Saturday, September 12, 2009

Finding a housemaid in Abu Dhabi

Having a housemaid is quite normal in Abu Dhabi because labor is so cheap in this country. Most apartments and houses have a maid's quarters attached albeit lots are them are like a closet with a wash room. The Emirati definitely have housemaids, sometimes several of them, along with the gardener and driver. Their houses are so huge they must have help to maintain them.

We initially planned to have a part-time housekeeper several times a week when we thought we were getting the apartment downtown. After the Embassy changed our housing assignment to a Villa, we begin to think maybe we wanted someone full time. Then after seeing the Villa's size and the neatly tucked away maid's quarters off the kitchen, we decided to take the plunge into a live-in housemaid arrangement.

Employing a housemaid in Abu Dhabi can be easy or daunting depending on how you look at it. There are lots of rules to follow, which are basically labor laws for the protection of the employee. It's muddling through these laws so you stay inside the law that is a little daunting. And, of course, the law is routinely broken by everyone.

The law says if you employ a full time live in maid you must sponsor her into the country on a work visa. She is suppose to work for you and you only. This is where it gets a bit tricky as everyone routinely hires people on a part-time basis who are sponsored by other people and living and working in someone else's home. Their employers allow them to work outside in order to earn more money. However, this practice is clearly against the law. BUT everyone does it.
So we decided to hire a live in and sponsor her and have her work only for us. This way we do not do anything that jeopardizes John's position at work.

The basic hiring rules are follows:

The State Treasury taxes annually the equivalent of the annual salary of the maid. The maid must be paid a minimum of 400 Dirhams (the equivalent of $108)a month. You are free to pay more, of course. Most people claim a minimal amount on the tax forms so they don't have to pay as much tax! You must pay the sponsorship fee, initiate all the paperwork, provide a health card and pay the health card fee of 600 Dirhams annually, and provide accomodations. She can either live in your home or you can provide additional salary to cover the cost of her own accomodations. You are also legally required to provide airfare home at least once every two years. An Employment Agreement for Domestic Workers and Sponsors must be signed and filed with some agency (not sure who because the Embassy is taking care of all of this for us). The health card entitles her to public health care which I think is a good thing.

Most of the Europeans, Canadians, and Americans pay well above the minimum salary. The standard seems to be between 1,200 and 2,000 dirham depending on your requirements. It also seems that certain nationalities demand higher salaries than others. Only women from India, Sri Lanka, the Phillippines, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia can be legally hired into the country. Of course, experience, maturity, and language capabilities enter into the salary process as well. We decided to base our salary kind of in the middle of the road since we do not have children (most of the maids also act as nannies for those with children) and we are providing nice accomodations. We also based our decision on the personal circumstances of the person we were going to hire.

Lots of these women come to this country to work in order to help support their families in their homeland. They are often supporting younger siblings and putting them through school; or aging parents; or their family has faced some kind of financial hardship such as job loss or illness. We interviewed many who were sending most of their money back home for one reason or another. Sadly but the little bit of money they are making here is a far cry better than what they can make in their own country. Most of these countries are poor and uneducated. The ones who are educated and can speak some English are good candidates to work overseas so they try to get domestic work in the Arab countries. Unfortunately, the Arabs do not pay them as well and many do not necessarily treat them in the same manner we treat them. The Arabs have a reputation of working them long hours for little money and treating them like second class citizens. The housemaids love to work for the Europeans and Americans because they treat them fairly and take good care of them financially.

