The treatment of servants

Apologies in advance for any offense to delicate sensibilities that may be offered in this thread.

I don’t know how to interact appropriately with servants.

Normally, one’s youth and upbringing would supply this knowledge, I imagine. But my youth was spent in the US, in circumstances that were… extremely modest. In other words, we had no servants growing up. My only exposure to a maid was Hazel and Florence in The Jeffersons.

So, here I am, a relatively successful professional, and while I was single, it never occured to me to have a maid, for instance.

Then I married, and my bride was from the Dominican Republic, and from a family that was quite well-to-do there. It’s fair to characterize my in-laws as both wealthy and high-society.

When my wife and I began a home together, and she almost immediately got pregnant, I yielded on the maid front, to the extent of hiring a nice lady, Anna, once a week to come in and do housecleaing. When she’s there and I happen to be home instead of at work, I chat with her… I know her husband’s name and kids’ names, and I generally view her as a contractor, like a plumber or an electrician – hired to do a task, but a professional of sorts, if that makes sense. Day to day tasks, of course, we just did ourselves. And my wife never suggested that anything more was needed or necessary, and I don’t think it is either.

Now, here we are on Christmas vacation in the DR, staying at my in-laws’ lovely and spacious home. And this, finally, brings me to my question/debate.

There is a daily maid here. She apparently has Sunday off, and is not live-in, but she’s here in the morning, cooking and cleaning. No one here really talks to her, so far as I can see, but maybe that’s my language skills causing a false perception, I think. So I ask my wife. No, she says, it’s different here. For example, at home she doesn’t hide the valuables from Anna. Here we make sure the jewelry and passports are hidden before the maid cleans. We don’t chat with the maid; it’s not done.

Maybe, I suggest, if we chatted with the maid, we’d come to view her in such a light that hiding the passports was not necessary.

No, says Mrs. Bricker. You don’t understand the difference. Here, we pay the maid 500 pesos* a week. If she stole and sold my wife’s green card, she could earn 40,000 pesos or more. The gap between have and have-not here is huge, much more than in the US. And these maids come and go. Maids have stolen from them before. She reminds me, too, that we’ve worked with Anna for four years. Every year I’ve been back to the DR, there’s been a different set of maids. It’s not a long-and-faithful-service dealie.

Anyway, says Mrs. Bricker, you just have to understand it’s different here.

I’m prepared to accept that.

But on a fundamental level, it tweaks at me.

Am I crazy?

  • Rick
  • USD $1 = RD$28, so RD$500 ~ USD$18

Let me add one thing.

The event that prompted this post: the maid was here yesterday, for Christmas, helping to clean up the huge pile of discarded wrapping paper that once adorned the approximately two zillion presents Bricker Jr., the only grandchild, got… as well as everyone else’s, of course. But it just struck me as kind of weird that this woman left what I’m sure was a more modest Christmas celebration to come to this house and clean up the leavings of a huge Christmas gift extravaganza.

Of course, I have no idea what kind of arrangement, bonus, whatever, was involved for her to work Christmas.

RD$500 a week, even by Dominican domestic servant standards, is an appallingly low wage for someone who works six days a week. Are you sure this figure is up to date? I know someone who employs a maid/nanny for a five-day week and she pays at least three times that amount.

On the question of trust and interaction, my experience as an expat in the DR, married to a local is very different. All the households I am familiar with have servants, ranging from live-in to someone who comes in a couple of times a week to clean and iron (I have the latter). I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t got a friendly relationship with their maid. Some may be more reserved than others, but there is usually some gossip, banter and joking with the employee. More often than not they are treated like a family member.

My circle is more middle than upper class, that may have something to do with it.

Actually, that figure comes from 2000, when I asked the specific wage question. I have no idea what they pay today, and I should have made that clear.

But last year, I talked to a girl who worked as the full-time manager of a Mr. Video store, and she said she made about RD$5000 per month, which would be RD$1250 per week… am I wrong in assuming that a video store manager would make twice a maid’s salary?

