17 October 2012

Foreign Domestic Worker - Part 1 of 3

It’s been a long time coming but nearly two years since moving to Singapore we finally came to the conclusion that we wanted a full-time housekeeper/casual nanny. Without family support to help out occasionally we found ourselves permanently child bound. There are no date-nights, no theatre, no late night adult birthday celebrations. Whilst that is not an issue at the core, as parents there are times we need space to mentally and emotionally regroup and to sometimes engage in activities related to our own age rather than our daughter’s age.

It is cultural in Singapore to engage housekeepers, usually from Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, India and Sri Lankan. Engaging foreign domestic workers (FDW, also referred to as "helper") who usually come from poorer countries, provide middle class hard working families to hire someone who can help with domestic chores and child caring.

This cultural habit is adopted by many expats who no longer have their family support nearby, often don’t have a car (an expensive exercise in Singapore) and generally have very young children. In this instance a helper can do the shopping without carting children around or take-on babysitting responsibilities to free the parents when needed.

I resisted having someone living permanently in my house, wondering if the helper can be trusted with my belongings, trusted with my child and just overall uncertainty of the unknown. I spent a lot of time listening to my neighbours who have helpers (good and bad experiences) and I continued resisting. However, with each passing month as I adapted to my new life my resolve crumbling and I started yearning for someone who could take over the domestic chores so I could spend the kind of time with my daughter that I wanted to.

My girl is currently home-schooled. We spend a lot of time with arts & crafts, swimming, playground, scooting, rollerblading, reading, museum exhibitions, art classes and whatever else comes our way. We spend a lot of time abroad and receive many visitors from abroad. Hubby is often left to fend for himself and manage the household whilst I am away with Trini.

I concluded that a helper whilst a luxury, in many ways is becoming a necessity. Whilst I am abroad, she can manage the home and feed my hubby. If I have visitors, I can focus on being a guide and hostess knowing that my helper will manage the domestic chores. If I need some time off for my writing, my helper can take Trini to the playground or swimming pool downstairs. If I want to paint half a day with Trini, since we derive a lot of pleasure out of this joint activity, I don’t need to worry about meal preparation and can just enjoy my time with Trini. Finally, if there is an adult activity such as, birthday celebration, theatre or other, I can rely on my helper to step up and care for my daughter.

With all the positive attributes of having a helper, I concluded that a loss of privacy is a small price to pay. My husband was extremely relieved in the end promptly telling me that he’s been waiting for months for me to come to the same decision.

The process of hiring a helper was quite easy. Through recommendations we chose an employee agency specialising in FDWs. Through their website we reviewed the helpers available considering their skills, background, religious inclination, family commitments and selected about four to interview. Following an email to the agency requesting to interview the helpers we organised a time and date. We prepared a set of questions pertinent to our needs and wants which we could use to measure who was most suitable for us.

On the day of the interview we spent some time completing paperwork, reviewed resumes for newly available employees and then conducted our interviews.

Our selection was based on several things, such as:

Age – not too young that she doesn’t have experience with children or managing a household but not too mature that she could no longer connect with our child due to generational gap.

Religion – we are agnostic but respect other’s religious inclinations. We were, however, more suited towards Christians since we understood it as Westerners, as opposed to Muslim who have different ways of observing their religion and could cause unintended misunderstandings.

Length of time – with each previous employer and years of experience as a helper. We were looking for someone experienced who could easily adapt in a new environment.

Initiative – a self-starter who knew her job and just got on with it without us needing to discuss schedules, task completions, meal preparations. Not keen on micro-managing, a person with initiative and drive was ideal.

Genuine interest in children – whilst we are our daughter's primary carers, on the odd occasion we would look toward our helper to babysit. It was important to have someone who liked and had worked with children before and had a calm and respectful demeanor towards our child.

Language skills
– speak, read and write in English was highly essential. We cook several recipes from books hence the reading requirement; speaking very good English was pertinent to our communication and writing was useful for texting messages when needed and writing shopping lists.

Of the several resumes we reviewed, we interviewed four candidates. We had an interesting range of highly experienced and well-spoken to experienced but lacking in language skills. We deduced fairly quickly that the limited language skills would create frustration and communication issues and the highly experienced person who has managed others before may not find our limited needs challenging enough. We were left two experienced candidates. One was introverted and quiet, whilst the other showed spunk, initiative and pro-activity. Either candidates would have been fine, however, we were concerned that the quiet one would just accept anything that was being requested even if it was not the most efficient or ideal way of doing it.

We opted for the pro-active and forward thinking candidate and so far she has lived up to our expectations. She has introduced us to delightful new dishes, she questions and suggests, she goes about her chores quietly and efficiently, she gives us privacy and basically works out her own schedule. We have never eaten so well or been so organised.

Our daughter, a shy child around strangers and not one to trust easily, is slowly warming up to the helper. They’ve made pancakes together and have small conversations. We are happy with their slowly flourishing relationship.

Making pancakes together.
In summary, so far it has been a great experience. For now, we’ll just see how we go. We hope she is happy in our environment, we hope the good things she is delivering so far will continue and we hope that our daughter will enjoy spending time with her when we are not around. Only time will tell, it is early days.

This link will take you to the process of hiring a helper: Hiring a Foreign Domestic Worker.