Maid Need Someone Full Time
The full or part time question is another vexing part of maid hiring. We initially looked for someone 3-days a week, 5-hours per day. But everyone we interviewed wanted the same salary whether they worked 15 hours a week or 25 hours. It all comes down to perception and the unique ability of some people to avoid being encumbered by logic.
Our India villa, essentially the Taj Mahal of Hyderabad, was huge. There were four bedrooms, an entertainment room, kitchen, living room, dining room, a 2st floor balcony, and a roof top balcony—4500 square feet of luxury living. It was impossible to clean every room in a single 3 hour day—which worked for us because we didn’t use every room in the house. I can’t swear we even had a third floor.
We brought people in for interviews with the understanding that the sweeping, mopping, and dusting needed to be accomplished in the kitchen, living room, and our bedroom, the bathroom needed to be cleaned, and the dishes needed to be washed with each visit. To fill any remaining time, we created a prioritized list of tasks—wash cabinets, clean balcony, chop vegetables, clean other rooms. (If I get enough requests, I’ll post the list on the website.) The important stuff would be cleaned 3-days per week, and pretty much everything would be done over the course of a week. Totally workable.
Inevitably, some things are bound to be lost in translation. We explained our expectations to aspiring maids with the help of our A-List driver, Rawoof—but when our maid candidates entered our giant white villa they only saw cleaning the Taj Mahal. Without exception they offered to work the 15 hours per week for between Rs 14,000 and 18,000 per month—a ridiculous amount for a maid in 2016.
Knowledge and experience in hand, we decided to test the water for someone 5-days per week, 5-hours per day. We phoned a couple of the previous interviewees, offered up their asking salary with the new 25 hour work week, and found every one of them willing to do the same job for the same salary spread across 25 hours. “WTF?” we wondered aloud. Perception and a lack of annoying logic ruled out over basic math.
We Maid the Right Decision
We finally offered our first maid choice—Salma—about three thousand less than the lowest asked-for salary to work 25 hours per week. We looked at the salary as paying for trust—Salma had a key to our house, let herself in to clean when we were not home, and did a decent job sweeping, mopping, cleaning, chopping, washing, and dusting. She rarely requested time off, occasionally worked late when needed, even cooked for us upon request. She happily cleaned, listened to music, and occasionally sang her way through her work day. Compared to some, we payed far too much per hour, but other expats thought it was a decent deal. We were happy with the results.
Hiring the right maid is an important step in creating a happy, healthy expat experience. It’s not easy—things like logic, perception, availability, market demands, and unrealistic expectations form the basis for head-pounding, ache-inducing conversations that leave expats wondering about their own sanity. Realistic expectations on behalf of both employer and housekeeper are a necessity—resulting in a long-term, productive, and dust-less relationship.
Do you have a great maid story? Or a advice about hiring and managing help? Leave a comment below to help others.
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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just plain scary. Copyright can be found here for my original work.