I’ll ask what the current maid’s salary is, but my general question stands…

We had household help when we were with the State Department overseas. While we took an interest in their lives and treated them with respect, it behooves you to maintain an employer-employee relationship at the end of the day. Familiarity does breed contempt in many cases, and it needs to be clear where the boundaries are.

Miss Manners (Judith Martin) has a whole chapter on dealing with servants & maids in.

Basically, she says: Pay them like you would any professional, including reasonable and steady working hours, vacations, sick days, retirement etc.

Don’t socialize with them out of guilt, because you’re not doing them a favour. Regard them as people who want to get on with the job, so they can return home in time to be with their own family & friends, instead of chatting with you.

Be professionally polite.

Never accuse them of stealing something you will turn out to have mislaid.

But to answer the OP, I’m very uncomfortable with the huge gap between haves myself) and havenots in poorer countries. It’s the main reason I don’t enjoy travelling into Third-World countries. Such a gap in wealth dehumanizes both me and them, at least to each other. I becoem a walking wallet; they become a blur of obnixious suffering against which I have to harden my soul. I’d hate to have a maid in the DR like you describe.

Didn’t you ever see It’s a Wonderful Life? There’s some humorous business involving Anne (played by Lillian Randolph), the Baileys’ maid – e.g., her nosiness and eavesdropping and brother Harry making mock-love to her, and her implied solicitous interest in the family’s well-being. An employers’ ideal, she is, and there is no concern about respecting boundaries or keeping her in her place – probably because she’s black, therefore the idea of her even trying to cross the essential social gulf that separates her from the Baileys is, in 1946, completely inconceivable. (IOW, she’s a “licensed jester” like the characters in the old minstrel shows – who, because they were black (the characters, not the actors) and therefore not respectable, could get away with saying and doing things that would cause a storm of outrage if white characters tried it.)

But I don’t know where you can find a maid like that nowadays.

Well, turns out the maid is here five days a week, and earns RD$3000 per month, or RD$750 per week. And it happens that she asked if we needed help on Christmas, and walked away with an RD$1000 bonus and gifts for her and her family. So it’s not quite the situation I was envisioning.

Still, in response to your question: treat them as you would want to be treated in a similiar situation. Civilty and politeness should be the name of the day.

I see no “harm” in commenting on the weather, for instance, or some universal human foible (wash the car, it rains kind of stuff). That said, let her get on with her work.

But that would be no fun! :wink:

I believe it is quite acceptible to allow one’s servent the keys to their superhero cave.

I think if I were in a similar situation, I would still have to say Hi and Bye and whatever to the maid, because I’m the same person in the Dominican that I am in Calgary, even if, as your wife says, the situation there is different. My values tell me to be polite and friendly to all people, from the CEO to the janitor, and that doesn’t change when I go somewhere else.

Word for word my opinion exactly.

Mine was a working mother, as such we had a few people hired mostly to keep an eye on us (no daycare back then). That was their main job, but they also cooked and cleaned. We had someone else to do the laundry and ironing. In my experience they were never called “the service” or other such thing, in fact my mom was of the opinion that she was leaving her most precious “possesion” to these people, if she couldn’t trust them with her jewelry, how could she trust them with her kids?

I grew up seeing as family the three people that worked at my home during the 17 years I lived with my parents . The one that was there longer gets mother’s day presents every year from our family and I go to visit her when I am back in my hometown. My experience obviously differs greatly from that of your wife.

Last year I decided to hire somebody 7 hrs a day, 3 days a week (lunch and transportation on me) to help with the cleaning and laundry, mostly because we moved to a much bigger place, but also because we have another apartment that also needs cleaning regularly. I do take an interest in her as a person, and am happy to say that I have left her the keys to my homes in several ocassions and have nothing hidden in our place, I have never missed anything.

Also remember that in 2000 the exchange rate was much lower than now. At that time 1 dollar was 16 pesos. Salaries should have been readjusted to reflect this. And I believe 3000 pesos is very low salary. I don’t personally know anyone that pays so little.

Just to provide some context, the legal minimum wage in th DR is in the region of RD$3-4,000 which is just over US$100 per month. This applies to the private and state sector, so your video-shop assistant earning RD$5,000 is getting more than the minimum wage.

