Mary Poppins of Menteng — how we found Jakarta domestic staff

About on a year ago our honest, hardworking, well-liked, well paid maid, Ibu Eny (not her real name)– resigned for the second time, for personal reasons. Reluctantly, we decided we would have to replace her, permanently. She is a great cook and really good with people. We are willing to provide a candid recommendation on her behalf.

Part of the fascinating series of events that followed has already been published as Merapi Blows, Expat Maid Goes.  Here is the rest of the story (first installment).

Serviced Rooms Jakarta

Instant Expat Housing

When Ibu Eny walked . . . the first few days were tough. It is a bit like a death in the family. Ibu was gone and we were on our own. But within a week or so, there was a refreshing sense of independence.  We cleared out a fair number of cobwebs including some organizational ones that had crept into Ibu Eny’s ways of doing things. We were in charge and on our own.

But hauling laundry upstairs and down and scrubbing floors is taxing. During weeks 2 and 3, my wife and I felt we had a fair grasp — a sufficient handle — on what was required to run the place, the whole ball of wax :

  • Is the laundry done and the house clean?
  • When will the gas and water run out?
  • Are there already enough repairs and materials to call the fix-it man?
  • Which household appliance has been voted most likely-to-blow-up-next?
  • How the hell do you water the potted plants at the top of the garden wall?
  • Are we holding our own in border skirmishes with the neighbors?
  • Who’s at the door and why?

The property was in great shape, but we were falling apart. A bit of housework can be good exercise and great therapy. But  it high time for a governess. We knew exactly the job required and what much we were willing to pay. We were flexible on the number of personnel it would take, as well as gender, age, martial status, ethnicity and languages spoken. Long time, short time or flex time. Live-in or live-out. — we felt that almost anyone who was, in fact, living would be perfectly able ably assist us as domestic staff.

As it turns out, recruiting domestic staff is real work. Will you ask the boss if you an interview maids in the board room? Will you conduct interviews on Sundays, in your grubbies, after you hang out the wash and before tidying the garden? Can you find an agent? Would it help if you bribed someone or did something illegal? Just how to sort domestic staff in Jakarta. If you could hire just one competent person, then that person could help train others, correct? So you have to ask, how long can I survive doing my job plus the household manager’s job. A day? A week?  A month?

Of course, as in Mary Poppins story, domestic helpers in Jakarta tend to blow out just after they blow in. So don’t stop hiring until you’ve got at least two reliable staffers. That’s our advice, anyway. In theory the two people shouldn’t be related, but in practice, they often are.

It’s particularly tricky to be in the position of having had no household staff for some time. This may suggest that you’re having trouble recruiting or retaining people. To begin an interview by telling the interviewee that you’d “like to add people to your staff so that each staffer has his/her own role”  is much nicer than trying to explain why no one wants to work for you.  (Likely as not, in the interview you’ll be able to pass over most of information about just how cheap you are and clever at the ironing board,  as the motorcycle taxi guys on the corner will be able to fill in your interviewees with those important details : -)

So,  Ibu A — a widow in her late fourties, was recommended by father-in-law. She was in good health. She had several young children back in the kampung (countryside). She was easygoing and able to cook. The eruption of Mt. Merapi –an active volano near Borobudur — caused substantial damage in her hometown and triggered her departure.  Basically, it sucked for everybody, including my father-in-law. She was pushy about getting her paycheck before she left. We were bummed.

Ibu B — the classic nose (referred by a co-worker member, fired within one 1 week, too many questions)

We felt we could trust Ibu B or at least hold her accountable . So there was some built in “safety.”  She was a mature woman with OK Dutch but not much English. She was a potential household manage anyway.

We interviewed her at her house. That was probably our first mistake. I suppose we looked desperate. We felt sorry for her because we saw that her son was ill. Not relevant. After all, we had only cash to offer, not medical services. We felt sorry for her because she felt sorry for herself. Such emotions would seem likely to interfere with the potential success of the employment relationship. And I think they did.

In the end it was the way she scrutinized us. Was she going to iron the clothes or write an ethnography? We trusted her not to steal anything, but we still lost our sense of privacy.

