I know you are going to roll your eyes as you read what I am about to write. But I have to write it anyway because managing household help is part of the expatriate experience. And this blog is about the expatriate experience.
So here goes. Managing household help is challenging. Not as challenging as doing everything that needs to be done around the house by yourself (I know! I did it too!), but challenging nonetheless. Just think about managing people at work. Even assuming you like your employees, managing them can be a pain, right? Now imagine these people in your home, part of your everyday life. Witnesses to your most intimate moments (OK, not the most intimate, but you get the idea). It’s uncomfortable. As you inevitably have to discuss finances and vacation and who gets what when, you are aware that this is the person who washes your underwear. Or helps take care of your children. What could be more important than that?
Why am I writing all this? (A real problem of abundance as a friend of mine used to say.) Well, as a culture Colombians are very carpe diem. Saving for the future is not a big thing here. So to help people, especially poor people, the government has set up a system where an employer takes a certain percentage of an employee’s salary (about two days’ work per month) and puts it into a separate bank account. This money is then paid to the employee at the end of the year or when the contract ends, whichever comes first. Basically, this is a forced savings system.
So the big misunderstanding in our household was that we thought our housekeeper wanted the full amount in cash so we have been paying her full salary and she thought that we were saving for her and was counting on this money for Christmas. We are talking about less than $200 here, which is obviously a lot of money for her. It took about two hours of my time today (I still have my gringa mentality where time is my most precious commodity) to sort out who owes what to whom so that our housekeeper doesn’t feel ripped off and we don’t feel taken advantage of.
The end result was that we came out as the good guys. Going through the numbers, she realized that we already pay her nearly double of what the going rate is and we also offered to pay her the $200 as a Christmas bonus and then set up the savings account for her for next year.
Now, many Colombians would think we are stupid and are being taken advantage of (first to overpay and then to give a bonus). Colombians I have talked to about this look at me funny when I mention how uncomfortable I am paying so relatively little for such hard work (Average salary for a domestic employee here is about $15 a day minus insurance, etc. for a 48 hour work week). A very wealthy friend (I am talking millions upon millions) has actually said to me, “Well, this is the market rate. If they weren’t working for $15 a day, they would get nothing.”
People here don’t seem to understand my bleeding heart gringa mentality. I routinely give people more money than they ask for. And maybe they are right. Maybe I don’t understand how things work here. In fact, I definitely still don’t understand how things still work here.
What I do understand is that people deserve to get paid a wage that allows them to live in dignity, especially when doing such hard work. It’s not like my housekeeper is taking fancy vacations or buying designer purses with the money we pay her. She still barely makes enough to get by and feed and clothe her kids. They live day to day. I am humbled when I think of how hard she works and how she always goes the extra mile without being asked (washing the windows, organizing drawers). So let them call me a “foolish gringa”. I hope that I never lose my bleeding heart.