Employing Domestic Help: A Cautionary Tale

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.


There were a number of things I was looking forward to prior to our move to Johannesburg, but at the top of the list was probably this one: Employing a housekeeper. I mean, think about it: Clean and ironed shirts delivered directly to my wardrobe! Someone else mopping my child’s cornflakes off the floor before they all dry up and become as hard as concrete! No more fights discussions with my husband about the question whether golf shoes should or should not be taken off before walking into the kitchen!
Hiring domestic help could not have been any easier. We “took over” the domestic from another expat family that was about to leave the country, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Clara was an experienced maid who immediately took my new household into her capable hands. I was immensely grateful because I had more than enough on my plate, like organizing telephone and internet and all those other settling-in tasks that everyone knows take a bit longer in South Africa than elsewhere.
But unfortunately the careless days with Clara ended rather suddenly after only a couple of weeks, when early one morning, she asked if she could leave and visit her family in the Eastern Cape. Her mother was not well and her family feared for the worst. Of course I said yes.
I never saw her again. A few days later, Clara’s sister called to tell me that her brothers had decided that Clara must stay “at home” to look after her mother and the family’s children (Clara’s own daughter and her nieces and nephews, who had all been in Clara’s mother’s care). The sister mentioned that Clara wanted to come back to Joburg, “but our brothers wouldn’t hear anything about it.” It’s not hard to imagine what an upheaval this was in Clara’s life, but sadly this is an everyday occurrence in South Africa, where women are often the sole provider for their extended families, sometimes working far from home.
I assessed my situation: Husband – busy at work with a new job and some business travelling; children – one three-year-old, one baby; house – spacious; boxes – still plenty to unpack; admin – still plenty to be done, Eskom and Telkom not yet completely sorted out (one could say they never are!)… I don’t consider myself particularly spoilt or lazy, but I thought I could do with a bit of help. And in turn I would help somebody else, someone who needed a job.
It was clear: I needed a new maid. But how would I find one?
I called my new local friends. They didn’t know about anyone looking for work, but agreed in one thing: It was too risky to employ someone who advertised in the newspapers. I needed a maid with references. I spread the word, and soon my child’s class helper in the nursery school took me to the side and told me that her cousin Nompumelelo would love to work for me.
I called Nompumelelo and invited her for an interview. It was not easy. She was young, barely 20 years old, and very shy. I didn’t really know what to ask her. This is often an issue for expats who haven’t employed domestic help before. Having to run the whole conversation on my own didn’t make things easier. Nompumelelo was too timid to say more than a few words, so all I took away was that she wanted to be called Pumi and that she had never worked as a maid before. But how hard can it be, I thought? After 20 minutes I said ok and employed her. We signed a work contract and agreed that she would start working the next day.
In hindsight I cannot believe how naïve I was. The first few days with Pumi were a real eye-opener for me. The quiet, seemingly shy Pumi simply didn’t understand any English. Which was a problem, because she was utterly unable to communicate with my children, and she couldn’t understand any of my explanations and instructions. It was quite clear that Pumi had no idea about the kind of work she was supposed to do in our home. I had to constantly keep an eye on her, and therefore managed to save my Teflon-coated frying pan from getting a good hard scratch with a pan scratcher. I also twice reacted just in time to prevent her from using Omo (a laundry detergent) in the dishwasher, shuddering with visions of returning to a house with foam billowing out of its windows, and there were many other close calls of this nature. Quite humorous from the perspective of looking back on it now, but rather stressful at the time.

It would have been bearable in the name of giving a young girl a chance at her first job, but the worst part was that she wasn’t even trying. It was obvious that Pumi did not like this kind of work. Every day it got a bit later before she turned up for work. She was constantly grumpy. In the afternoon she would try to leave long before the agreed to five o’clock. 
And I wasn’t happy either. Pumi remained foreign to me and my children, a stranger in our home, ignoring most of my wishes, not interested in us at all. It took much more time to manage her than simply doing the work myself.
Thankfully, this situation didn’t last long, as the next Friday Pumi left in the middle of the afternoon, saying that she wouldn’t stay. I interpreted this to mean that she was leaving the job, but she actually came back the next week, late one morning. I gave her the salary for the days she had worked for me, and she left. At this point I fully expected to never see her again, but I did. About six weeks later, at CCMA, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, a “dispute resolution body established in terms of the Labour Relations Act”. Where she accused me of “unfair dismissal” – but that’s actually a whole other story.
In the meantime I was back to square one, trying to find a good maid. Only that this time I was a bit wiser because I had already made plenty of mistakes. I made a few notes to myself:
  • Never employ a maid who has no experience with housework. It’s hard to understand for us who grew up with most of the appliances and gadgets we use in our homes, but someone growing up in rural South Africa will easily never have seen a vacuum cleaner before. Having to train someone to run a four-bedroom household while learning the ropes of a new country yourself is simply not feasible.
  • Insist on references, and don’t rely on the recommendation of a relative. Make sure you talk to the previous employer to find out as much as you can about the style and work habits of the domestic worker.
  • Always make sure you employ a maid who speaks good English. Otherwise you may simply not be able to communicate with her, leading to frustration on both sides.
  • Always supplement your interview with a trial run. A 20-minute conversation, especially if you do all the talking, is not sufficient. Ask applicants to come and work for you for a day, or even several days, and pay them by the day, no strings attached. That way you get to know her before you sign a work contract.
  •  Make sure you actually like each other. This point is often overlooked by expats, but the truth is, the two of you will spend a lot of time with each other in the same space, and there is nothing worse than bumping into a grumpy maid all day.

I am quite happy to say that these tips served me well and that I was able to employ a wonderful domestic who has been with us for several years. She is capable and loving and well-integrated into our family. And we have plenty to laugh about when thinking back at those early days.

I just might have saved my beige suede leather shoes from a cruel fate in the washing machine had I had some better advice on the finer points of hiring domestic help.

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburgwith her husband and two children. She  is the author of the Expat-Living.info Guideto Johannesburg, a handy reference guide  ...  Continue Reading

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