Miss  C – no show (in-laws’ neighbor, never showed up for work)

Candidate was in her early thirties, unmarried and had domestic work experience. She was interested in having her little sister work alongside her — might have worked. She was “safe,” because “we knew where she lived.”

We agreed to candidate’s terms for hours, work schedule and salary. We proposed a creative ojek-share transportation option since candidate lived near to in-laws (candidate was essentially my wife’s neighbor). Things perhaps fell apart because candidate either didn’t ask for a high enough salary (and realized it too late) or felt that working as a maid for a neighbor might somehow cause her to lose face somewhere along the line.

By this time we began to settle into the recruitment process. We realized that no matter who promised what, we’d have to keep interviewing. We increased our pool of candidates using all known networking options.

Woman D – stealth labor agent (brief interview only)

A woman who lives in our neighborhood showed up at the gate and we interviewed her. This was essentially a security breach. She pulled it off because she had the name of a neighbor who was helping us look for staff. Which isn’t the same thing as a referral. In fact, the neighbor friend later said, “Good think you didn’t hire her. I didn’t send her. She just overheard me talking to someone.”

One of the problems with people who hit you up directly for work (as opposed to being formally referred to by a third party) is that they are often working as agents. Not professionally, but in the sense that they have no intention of working for you. They just want to know what you pay. If it’s enough, they they’ll see who they can bring in from the countryside to do the work.

Referrals E, F & Gfrom Nanny Tini of Jakarta Household Staff (Tini worked out great)

Jakarta Household Staff is neither a maid service nor labor agency. Ms Tini has lived overseas and speaks English. She works as a nanny and helps other nannies and domestic staff find work with people who will treat them fairly.

I connected with Tini not long after our original maid out. Tini patiently and helpfully responded to many text messages from me such as help! We need a maid / please ignore, we already have one / so sorry! we still need a maid / i’m sorry, your last maid says she can’t work for us. While matching needs of potential employers and domestic staff is officially part of the services she offers, she is able to lend a hand in cases where she knows the candidates well.

The referrals from Tini were diverse in terms of age, English ability and personality. One referral spent a few days working for us. We paid her for those days. And then Tini helped us begin the search again. Great service, would recommend! However, we didn’t end up finding anyone in this stretch of the alphabet, almost certainly because of distance and transportation issues.

We insisted that all of Tini’s candidates come for interviews at our location. We reimbursed travel costs. Given traffic, it’s pretty obviously impossible (for employer or employee) to make employment decisions in Jakarta without info about  time, distance and travel costs. So our advice is, let them come to you and don’t pay much attention to them until they have arrived.

One referral had bank teller experience. She was great, but I don’t think we measured up. Another candidate was already working, a few days a week, for someone living in an apartment in this part of town. We were open to the possibility of sharing. However, it doesn’t seem ideal. One candidate cooked us an edible meal. But did really have the cooking experience that she claimed? Why was she so nervous in the kitchen. More of a credibility than a cooking issue.  It’s easier to teach domestic staff to cook than to communicate “truthfully” — as a bule would say.

The referrals from Jakarta Household Staff shared some things in common:

  • most live in far South Jakarta (Cilandak, etc), we’re near the CBD
  • most have substantial experience working for expat households
  • most have letters of referral (quality varies, some are merely templates with signatures)
  • many are (understandably) waiting for employment with foreigners as good or better than what they used to have

We recommend Tini for effectively helping you connect with the people pictured on her website.  If you end up up employing one of these people, obviously you should pay for that (“donation via bank transfer”). But it would also be fair to pay her for her time if she personally assists you with recruitment, sits in on an interview, etc.

Lady H — the Boss (friend of a friend, worked for a couple weeks, really helped us out, had to let her go)

Lady H was single, mid thirties, religious and worked part time at a museum, doing who knows what. She was more than capable of running our show as we soon found out. And she wanted to work on a live-in basis, which is rather convenient and the way it originally worked with our original maid, Ibu Eny. We weren’t convinced that Lady G could cook; but she was obviously serious, mature, responsible, tidy and very attuned to detail.

