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The morality of being a cleaner June 18, 2007

Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Communication, Eh?, Food, Home and away.

Being an “ex-pat” in a developing country, I’ve learnt that certain things are expected of you regarding your lifestyle. For example, you are expected to have a cleaner; show some support for the local workforce. Ours is called Natalia. She comes three times a week, from 8-ish, until she has done all the cleaning, washing and ironing that us lazy housemates have left for her. She’s quiet, returns a smile and gets on with it. We are good to her, by not being total pigs, leaving her money for a taxi home (instead of the bus), and giving her advances if she’s a bit skint in the middle of the month.

I’ve not really had a cleaner before, and so found it quite hard to leave things for her to clean or do. I’m used to it now, and agree that it is nice to have my bed made, my clothes ironed and so on but still find it strange to have my stuff moved around, reordered and reshuffled by someone else. I wouldn’t mind so much if she was consistent with where she moved my things, but every day she finds a new storage option for my books, laptop, make-up and even rearranges my clothing shelves in a rather erratic order.

Being the last to leave in the morning, I let her in, and she’s often still there when I pop home for lunch (I do wonder what she does during those 5 hours – the place really isn’t that big). The first time I found her there during lunch, I cooked us both some lunch. For the next 2 weeks, she was there, patiently waiting for lunch, even if she’d clearly finished a while ago. This generosity soon ended: I come home for lunch to relax in peace, not to cook for our cleaner who doesn’t talk to me. She’s often gone by lunch now, but her silent pottering around when she is there does put me slightly on edge (as people who know me with agree, I’m not so good with quiet people or silence).

I also feel that she has started to take a few liberties. It started with certain food items would disappear, such as leftovers or whatever I may have left out for my lunch – not such a huge offence, but, as anyone who’s had their planned meal scoffed by another can sure sympathise, it becomes quite a nuisance (our fridge now looks like a museum with “Do not touch” labels attached to various prized items).

I then noticed that on more than one occasion, my emergency chocolate stash in my bedside table was depleting, normally on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday – this, I found, like any other female or chocolate fiend would, was a true violation of my privacy.

Last month, I noticed that she’d written “Natalia birthday” on my bedroom calendar. Now, I wasn’t sure how to take this. I was quite tickled by it, as it was such a bizarre thing to find, but also felt it was another violation of my privacy. She clearly wrote it in hope that we’d give her a bonus, and knowing how little she earns, and that she has 2 kids to look after and no husband, we gave her a wee birthday bonus. Ignoring it would have been quite rude, but then again, I also feel that she shouldn’t have written on my calendar in the first place. I could go on, but instead I’ll fast-forward…

And recently my nail clippers had vanished from my bedside table. I like to keep my nails clean and in shape, so this was duly noted. Not wanting to accuse her of theft, I waited 2 weeks and then asked if she’d seen them. She produced them from her jacket pocket. “Ah, yes, I forgot to bring them back”. But why did she take them in the first place? “So I can clean my nails and make them look nice.”

Ok, call me petty and anal, but I don’t feel that this is right. Taking things from the house isn’t in her job description, nor is it, or should it become, an occupational perk. And yeah, it’s only a little set of nail clippers, but I also feel there is a hygiene element involved here (I also don’t share towels, beauty products or make-up). With terrible stories about other cleaners nicking off with whatever they fancied, from food to money and clothing, I may be a bit paranoid, but I was advised that such behaviour needs to be brought to attention or it will escalate. So she’s now on probation: any more misdemeanours and we’re getting a new maid.

But now I feel bad. She now avoids all communication and eye contact with me in the mornings. The incidents were small, and a minor inconvenience in my life. I understand that to someone earning £35 a month from part-time cleaning, the contents of our ex-pat fridge and bedroom drawers may seem rather tempting, and only a little here and there may not be noticed. But there is a line of privacy, and I feel she overstepped the mark (I think it’s the chocolate that did it).

