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Tips on Employing Domestic Helpers in Asia

By Jacqueline Reischel


Summary: Your feelings about hiring domestic help while living in Asia will range from guilt about having someone ironing your underwear to being deprived of the love and attention of your children. Many Southeast Asian countries show high figures of unemployment and you may not just feel privileged to have maids, but may even feel morally obligated to give work to these people.

Expat Life in Asia - Employing Domestic Help

One of the best and most envied bonuses of living in Asia is having domestic helpers. But while you enjoy being spoilt by them you will soon learn it is not only a bed of roses. Maids are always around -- even when you want privacy! You will be the center of their attention and they will get to know everything about you: from when and how you like your coffee to how often you quarrel with your partner!

As most of us are not used to this attention, we have to adjust our behavior and try to compromise even when we want to be ourselves at home. Your feelings will range from feeling guilty about having someone ironing your underwear to being deprived of the love and attention of your children. Many Southeast Asian countries show high figures of unemployment and you may not just feel privileged to have maids, but may even feel morally obligated to give work to these people. Enjoy it for the time being and you will be amazed how quickly you get used to domestic helpers.

During your relocation you will be very busy and may want to use the services of a maid agency to help you find and hire a maid. They will help you through the application process, select a suitable maid according to your requirements, ideally train the maid and help solve conflicts or misunderstandings as they employ people who speak the language of the maid.

How to choose a reliable maid agency

Look for established agencies with at least three years of business experience. The staff number should not be below 5 with the staff speaking the languages of the maids they hire. Offices need to be well set up and organized and inquiries need to be promptly dealt with in a friendly and efficient manner.

The agency should:

- Discuss and advise on your requirements before the selection process starts.

- Offer maids personally selected overseas.

- Provide on location (and not only overseas) training to the maids.

- Offer consulting to you after the maid is hired.

- Be interested in the welfare of the maid and provide counseling to her.

- Offer sufficient information about the maid (Bio data, video, computerized Internet selection).

- Professionally draw up a service agreement.

- Provide a guaranteed time of replacement of the maid in case you don't get along well with her.

Where to Find Household Helpers

If you want to hire a maid on your own, tell your friends and neighbors -- and you will soon be approached by many people from the concierge to the taxi driver. The office may help you with hiring a driver but the other helping hands are often your own responsibility.

We suggested contacting other mothers at the schools bus stop and joining international clubs. Another possibility is to check the blackboards of the local shops, the schools and supermarkets where expats often try to find a new work place for their maids when they leave. You may also read the school's newsletter or post an ad at the local kindergarten or expat website.

Once you have found one maid other helpers may be recruited from your first maid's circle of relatives and friends. Generally, it is a good idea to hire related or befriended maids as to avoid tensions between them. They will be able to solve problems within their familiar picking order more easily.


As most of us have not had domestic helpers before, we do not know what to expect from them and how to deal with them. Most of the new expatriates feel guilty having someone work for them instead of doing the work on their own. There is a simple rule to avoid this feeling: treat them as your employees and play your role as an employer. Domestic helpers expect you to be fair and understanding and are prepared to do the job you are paying them to do. They do not like you taking over their duties as they would loose face by this action and be regarded as not being able to do it by themselves. When there are clashes between help and expatriates, it is mostly out of misunderstandings and misconceptions about each others' cultures. You need to constantly work on this and should never expect too much.


Domestic helpers are part of a fundamental hierarchy system based on the service they provide. You need to understand their social picking order to treat them fairly and react appropriately on numerous occasions. Whenever you employ several helpers at once make sure they have something in common, like language, religion or culture to help them get along with each other. Also, clearly appoint specific duties to each helper.

CookPreparing table, preparing + serving meals, cleaning the dishes, shopping
DriverChauffeur, maintenance of cars, courier services
NannyChild care and supervision
MaidHome cleaning, laundry, ironings
GardenerGarden maintenance, porch and terrace cleaning, cleaning of water tank, pool service
GuardGuard the premises, gate control

Cultural and Religious Differences

Many problems with domestic helpers result from your misconceptions and lack of knowledge about their background. Social behavior and etiquette, hygene and food taboos are all regulated by their religion and culture and will often clash with your own rules and perceptions.

