I need to tell you something.
Yesterday, while Facetiming with some family and friends back in the States, my attention was momentarily drawn away from the screen to address the person standing behind my computer. Afterward, I apologized to my aunt, telling her I was saying goodbye to a friend.
Later that evening, my 11-year-old called me out on that: “I noticed you called Julia* a friend earlier. But you hesitated before you said it, like you didn’t know what to say.”
Man, kids are perceptive! My husband then told me I was busted and it was definitely time to write about this topic.
The truth is I was saying goodbye to a woman who has definitely become a friend, but is also an employee. Twice a week she cleans our house, does our laundry, and sometimes even cooks for us. She spends the rest of her work week at our friend’s house, which means between the two families she is employed full-time. But there’s more… when we moved to this larger home in August — where we sometimes have more than a dozen people sleeping under one roof — Julia’s cousin, Ana*, started coming two days a week as well. (She, too, works the rest of the week at another missionary’s home.)
Yes, you just did the mental math right. Four days a week we have a maid. Yuck. I really hate how that makes me sound, so can we just call her an employee? Because that sounds much less Kardashian. Actually, those I’ve spoken with prefer to be called domesticas (domestic workers) or even asistentes familiar (family helpers or assistants).
We also employ a young man we’ll call José, who acts as a general caretaker. He cares for the property (all of the grass, plants, trees, and stonework), manages deliveries and other workers (for example, the landlord currently has workers here re-tiling the pool), and monitors the perimeter wall to deter potential thieves.
So what, exactly, does all that mean?
It means I haven’t cleaned a toilet or mopped a floor in a pretty long time, and my husband hasn’t had to tend to the trees/grass/plants that grow year-round. It means the girls’ school uniforms are always clean and organized. And it means I only have to wash dishes on the three days a week when neither of them are here. But… it also means I have realized there might be some internal house cleaning to address in my own life.
Daily workers like José, Maria, and Ana typically earn US$10/day. Yes, you read that right: ten whole dollars to work eight hours, and they are eager for the work. How much did I spend for the girls and I to snack on fresh lemonade and our very favorite pretzels each time we shopped at the mall back home? Ouch.
The average monthly wage for service workers is about US$150, although a significant percentage of the population lives on half that due to underemployment. Earning US$10 for a day’s work, means you actually have the potential to earn at least US$200/month (not including meals, bonuses, insurance, social security, and vacation, which we supply as well). So comparatively speaking, our employees are doing OK. But when you consider they are supporting themselves and their kids on that, it’s enough to make my head spin and my heart ache.
We have so much, and they have so little… and yet we can’t pay them much more than the going rate or we risk upsetting the whole apple cart, so to speak. I could easily list all sorts of reasons why it’s important to have house help here… from how dirty everything gets (mold literally grows on just about every surface during the rainy season, and with the windows and doors open year round, fresh layers of dirt appear within hours of being wiped away) to the hours a day that cleaning can suck away from other tasks such as family, work, and ministry. But to not have a maid is quite simply a serious faux-pas in this culture, as if you’re somehow too good to allow the locals to work for you. And to go without some sort of property caretaker is often not only challenging but considered unwise, given the possibility of theft, for example.
To provide a job for someone, and to pay his or her social security, is to help a family support themselves in a developing country that desperately needs more employment. José has been employed by inhabitants of our home for the past eight years, and now earns enough to put his son in a private kindergarten. Such an education can potentially lift the next generation of his family out of the poverty in which José was born. Ana’s husband left her earlier this year, so this new job allows her to independently feed, clothe, and provide safe shelter for herself and her preteen son. And Julia’s salary enables her to contribute to her household in such a way that they can have luxuries like a refrigerator and gas cooking stove.
And yet… I feel guilty checking out Facebook while she cleans the toilet. My U.S.-middle-class-upbringing causes me to find it strange to have people in my home, taking care of my things. My stomach churns as I watch her consider the food in my fridge when deciding what to make for lunch. I can’t help but wonder what her pantry holds… what her kids will eat tonight. It is a common occurrence for U.S. citizens living abroad (whether for missions, the military, or business), to employ household help. But I think for missionaries especially, it is a strange juxtaposition to work amongst the poor and also employ them (or those thankfully coming out of such poverty) in your home. I know we’re giving Ana, Julia, and José each a much-needed job, but I’ll probably never understand the why of it all.
As often happens, my dear husband left some money in his pants pockets before putting them in the laundry basket yesterday, and I noticed Julia didn’t keep it (as I have done countless times), but left it in a pile on the dresser. The stash was more than she made in a whole day of washing, folding, and putting away, mopping, organizing, cooking, and cleaning up after us.
I can’t help but wonder: what must she have thought when she left it there? Did she ever consider that her day’s wages might be pocket change to us? Does she compare our more to her less and wish the tables were turned? Or maybe she sees the dangers involved with having more money and is completely content? Or what if — be forewarned I’m going to propose something that is pretty shocking to my U.S.-born-and-bred brain — what if she thought nothing of it because she is OK with the path she is on?
I don’t have any answers here, but am just thinking out loud I guess. And given we’ve been here 16 months and now have three employees, I figured it was about time I started talking about it.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
What do you think? Would you find it strange to have maids and caretakers at your home? Have you experienced this before?