And it was the details that sunk us. All of them. You don’t just choose anyone as a flatmate. So how can you forget that when you hire a live-in maid? There were any language issues, per se.  But I think wife and I led the other Sharehousers in failing to successfully connect with Ibu G before and after she moved in. (In a funny episode, she actually moved in twice.  The first time into a dark, hot storage room which we warned was not suitable. And the second time into the official servants quarters, designed by the architect, which is actually a pleasant part of the Sharehouse.)

We said, OK you can keep your museum work on Tuesday and Wednesday. But that flexibility got us nowhere. She was consistently finishing her work “fast” and asking to take off early on other days of the week. She often provided cogent reasons for what she did, but my wife distinctly felt like she was being ordered around.

It isn’t pleasant firing people. Especially in a job market with presumed high un/underemployment. It’s also unpleasant living with someone who you don’t get along with. So here’s what we would recommend. All employment agreement have two conditions (and this is standard anyway in Indonesia):

1) one-, two-, or three- month trial period (masa percobaan)

2) if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work (apa cocok atau tidak — whether or not there is a fit)

Miss I– Mary Poppins of Menteng (and her cousin)

Interfering with third-party contractual relations is almost certainly illegal in Indonesia. So please don’t try to steal our maids. It’s already happened once. Miss I is in her early 20’s and recently married. She lives nearby. It’s hard to say why things have worked out different this time but in the next post I’ll do my best. Clearly agreeing to a higher salary does not guarantee more effective pembantu assistance. We’ve noticed that. In fact, if you pay too much — it seems — your domestic staff may take their winnings and retire to the countryside. It’s tongue-in-cheek (and generally a rude thing to say), but there may be a kernel of truth to explore.

As is often the case, a third party has been involved — Miss I’s mother-in-law, Ibu J. When it became clear that Miss I was doing great work, we contacted Ibu J and told her that we’d like to expand our staff so that everyone had their own role. So Miss I’s cousin has returned to Jakarta. She once worked in a shoe factory not far from the Sharehouse.

Perhaps we can make both of them employees of the month and ask for their comments. We’ll heavily redact everything they say to make ourselves look good and then post it verbatim.

Nov. 2012 update: The winds changed and — true story — Miss I is now keeping her own house now, not ours, while Miss J has been married or divorced (can’t remember) and reapplied! We’re going to take her back.

In the meantime, Ibu K (first mention) was away for two months in a development falling somewhere along the continuum between leave and left but is now back. And what a very happy “ending” this is.  She is an excellent cook but also enjoys hand-on physical work. I chided her once about filling a hole on the sidewalk in front of the house with cement because it would hide the underlying structural problem. Turns out she took care of that one too — with rebar! She has 7 kids and I don’t really know where. Her recent 60 day leave/left was coincided with one of them giving birth.

The interesting thing is that we seem to have experienced what would appear to be high turnover as only moderate turnover, partly because my wife has now recruits through normal grass-roots channels and seems to do a fair job. The morals of the story are 1) you need at least two housekeepers in case one leaves 2)  talent in the domestic services sector — as elsewhere — is simply more mobile now. And flex-time, balance, job-sharing — whatever it may be — are just as relevant.


Instant Expat Housing

3 responses »

  1. Hi, i read your thread thru livinginindonesiaforum, and its interesting to read ur whole story.

    I provide outsourcing services for maid live out. the maids will be working for me. i will survey ur house to assess wht activities to be done, how long it will take on every visit and the frequency of visit in a week. if we agree on the fees then i will send the maids.
    2 maids per visit (maid A and B), to minimize unwanted things to happen. if maid A cannot come, maid C and B will come. we hv backup maids, so no visit will be skipped.
    our concept is like Blue Bird,we value honesty, maintain services and our standards high. we give basic training to them before thy start and training to “brainwash” them will be given every 3 months. if they dont achieve the expectation or violate the values or get complain from clients, we will release them.

    email me if u’re interested.
    regards,
    Teresa

  2. Thanx for comments guys. This post continues to get hits. But I know from experience it’s not what people are looking for: they simply want a maid, now.