So after interviewing multiple maids (they come out of the woodwork when they find out you are looking for someone---they share information among themselves), we settled on a Sri Lanken lady named "Shirly". I have laughed a lot about coming across the globe to hire a maid named Shirly. I interviewed Ramya, a Sri Lanken who we really wanted to hire but she had a better offer financially; Kulet, a Filipino girl who also went by Anna Lynn (they change their name sometimes to Western names). We liked Kulet but she did not have much experience. She was sending money back home to help younger siblings finish school. We met Ramesha, a young 23 year old Sri Lanken, who was leaving her employer because she could not handle their unruly children. She was an excellent candidate. However, Ramesha wants to get married next year and bring her husband here from Sri Lanka. She wanted him to live in too. Some people do that but we just were not comfortable with that arrangement. Judith, a sophisticated Filipino woman, had all the right requirements, experience, good English, etc. I just didn't think I could ask her to "work" for me. She looked like she belonged in my social circle. I was afraid I would hesitate to ask her to do things. We also considered Meesay, an Ethiopian girl who was working for a French family that got into financial trouble and left the country very quickly. They kind of left her behind with no money or food in the fridge. Their neighbors took pity on her and hired her until she could find a job. They actually gave her a great referral. We didn't like her because she was a little bossy---telling us what we were suppose to give her and such. That was trouble waiting to happen. Then, there was my favorite little lady named Pyanga (Pee-yong-guh). We tried to hire Pyanga and had her come work for a day or two to try her out. She spoke very little English and she really tried. Her sister also works here and was trying to help her get a position with a good family. Pyanga had worked for the Arabs for ten years and wanted to get in with the American families. However, some of her skills were just not up to speed. With a lot of work, Pyanga would have made a great maid after devoting a lot of time to training her. She was also very joyful and humble.

Then we met Shirly. Shirly was a friend of Ramya, the one we offered a job to and took something else. Shirly called us and right away we knew she was a good choice. She speaks English, Arabic, and several dialects of Indian which is a huge asset here. She has worked for several Embassy families and came with a good reference. ( Her family was leaving to go back to the US. ) She cooks as well. She loves dogs which is huge for us. She is mature and all her children are grown and independent. Two of them live and work in Dubai so she can see them frequently. She is jolly. She is clean and neat.

Shirly already loves us and has bonded with Graziella. She loves her digs. She has a 8 x 16 sq ft room right off of our kitchen with her own bathroom. The bath is tiny and houses our washer and dryer (this is commonplace). She has her own entrance so she can come and go out the back without disturbing us. I like it that she does not have to walk through the house to go out. We fixed her room up nice with a bed, dresser, and wardrobe. She has a chair and table for relaxing and we installed Sri Lanken cable for her so she can get her favorite Sri Lanken channels.

In addition to her salary, we provide her food, accomodations, and taxi fare when she is going somewhere for us. She gets up and starts her day early every morning and has done the majority of her work by lunchtime. She delights in Graziella and volunteers to take her outside and look after her as needed. She is enjoying our cooking sessions in the kitchen as I show her our favorite dishes. She calls John "the boss" and me "madam" and is very interested in meeting our every need. John is loving having all his clothes ironed---she even irons his underwear! Everything is neat and clean all the time. She has been a godsend with the maintenance people since most of them are Indian or Sri Lanken. She has been wonderful about translating our wishes to them. She has been most helpful with the Arabic speaking cable people!

When it came time to make our decision, my heart wanted Pyanga so I could help her become a better housemaid. I agonized over it and would see little Pyanga's face everytime I thought about not hiring her. John left the decision up to me as he liked both Shirly and Pyanga. So it came down to whether I wanted to make an emotional decision or a business decision. The business decision finally prevailed. I thought about it long and hard. I asked myself "what if I were back at the bank hiring an employee to work in the loan department?" Wouldn't I want someone who was fully capable with a solid skill set over someone who I had to spend lots of time training to make them qualified for the job? I would not even question what candidate got the job at the bank. It would absolutely be the person who was most qualified. In this case, Shirly was most qualified.

I still see Pyanga's face on occasion and it tugs at my heart. She was really very sweet and had a quiet spirit. (She was quiet because she didn't understand much!) I just felt like Shirly was right for us. She really has filled the bill.

By the way, I asked Shirly about her name. I figured she changed it to a western name. She said it was her real name and showed me her passport and visa. There it was: Shirly Fernando. She told me her father worked for a British family when he was young and the wife was named Shirly. He loved the name so much he named her that when she was born. I was a little disappointed that she didn't have some funky sounding Indian name that was a mile long and shortened to something cute and different sounding like Poonam or Pushpu or Chongra or Meesay. Somehow Shirly doesn't sound quite as charming. But she is charming!

1 comment:

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