I overheard the most shameful conversation this week between two expats in Starbucks. The women were typical ‘new Dubai’ – all money and no class – glossed and preened and in five inch heels with their leather-tanned legs spilling out of their iddy biddy sundresses, relaxing with their lattes after a stressful morning of dropping the kids off at school. The conversation droned on in typical ‘how was your summer’ fashion and then they started to discuss their maids. How one had sat on her backside all summer (“The lazy bitch! I mean, the house was spotless but she said she didn’t clean the garden furniture because it was hot!”). How the other one was a miserable cow, and how dare she complain about her hours, she gets a good salary (“I pay her good money. She gets Dhs 1600 a month for God’s sake!” – this is the equivalent of a monthly salary of £250/$400). As the conversation progressed, it was revealed that this particular maid had asked to have a break during her day, which started at 7am with giving the kids their breakfast and ended when they were all in bed. It transpired she had dared to ask for longer than an hour’s rest in over twelve hours of what I can only imagine to be absolute hell looking after this woman and her family. The pair of them were bizarrely outraged by this request. I was, having listened to them in utter disbelief for 10 minutes, not only furious but ashamed to have even heard the exchange.
It’s not like I haven’t heard it all before. Maids are the done thing in Dubai. Labour is cheap, accommodation runs into the thousands of square feet and time is short when there’s so much time to be spent on swimming, sunbathing, manicures and shopping. Pretty much everyone that can, does. You might get the odd martyr who insists on doing their own housework but it’s a pretty safe bet to say once you’ve been there and had a maid, you are never going back.
Housemaids mainly come from two places: the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and the bottom line is that they are here to make money to make a better life for themselves and their families. They range in ability, education, and background, but the one thing they all have in common is that they are doing it for the money. Let me repeat: They are not scrubbing our toilets, doing our washing, tidying up toys, washing up, mopping, sweeping, walking the dog, babysitting or cleaning cars in the boiling heat for the love of it. THEY ARE DOING IT FOR THE MONEY.
This means that they will do pretty much anything to keep you happy and stay in your employ, but it doesn’t mean that if you are a total bitch they won’t hate you and disrespect you in private, leading to negative and disruptive behaviour that will eventually come back and bite you on the arse. Something an awful lot of people, the two in the coffee shop included, seem to forget when they hire these women to live in their homes and assume a role in their lives.
I love my maid. She does all the stuff I hate doing and she’s there to give me a break as and when I need one from my little angel. She is an extra pair of eyes and ears and is a reliable babysitter. And she is a lovely person too, softly spoken and smiling and always willing to lend a hand. But she is still doing it for the money. And although I trust her with my son, I know I will never leave him with her for extended periods of time, because part of the ‘keeping you happy’ rule extends to the children too. Keep them happy. Which as anyone who is a parent knows, generally involves letting them have their own way over anything and everything.
This in turn breeds a revolting subset of the community – the expat brat. I have come into contact with a fair few during my teaching career and a few more as a parent. You can always spot them. They are the ones that run to the maid when they are hurt, screaming ‘mummy!’, which would be embarrassing if their mummy was actually there to witness it. They are the ones that stare at you blankly when you say ‘tidy up time’ in the classroom, the ones who cry relentlessly at mother/toddler classes because their nanny is forcing them to do every activity first/best/most often so they can report back to the mummy that was getting her nails done that junior had a good time. They are the ones that cannot do up their shoes, walk up stairs, make their own beds, and, it has been known, not even been able to wipe their own backside. They apparently think it’s ok to hit and scream at the maid and can do it in front of their parents without being admonished. All this and more I have witnessed and it saddens me greatly, but with parental attitudes like the ones I heard at coffee, who can blame them?
And still these women come back for more. They take on our homes, our children, our gripes and our stresses. Many of them leave their own small children behind in their home countries to wait on ours. Others have no husband and no family, so they work in Dubai for as long as they can to make enough money to somehow secure their future. Some, like my maid, are working to pay for a house or land so that they can eventually leave Dubai to raise their own family. In my mind, these women are amazing – so driven and full of ambition to make a better life for themselves and their families that they will put up with almost anything.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t the bad eggs out there. Of course there are. There are thieves, and liars. There are maids that get pregnant and hide it and then ask you to help birth the baby (yes, my neighbour actually delivered her maid’s illegitimate and rather illegal baby in the kitchen). And there will always be people who want an easy life, or resent their lot, or – bottom line – simply aren’t very likeable. Our first maid was a prime example. When we fired her, it was mainly because we didn’t get on with her and she clearly wasn’t interested in working for us. It took us nearly two years to figure out that it was okay to ask her to leave on the basis that both she and us were obviously unhappy, because it didn’t seem like a legitimate reason. But given you are all living under one roof 24/7, it is actually one of the most legitimate reasons of all. We gave her a large severance package and a reference, because despite the fact that she wasn’t right for us, I truly believed she would be right for someone else. I’m not sure there is ever an excuse for treating someone as if they were sub-human, and if you do, what on earth do you expect in return? These women are our employees, and if we were all in an office they would be treated with professionalism, even if they were under-performing. Why should it be so different with someone who lives and works in your home?
Maids, like most people living and working in Dubai, are completely at the mercy of their employers. Your right to stay in the country depends on you holding down your job. It’s not ideal for anyone but it’s certainly a horrible situation to be in if you end up with a family who treats you like their own personal property. The fact that the conversation I heard was being held in public with no regards for how awful it sounded is an indication of how many maids must end up in a situation where they are miserable but held captive because they need the job and they need the money. Indeed, I once interviewed a maid who couldn’t take the job because her employers wouldn’t let her leave without suffering a six month ban from the country. For doing nothing more wrong than handing her notice in. She couldn’t afford the time unpaid so she stayed where she was, unhappy and overworked.
There are endless stories I could relate on this subject, and I am fully aware that whilst this post might seem a little irrelevant to an outsider, in Dubai the maid/madam relationship can be a contentious issue and is often discussed and debated. Maids and their ‘madams’ that don’t see eye to eye are like a couple going through a divorce – there are always two sides to the story and facts are often exaggerated or blown out of proportion – to whose advantage I’m not sure, because it doesn’t seem to make anyone any happier. I know why the maids put up with it but I’m not sure why the expats who they work for do. If they are so bad at their job or so disagreeable as to cause you to hate having them in the room, well then maybe it’s time for a change of staff, or a change of attitude. And lets all remember that we are extremely privileged to be able to have someone working for us at all. If we expect our maids to know exactly what we want from them and give themselves 110% to the job for a measly £250 a month, then I firmly believe we should all put a little effort into being professional and pleasant. Because, (and ladies in the coffee shop, I am talking to YOU) they might be doing it for the money, but manners cost you nothing.