Muslim Help

Muslims are not allowed to consume pork, many do not even handle pots used for cooking non halal (impure) food (pork). They consider a dog to be "impure" and do not want to come into contact with it. During the fasting month "Ramadan" they are not allowed to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. Muslims need to be allowed to pray regularly (the Koran demands this 5 times a day). Their most important holiday is Hari Raya. They dress in their baju kurong which is a long-sleeved, high rounded neckline loose blouse of three-quarter length worn over an ankle-length sarong or skirt. Heads are covered by Muslim women in different ways. Those who follow a strict Muslim dress code cover the entire body with only face, hands and feet exposed.

Buddhist Help

Many maids from Sri Lanka and almost all Thais are Buddhist. Their most important religious festival is Vesak Day in May. There are no specific foods or other restrictions which could affect their work performance. Thais do not wear a traditional dress when working in the homes of foreigners.

Hindu Help

The traditional dress of the women is the sari - a long straight piece of fabric wrapped around the waist to form a skirt worn with a choli which is a plain short fitted blouse. They also wear loose trousers with a knee-length long/sleeved loose blouse. Hindus do not eat beef and often are vegetarian.

Language Abilities and Education

The abilities of the maids to speak English and converse with you differ substantially and depend upon their educational backgrounds. You may have to place a fairly good command of English high on your priority list as this is very important for understanding your instructions and interacting with your children. Some may have previously worked in Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines and may speak English well as a result.

Assessing Your Needs

It all boils down to the usual question: what are your requirements? You need to remember the taboos of religion and culture and draw up a wishing list. Here are some choices to come to a conclusion.

Singles who work full time:- Rent a serviced apartment or have a part-time maid

- Have your shirts/laundry picked up for cleaning and delivered

- Eat out and get a microwave

Partners both working full time:See above
Partners one working full time:-Get a part-time maid for cleaning

- Have laundry/shirts picked up and delivered

- Cook yourself, eat out, get a microwave

Family with baby:- Get a full-time, stay-in maid who cleans and cooks and babysits

- Take care of the baby yourself

Family with small children: Partner not workingGet at least one full-time stay-in maid and take care of the children by yourself
Family with 2+ children Partner working Get a full-time maid for cleaning and cooking and a nanny who takes care of the kids and irons the laundry

These arrangements are the ideal solution according to the experience of many expatriates, but depend on the money you want to spend. In some countries, you may only be able to hire one full-time live-in maid at a time and usually only if you are married.

If you have pets, especially a dog, you should not hire Muslim maids, gardeners, drivers or guards. If you need a cook you should remember that strict Muslims do not cook/touch pork (that includes the pots and pans etc.!) and many Hindus will not be familiar with cooking beef. Vegetarians do not know much about meat at all. When you interview a prospective maid ask them what they like to wear for work. Traditional dresses may restrict movements and cleaning procedures.

Interview and Test

Depending on what country you live in, your future helpers may not speak English at all. Some will be better at understanding your questions, but may be not able to answer in English. If you are looking for your maid via a maid agency, you have to rely on the mediator's translation. If you go searching by yourself or happen to be offered a maid by someone else, you need to hire a translator. Whenever you have a choice try to hire someone who speaks English. Otherwise we advise you to take up a course as soon as possible and learn the basics of your host country's national language if you do not want to survive on sign language for the next years.

Prepare your questions in advance after setting priorities.


- A cook is on top of your requirements: you should not interview a maid who has never cooked Western dishes before.

- You are pregnant or need a maid to take care of a newborn baby: it is best to look for a trained nurse.

- You mainly need a dog sitter: you cannot employ a Muslim!

- Drivers need to be asked for their driving license, cooks should be tested out in the kitchen and at the dinner table and there is nothing wrong with asking a maid to show you how she irons a shirt if you want to be on the safe side.

- You have to rely on your own intuition when it comes to hiring, but if it does not work out you can dismiss them.

About the Author

Jacqueline Reischel has set up her own company enterAsia Information Services Pte Ltd in Singapore and invented the worlds only online relocation step-by-step guide to Asia specialized for Singapore and Shanghai. She now manages her company from the UK - a truly virtual career in a suitcase.

AGS Worldwide Movers

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Comments about this Article

Aug 13, 2012 09:18

I plan to retire in 4 years in the PI. My wife is an educated Pinay. I believe she'll do the selection of maid and cook. What are the monthly costs for these house helpers. It includes room and board?

First Published: Nov 04, 2007

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