    My update would be that I’m learning how maids in Jakarta grow into the role. Without the old servant-culture infrastructure in place anymore, essentially what you’re looking for is a live-in professional. IE, unless you really are running an old school household, you don’t want to use nag, shame, threaten or whatever the traditional ways of maid management were. You want to pay fair wages to have the house cleaned and not get robbed blind. But what you’re really asking for is a trustworthy, self-managing, live-in professional.

    The good news is that it’s affordable. But bad news is that the concept isn’t really out there yet. So you’ve got to “socialize” as the Indonesians would say. Which refers to in person outreach, training, etc. For example, if you know a family who’s got their maid situation sorted, then maybe you *informally* create some type of connection with them (but not too much, it will be a pain) to kind of promote your version of how it’s supposed to work.

    Also, there’s some evidence here at the Sharehouse that if you can weather the first 3 or 4 months, the person you employ *may catch on * to what a great job it is. It is? Well yes, I mean — hell yes — it can be a great job. Enormous independence, tons of responsibility, an interesting cross-cultural vibe in the case of the Sharehouse, fair wages, fun perks, etc. Don’t sweat the disappearance of $10 or $20 bucks. Focus instead on the opportunity to *tip* your new employee that same amount (which isn’t easy, because you don’t want to create expectations or obligations — and that’s what a tip is, a gratuity). In other words, try to win your maid over. If she comes to trust you and your family, I don’t think she’s going to take $10 anymore, unless it’s some type of life and death thing, and then she’d prob. just ask you.

    I really do sense a point, however, when the mutual trust has been established. And then you’re golden. You can take your maid overseas, you can do be flexible in different ways, you can increase her responsibilities, you can apologize, double her work load and pay overtime when relatives are in town — pretty much whatever you want. Some maids don’t at first realize they’ve become professionals. But once they do, and assuming your organization is worth belonging to and you pay market, why would they want to leave?

    But it’s impossible to explain that *or* guarantee it. But if you’re lucky (and fair, patient, self-disciplined etc) the woman you’ve employed may well figure it out.

    Question is, for how long. What I’m seeing is that incidents of womanhood — relationships with men, pregnancy, and duties to children and grandchildren — are the biggest hurdle to this in-source professional gig you’re trying to set up. So that’s where the most flexibility is needed. Like our Sharehouse maid who has taken a month of leave to assist a child who is to give birth. And “K” — AKA Mary Poppins — before her who worked exactly a year before taking maternity leave and then leaving the workforce indefinitely (not returning to us anyway). And “J” — K’s cousin who’s guy situation is so complex that like Ibu Enny (with whom the tale begins) we couldn’t tell if she was free to work or if she even knew that herself.

    But in theory, the money your maid is making is going to *help* her deal with jealous guys, travel expenses to hook up with old flames, substitute babysit help which she may have to coerce out of a sister or child.

    But ultimately a point will come where there’s just no way, it seems, your maid can justify *not* taking an extended leave of absence. But since domestic staffing belongs to the informal sector, well outside the realm of true professional work, there aren’t really any mechanisms for arranging the leave (I’m afraid it’s quite often a sabbatical). Certain none that are visible to the maid herself. IE, she’s not thinking about this in terms of a career and neither are any of her stakeholders. So if you’ve got a long-term plan, you should at least try to formalize it and explain how it works. A once-a-year bonus system is not only imperative, but also industry standard. So I think it’s totally reasonable to “insist” that a maid works for 12 months (ie., the same as your own employer might tell you “we *really* do expect this to be a 12-month role so tell us now if this doesn’t square with your own expectations” — not in the sense of forced labor, obviously. And then the bonus to back up what you’re saying. And then a substitute maid, even if you think you don’t need two maids. So you’re not overly dependent on anyway.

    Because sooner or later, it seems. Your maid is going to walk. You may not even know why because it might be such a weird situation on her side that she doesn’t even really know how to explain it. If she weren’t some type of unique think-different individual in the first place, then why the freak would she be interested in not only doing your laundry but living with you, too.

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