Monday, April 05, 2010

Malaysian woman and her Cambodian maid; me and mine

I was appalled to read this today:

"When the maid agent was at my house, he asked me to brief him again my maid’s weaknesses and mistakes. After briefing him, the agent reprimanded my maid big time. We then went to the laundry room where my maid keeps her clothes and watched her pack her things. I then told the agent that this maid has been treating the laundry room like a rubbish dump as she has been keeping things that we had thrown into the dustbin in this room. All of a sudden, the unexpected happened. The agent did something to the maid which I did not expect that he would do it at my house…. right in front of me. I was really shocked, dumbfounded and for a moment, I felt bad that the agent had done it to my maid, not only once but thrice. My maid was in tears and I felt sorry for my maid. After the agent had briefed the new temp maid what to do, he left with my Cambodian maid."

The woman decided to hire an Indonesian instead, moaning "Now, I have to start training my new temp Indon maid from scratch. I hate to think that just when she has gotten use to everything, she would have to leave when the new permanent maid arrives and I will have to train the new maid all over again."

I've always been against hiring domestic helpers who live with the family ("maids" they are called in Singapore and Malaysia). It's a completely unnatural situation to live with someone and not regard them as a member of the family (or pack in the animal world). Instead, you have to treat this person as a staff member who is doing a job in exchange for a salary.

Fair enough, but familiarity breeds contempt and the whole situation is so unnatural that many employers end up treating their helpers much worse than they would any other staff member who does not live with them.

I once walked past a terrace house where a Singaporean woman was scolding her maid in the backyard. The young Indonesian woman was made to stand while the woman sat and talked down to her as if she was a child. Some bosses even make their helpers kneel to receive punishment. It's just appalling. These are grown women - women old enough to leave their home countries to come alone to a foreign land in order to earn an honest living. They deserve more respect. But they are treated as children who need to be disciplined once they move in to live with the family.

The problem I think is the unnaturalness of the situation. It is almost impossible to live with a person and not have some kind of personal relationship with the person. I employed a live-in helper after moving to Cambodia. We had always resisted a live-in helper but a Malaysian missionary asked us to help this woman, a widow who had sold her land because her son had killed a young man in a motorcycle accident. The widow, who has 3 children, sold the land to pay off the family of the dead man. She is honest and hardworking, said the missionary. Based on the recommendation, we took her in. Big mistake.

First of all, this woman was in her 50s. We treated her like an aunty. For instance, I would ask her if she'd like some tea if I was making some. She did the housework and loved our dogs which was all we asked for. We don't have children and live a simple life so there wasn't that much to do. She would spend every afternoon napping in our hammock, to the amazement of Khmer and barang friends who visited. One Western friend told me she was lazy. We were not too bothered I guess cos we are easy-going. As long as the house was clean, that's fine. I had other things to do apart from manage her anyway.

A Singaporean friend who visited told me I was in for trouble. "You need to draw boundaries," she said. This friend has had live-in helpers her whole life and knows a thing or two on managing helpers. She told me I also needed a "bad cop", which should be Alan. In her household, my friend is the good cop while her mom the bad cop. It was all very confusing to me - worse than confusing, unnatural. I did not think I could act the roles well. The thing I kept hearing from friends, most of them who have helpers, was "be careful or they will climb over your head."

True enough this happened with Ming (the Cambodian word for "aunty") Vee. She would show her temper when asked to do something she did not like and would yell at the Bloom women (at that time they were working in the house) because she thought she was part of the boss's family and therefore above the women. The women came to resent her and started telling me tales about Vee. The worse thing that happened was Vee started shouting at my mother when my mother came for a visit and asked her to do some work.

I should have listened to everyone but truthfully, I thought she was ok at her job. Finally I found out she had been stealing from me (I knew she did strange things like keep our underwear in her drawer - for black magic I was told).

I had gone to Singapore for 2 weeks and when I returned, she said her son was very sick and she needed to go back to Kampong Thom to see him. I said go, go, and even gave her money for the bus fare. It was only after she left I realised my camera, gifts and many, many metres of expensive trimming was gone. I had a Canadian friend house sit during these 2 weeks and she told me USD50 had gone missing from her jeans pocket. Vee insisted she did not take the money, and I paid my friend back for her loss. My friend told me Vee would disappear during the afternoons and we suspect Vee stole our things and passed them to her friends during this time.

Incredibly, she called a week later to ask if she could come back. I told her off and of course she denied stealing the items. I was furious and got the Malaysian missionary to get her to meet me. I thought the missionary had some responsibility since it was she who recommended I hire this woman. Of course Vee denied everything. I was disappointed also with the missionary who basically couldn't give a toss, kept mum and refused to be drawn into the dispute. Since then, my other expat friends and I have learnt about foreigners like her - foreigners who are always recommending Khmers they themselves had problems with. They pass off their problems to someone else. I think it is because people like this missionary like to be heroes, to be thanked and have gratitude from Khmers. I can't think of any other explanation.

In the case of Vee, she had been suspected of stealing from this missionary's organisation. She was responsible for cooking for the Khmers in the NGO and she would return with less food than what she was paid to buy, a very common practice here (cooks will pocket the difference). After she was gone the Bloom women told me Vee would show them trinklets which she attempted to sell. It seems she had sold our things to buy goods to sell. None of the women told me this while Vee was in our employment because they feared she wielded power.

Since then we have not had a live-in helper. We find it more trouble than it's worth. Managing helpers can be very challenging and some women can be mean (my friend caught hers with a man on her bed, another found photos of her helper in my friend's bikini and stealing is common). Whatever they do though, there's never a reason to abuse your worker. Or to tolerate your agent doing it.



PS: For some reason Singapore does not accept helpers from Cambodia, although they accept those from Burma. Anyone know why? Also, Singaporean readers may like to learn more fromTransient Workers Count Too or TWC2.

1 comment:

DAS said...

i cannot find a link now, but i remember reading 2-3 years ago that singapore had banned cambodian, vietnamese and i think chinese maids too after a rash of singaporean men had left their singaporean wives for their cambodia/vietnemese/chinese maids. maids from these countries turned out to be *too* good.

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