Magazine article Newsweek International

It's So Hard to Get Good Help

Magazine article Newsweek International

It's So Hard to Get Good Help

Article excerpt

Byline: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop

One in every seven households has one. But not us. Three years ago, when we moved to Singapore from London, I told myself, "She'd spoil the kids rotten." With the impending arrival of our third child, though, I'm giving in. We're hiring a live-in maid.

So it was, one recent Sunday, that my husband and I found ourselves sitting in a small room at an employment agency, poring over the files of eight job applicants. We read details of their family background, how many children they had left behind in the Philippines or Indonesia, previous working experience, whether they were willing to cut their hair or cook pork.

Hiring someone to whom you're going to entrust your house and children is no easy task. But, hey, as the agency says, if I don't like her I can "exchange" her within six months, no questions asked. Given that most spoke only limited English, I pondered whether to give our candidates a reading test. Too humiliating, I concluded. Even so, one young woman blurted out to us, indignantly, that the couple in the next room had just asked her to read a children's book. She could!

The touchy question was always why these women would want to leave their current employer. For those who work for local Chinese families, the answer is often obvious. According to one survey, the average monthly pay of a maid in this prosperous city-state is $154. She typically works from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Three in 10 report they do not get breaks, and half do not get even one day off per month. In these conditions, working for a Western family can mean hitting the jackpot. Expats tend to pay more, give every Sunday off and, reportedly, treat them better. I say reportedly because after-dinner conversations invariably turn to what misdeeds one's maid has been up to, from talking on the cell phone too long to watching television when their employers are away. …

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