So tell me, am I being fair or incredibly pernickety?



1. razzbuffnik - June 18, 2007

“So tell me, am I being fair or incredibly pernickety?”

No I don’t think so. I don’t think that it’s a good thing to encourage something that I’m sure your cleaner knows is wrong. Sure, she doesn’t have much but if you “encourage” her by not saying anything, you will see more transgrssions as the bounderies get further tested.

I also think that it’s not a good thing to start or perpetuate the “cargo cult” that sometimes goes on in the relationship between people from the “first world” and the people who are from the “third world”. The term “cargo cult” comes from the early days of colonialism in New Guinea were the tribes people thought that all sorts of good things came to them through the white-man from the air and they stopped working and used to sit around the airstrips waiting for handouts. It’s not a good thing and it distorts relationships.

I think that the best thing to do is explain to her what is acceptable and what is not. Of course this should be explained in as polite way as possible. The pity this that this probably wasn’t done on day one.

Then again, who was to know?

2. Heather A. - June 18, 2007

It sounds to me like you’ve been more than fair. I would have been done with it a while ago. I’m sure that sounds easier than it is in reality, and I know you want to help her. But if it’s expected that you should have a maid whether you really want to or not, it should also be expected that she learn what is and is not acceptable to you. I’m with razzbuffnik on that. Get all the housemates to agree on your standards before talking to her to make sure there is no lack of clarity. Maybe even write up a simple contract. (Do the locals find joy in contracts as they do with certificates?) Designate the whole fridge, and maybe part of your room, “do not touch.” If there’s anything you do want to share, give it a “help yourself” or “reserved for Natalia.” If she thinks free food and borrowing of personal items (with or without permission) are only part of a fair compensation package, she can try to negotiate for that elsewhere. We’re talking about your home. Especially in a region where there are so many dangers, tensions, and just complications whenever you go out, your home should be a place you can feel at ease in and have some control over.

3. isabelleinnamibia - June 27, 2007

Thanks for your comments. We are currently working out a new working schedule for our cleaner, probably should’ve been done months ago. But when you move into a place with a cleaner, you kind of expect that they know the limits (don’t take stuff that isn’t theirs) and what is expected of them (clean properly). It’s amazing how stressful it can be to have a cleaner. I’m quite happy without one!

Razzbuffnik, it’s interesting to hear about the “cargo cult” relationship. I don’t think we have that with our maid (I hope!!), but there are so many elements of that here, with all the NGOs flooding in with hand-outs after Independence and the missionaries doing their thing. It is exhausting how many times people just expect you to give them things (“Give me one dollar”) and how protective I’ve become over my belongings, in fear that they will disappear if I don’t!

4. Cousin Nick - July 4, 2007

This is your cousin who has been in domestic service speaking.

OK – Butler in the most exclusive zip code in the US isn’t quite the same as a cleaner in Namibia. The pay is better, but the hours are worse! Also, I can’t recall my boss ever having made me lunch!

As domestic servant, I often think that if I could afford domestic staff, I probably wouldn’t employ them. I would deeply resent the loss of privacy. I well remember my adoptive mother frantically tidying up before her cleaning lady arrived!

I think that Razzbuffnik is right – you need to lay down firm ground rules as to what is and what is not acceptable. It’s always more difficult to start this at any time later than day 1, but the only alternative would be to fire Natalia and start afresh with somebody else.

Best of luck – and when you’re head of the UN Development whatever in New York, you know where to find a good Butler!

5. George - July 9, 2007

I just read your story but there is nothing positive u r talking about the cleaner,if ur backround doesn’t used to home cleaners,why do u need one to create problems for you,if you think you are being kind by offering her a job,you were not there before so she will still continue to survive and will raise her 2 kids anyway.
The best advise for you is to stay without a cleaner or call your younger sister to come clean for u or explain to her what is expected from her,cos it might be that she use to do that in her ex-job and her boss use to allow it.

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