…Housekeeping

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned most of this before, but since the situation changed today, here’s a post on our housekeeper:

One of the stock debates in the foreign service is whether or not to employ a household staff. And, one you do, which is likely for most of us in places where labor is inexpensive, you debate what they’ll be responsible for, and how crazy it will make you to deal with the language barrier, the cultural differences between American and local foods and lifestyles, and whether to employ them full or part time.

Nearly everyone we know has a household helper of some sort, even the people on local-standard allowances, like the volunteers. At our own home, we have had an employee for the last month on a “trial basis.” It is common here in Bangladesh to tentatively employ someone before you agree to provide all the perks of employment, including job security. I’ll get more into the “perks” later.

Our housekeeper/cook came 5 days a week, 8 hours per day. The standard workweek for household help in the area is actually 6 days, 12 hours a day. The typical maid-of-all-work that puts in those long hours would cook and serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as doing the cleaning and laundry for the house. In some families, their day off is only a half day, but I don’t know any American employers who follow that kind of schedule. Ours was in charge of shopping for fresh foods, cleaning them, cleaning the house, laundry, and cooking.

But, it was too much time, and a huge struggle to deal with the language issues around food in particular. Some people in Dhaka are lucky enough to employ someone who knows all the American styles of cooking and can read recipes to learn something new. Our cook did not have that skill, but thought she did. So, after much thought and deliberation, we decided to take her down to part time, focusing on the cleaning tasks (including cleaning the produce), but I would take up the task of daily cooking.

(So, it looks like stirfry without curry powder will once again be making an appearance in the Adventures’ household. Tonight we’re having Leftover Pie, since all of last week’s fruit pies were so good.)

That reduction in hours, to 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, meant a reduction in pay as well. We’re now paying her a little over half of what we paid her at full time. We also cover her basic uniforms, toiletries and a few other odds and ends that are culturally appropriate, and we’ll be responsible for making sure she gets a bonus at the big holidays.

In the end, I am somewhat nonplussed with the whole situation. It is nice to have a clean house and fresh dishes and laundry every day, but you don’t feel like your house is your own. You can never find things when you go looking for them, and you feel guilty when you just want to come home and put your pajamas on in the afternoon. Since I work from home, I always felt uncomfortable while she cleaned, as if I wasn’t actually doing any work. So, I am hoping that the new 4 hour schedule will make me feel better about the whole thing. Yes, we are keeping someone employed in a place where work is hard to find, but I am resentful of my space, things, and time. I also feel guilty for sitting back and watching her work and then for grousing that something got wet or scratched or put away in an unexpected place.

We’re advertising her now, as available for part time work, as she would prefer to work full days, even if split between two households. Hopefully someone will want to pick her up.  As a maid, she’s great. She needs direction for the big tasks, but does the daily stuff quickly and well. As a cook, she leaves a lot to be desired, but she does a great job at sous cheffing, and preparing the fresh produce. Someone else will want to cook for themselves, but not deal with bleaching the veggies, right?

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