Seeing as domestic employees are part of the informal economy, it is up to the employer and employee to agree on an acceptable wage. I still think that your in-laws are paying below the informal going rate. We pay that much for someone who comes in just twice a week, and works from 9:00-4:00.

There may be hidden extras: some families pay for the maid’s health insurance, which is an invaluable contribution; others give her food items and most pass on used clothing and other items. In December it is customary to pay your employees a double salary, and most people apply this to their domestic employees together with a cash bonus or a seasonl food hamper as a contribution to the Christmas eve dinner.

Bricker, on your question of interaction, Is the employee treated as invisible by the family, or is she greeted and thanked, even if there is no chit-chat beyond that? It’s one thing if you don’t know the language, and even then it is possible to smile and make acknowledgements of the person’s presence, and thank them for the things that they do for you, as I’m sure you’ve been doing.

I would be concerned at the message the ‘invisible’ treatment (if this is indeed the case) sends to the younger members of the family about respect for fellow human beings. I know people in other countries who don’t think it’s necessary to thank shop assistants, taxi drivers, and other strangers who serve you, and that’s more or less the same thing. The message it transmits is that there are some people in the world who’re not worthy of the same treatment, as in basic manners, as others. This is confusing if you’re educating your children to be polite and courteous to the people around them.

One thing I do which is not the norm is to use the familiar form of address ‘tu’ instead of the formal ‘usted’ with my maid. Most Dominicans keep to ‘usted’ as an expression of respect but also distance. I wasn’t aware of this practice, and as she is more or less the same age as me I thought ‘tu’ was acceptable. Once you’ve started you can’t revert to ‘usted’, and she seems comfortable with it.

Another thought about hiding valuables: I wouldn’t leave large amounts of money lying around, but I don’t lock it away, either. It does happen that if we are out of the house we will leave some money in an envelope for a messenger to pick up, and we tell her what it is. Think about it this way: if the household is rich or even middle class, almost everything in sight is valuable by her standards. It is assumed that if the employee values their position - and receiving fair pay and respectful treatment by the family is part of this - they will not jeopardise it by stealing. I know that there are cases where this does not work, but we’ve been lucky so far (five years).

Actually, Bricker, it just occurred to me that the high turnover rate among maids with your wife’s family might not be an indicator of the maids, but maybe that your wife’s family is not the greatest to work for.

Hm, I probably should ask my parents how much my grandparents paid, but my grandparents ‘imported’ a young german girl when my father was born to be a nanny for he and his brothers, and she stayed on as a maid of all work[as the victorian term goes] until my grandmother finally died, she obviously had her social security stuff paid as she recieved a SS check after grandmother died, and the family had given her a summer cottage [well, the original property had my grandfathers cottage, a cottage for each son, and one for her…] sometime back in the late 50 s or early 60s which she rented out until my grandmother died. She spent winters living with my florida uncle, and summers in western NY at her cottage, where my father took care of the yard work and anything heavy she needed done. In all respects she was a servant, but treated like a ‘lesser’ family member, she may have cooked the meal, but she sat at the table with all of us for sunday dinner [or any other evening we visited them] and us grandchildren pretty much treated her like a maiden auntie.

My mother had 2 maids for years, and my brother and I had a nanny until I was 12 and he was 14, though the maids werent live in, they came 3 days a week [well, the maids were from the age of 5 to 11, before that we lived in military housing at different posts…] as my father had one of the family houses that was a 3 story queen anne victorian mansion, and it took a staff to keep clean.

I would personally love to have the money to have a maid come in once a week to dust and deal with floors, washing windows and such…if I get a job sometime before i die [sigh, 2 years trying in january=(] I would consider that just because I hate dusting and doing floors…

I acknowledge the possibility, although my experiences here have always been extremely positive.

And I know that in years past they have had very long-term people here - one who now lives in New York is considered extended family. The short-term phenomenon seems recent, comparatively.

But the truth is that since I don’t have the language, it’s hard to make informed judgements on the issue.