Expat life and domestic staff: from the outside looking in.

This week a friend of mine who is not an expat, has never been an expat and probably never will be an expat, asked me a question about one of the topics I cover in my book. I am really grateful to this friend of mine, because she didn’t have to buy or read the book – but she has, to support me. I don’t expect people who have no connection to the expat life to read the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, even good friends and family members. So thank you to this friend, she is a good friend.

Anyway, as she made her way through the book, she reached the chapter about employing domestic staff. And she asked me a question. Earlier in the book she had read about how to find ways to occupy yourself. Then she came across the chapter about employing staff to do your cleaning, ironing, gardening etc – all those things that we get people to do for us when we move to certain parts of the world. And she, quite reasonably, asked why not do the work yourself – wouldn’t that at least partly solve the problem of trying to find ways to occupy your time?

It’s a good question and one I do tackle in the chapter my friend was reading on Domestic Staff: Finding Them, Keeping Them and Treating Them Like Human Beings (perhaps she just hadn’t read far enough into the chapter). From the outside looking in, as my friend was, this is one of the aspects of Expat Life that is hard to understand. I did explain to her that not every expat has domestic staff – if you are in Europe or the States, you’re probably looking at a cleaner a couple of hours a week if you’re lucky.

But many of us do, and it is one of those difficult topics that’s hard to discuss with people who haven’t lived in certain countries in the world. I know a lot of us don’t particularly enjoy having staff to do all the crappy jobs in our house that we could do ourselves…if we really had to….but we don’t, because we can afford to pay someone else to do it, and because it’s so damn hot, and the house is so damn big….

Our helper, Ansa, in Islamabad with my younger daughter.

Our helper, Ansa, in Islamabad with my younger daughter.

But how does it make you feel to be sitting on your sofa reading a book, or lying by the pool, while someone else is down on their knees scrubbing your floor? It feels pretty bloody awful doesn’t it?

So how do you deal with it?

Well, the advice I give in my book is first and foremost to treat your staff with respect. And treat the work they are doing with respect as well. It may feel like crappy work you don’t want to do, but it’s an honest job that helps people earn an honest wage. A wage which will almost certainly be supporting a family, possibly even an extended family. It may be paying for their children’s education (in Pakistan, our helper Ansa’s wages were paying for her daughter’s schooling), or for your staff to make a better life for themselves  (in Jamaica, it ensured my helper Anne-Marie was able to move away from the dangerous inner-city and allow her and her daughter to live in relative safety). It would almost certainly be difficult, if not devastating, for that member of staff to have their job taken away from them – just because it made you feel awkward.

Yes, it’s hard – I hate being in the house when anyone is cleaning it, whether in this country (the UK) or abroad. I usually find a reason to be out of the house, but that’s easier when it’s two hours a week than when it’s two days a week. Or longer – in some places it’s quite common still to have live-in maids. But it’s MY awkwardness, not theirs. And my problem, not theirs. And I shouldn’t make them know that I feel awkward because that would mean that they would know that I thought there was something wrong with what they are doing….

…it’s a tangled web, isn’t it?

There are things you can do to make things easier between you. Sit down to lunch with your staff, make it for them or serve it to them. Find other “chores” to do while they are cleaning, like cooking or tidying the bedroom. Lock yourself away in a study with your laptop and furiously beat away at your keyboard, very loudly, so they know you are working too. Help them (but don’t get in their way. They know what they are doing and are probably a lot better at doing it than you are). Just talk to them, ask them questions, use them to find out more about the place you live, their views on local politics, where to shop etc – it’s amazing what you will learn.

These are all my tips, but I would love to hear from you. If you live somewhere with staff working in your house, do you find it difficult? If so, how does it make you feel? Or if you’ve never been in this situation, how do you think it would make you feel? Or if you yourself have been a staff member, cleaned someone’s house or gardened – did you ever think about this at all?

In the meantime, I’ve got to go. My cleaner will be here soon and I really need to be out of the house……

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