The basics of having househelpers.

The deal when we moved to the Philippines was that I would not have to wash a dish the whole time we are here. That has mostly panned out.

The idea of having a househelper was a big draw for me. When we got here, it didn’t go quite as smoothly as I expected. The women we hired at first were woefully inexperienced. We put off firing our first helpers much longer than we should have and endured a lot of inconvenience as a result. Also, while I loved the idea of not having to clean my own house, it also rubbed me the wrong way for a while to have someone else doing it on my behalf.

All that said, I highly recommend getting at least one helper. They really, truly make life so much easier.

Before we go any further, I’m sending you here to read a good, thorough break-down of the laws concerning hiring household helpers. Stop reading this, and go read that for the legal stuff. Then come back here for the mundane stuff about how to find someone.

Before deciding how much help you will need, you need to assess your needs. If you’d be able to do everything you expect your helper to do in about 8 hours of work a day, then one helper would be fine. But if it would take you longer, consider hiring a second helper. If your home only has room for one helper to live-in (most here have at least room for one), or you are really against the idea of having a live-in helper for some reason, then find someone who will commute to your home. Just know, though, that traffic, flooding, and illness are more likely to affect live-out helpers. Also, they may require additional pay to cover commuting costs.

Second, get your brain straight. Your helper is not a slave. Your helper is an employee. I say this both in the sense that you should not expect your helper to do an unreasonable amount of work, as well as in the sense that you should not feel guilty for having someone working in your home. You are giving her money for doing things you don’t want to do. That is an economic transaction. You are doing the same thing when you hire someone to file for you at the office, or to cook a meal for you at a restaurant. Yet, sometimes having someone working in our homes can be so personal that it’s guilt-inducing. Don’t feel bad for providing a living for someone.

Third, your helper is an employee. You may need to train her to do things how you want them done, but she should be able to go forth and do it on her own. If her work is not up to snuff; if she refuses to do the things you’ve hired her to do; or if she’s voicing her opinion on the running of your family, rather than on the management of the household; it is ok to fire here. In fact, you should fire her. Just as you wouldn’t keep a worker at your office if he was messing up projects regularly or impudent to clients, you should not keep household staff on hand who do not mesh well with your needs for whatever reason.

Be clear with your expectations right from the get-go. It is not unreasonable for her to expect an actual list of what you want done. “Keep the house clean” may not be specific enough. A list of chores organized by room with the number of times you want the task done (daily, every other day, twice a week, as needed) can make life a lot easier for everyone. Be present as much as possible for the first week, and monitor how she’s doing things. Step in and show her how you want things done, if you don’t like how she’s doing it. This can feel a little awkward and power-trippy, but it really will make things easier down the line.

Be clear with the “house rules” right away as well. Stress that stealing in any form is not tolerated. Make it clear that they are not to use the house phone for personal calls. It’s general practice that they not have house guests. If you have a driver, you may want to make sure they have a public area to hang out in so that they aren’t chilling in your helper’s bedroom to watch the TV. Other things to consider is when her day off will be, what hours you expect her to be present in the home, whether she will need to inform you if she is leaving to run an errand (some people care, others don’t). Make it clear what you will pay and when they will be paid.

I mentioned a TV in that last paragraph. If your helper is going to be living-in, you should at least have a radio for her to listen to, but most people also get them a TV with cable. At the bare minimum, you also should provide a bed, bedding (a couple of sets of sheets, a light blanket, and a pillow), a bathroom, a place to cook and the needed articles for cooking and eating, and somewhere to store their clothing. All of that stuff is usually viewed as your property. If they quit or are fired, it stays with the house unless you decide they can have it.

As far as how to actually find a helper, the best way would be to hire a helper from a foreign family who is leaving. If you are coming to the Philippines to replace someone, contact them before hand and see if their helper would be willing to continue on with you. Failing that, ask around at work to see if anyone else is leaving. These people would already have experience working for foreigners and may only need a bit of training to do the things that are specific to your family’s needs. You will notice ads placed by agencies to help you find a kasambahay, maid, or househelper. Be advised that these are little more than matching services. They don’t necessarily provide training for the people they are hiring out, run background checks, or verify experience. You may end up paying a fee to the agency to send you a househelp, only to find her completely inexperienced, but they are an option. A third way is to ask any other staff you currently have for a recommendation. If your house came with a gardener already tending to it, ask him if he knows anyone. Likewise, a driver may know of someone. Again, there is no guarantee that they will be experienced this way. Make it clear as you ask whether you are willing to train someone, or if you want someone who has been a househelp in the past. If you do not speak the language at all, make it clear that you expect their recommendation to have good English skills.

Whomever you are thinking about hiring, take the time to interview them. This will allow you to assess their experience and language skills yourself. If the recommendation is not coming from someone you know well and trust to vouch for their honesty and abilities, insist on an NBI clearance. (It’s a basic background check that many employers require, so it wouldn’t be an insult to ask for one.) If you decide to hire them, tell them it’s a trial period, and reassess how things are going after a few weeks to a month. Keep in mind that during that time, the chances that they will be perfect is low. There is always an adjustment period with a new helper, as she learns how you like things done in your home. If you find you have to tell her how to do the same things over and over, then she is probably not a good fit. But if she only needs to be shown a few times, that is reasonable.

I’ve seen many expats (ok… myself included) get really frustrated with their helpers. There is an initial time commitment involved to hiring a helper. That’s just how it goes. Expect it. Deal with it. Stay patient. Once you are over that hump, they save you a huge amount of time and work. If the initial issues persist more than a month, two at most, then do not feel bad about looking for someone else. Again, it’s a business arrangement.

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