Domestic Help

Mixed Blessings One of the best and most envied bonuses of living in Singapore is having domestic helpers. But while you enjoy being spoilt by them you will soon learn it is not only a bed of roses. Servants are always around also when you don't want them! You will be the center of their attention and they will get to know everything of your life. 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 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 of 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 should not just feel privileged to have servants but may just feel morally obliged to give work to these people. Enjoy it for the time being and you will wonder how quickly you get used to servants.   As there are so many facets to this subject people have written books about it and many women's clubs in offer seminars to help you deal with your household helpers and some even help with hiring them. The fact is you are their employer and you have duties towards them as well. The courses are designed to prepare you for your new life with helpers in your home and cover cultural considerations and details of salary and contract.

Maid Agencies

As you will be loaded with problems to solve all at the same time you may like 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 will help to solve conflicts or misunderstandings as they employ people who speak the language of the maid.   How to Choose a Reliable Maid Agency Look out for established agencies with business experience of at least three years. 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 dealt with friendly and efficiently within a short time. 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. ●  Offer long office hours during weekdays, weekends and public holidays as to be available for the maids.
Maid Agency Fees There is no general rule to the structure of agencies' fees. Maids who come with a higher education or with more experience may be more expensive to hire than untrained first timers. Some nationalities and even regions come with a higher wage than others and even better knowledge of English can cost more.   Make sure you know all services which are offered in your contract including those which come with additional contractual costs. Packages vary and you need to read the small print as well.    

Where to Find Household Helpers

If you want to hire a maid by yourself and let your environment know about it 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 to contact other mothers at the school's bus stop and join 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.   For help with your interview see Maid's Interview Assistant and print out a couple of forms to help you keep track with your findings.    

Foreign Maids

As in some countries the demand for household help cannot be met by the locals you will need to hire a foreign maid from the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Indonesia. Foreign maids must be at least 16 years old and need to undergo a medical examination. The employer has to pay for their air fare, the medical examination and a bond to the Immigration Authorities if the maid absconds. Salaries depend on their experience and capability of English and their country of origin.   Foreign maids come from all social backgrounds ranging from those from poor regions and hardly any education to others who have college or university degrees but are unable to find a job. Many support whole families and pay for sisters' and brothers' education by sending their money home and keep little for themselves. A few even have to leave their own children behind.   According to the local regulations and rules you may not be permitted to share a maid or ask her to work for another household at any time. You are not allowed to use their services in an office or for any other employment than in your household. There are often high penalties involved on breach of the laws.   If you want to hire a foreign maid or take one over from another expatriate you need to follow the laws of immigration. Maids who run away from their previous employer are considered illegal and need to leave the country at once. You may well have a maid's agency helping you with transferring a maid. Others who want to help you need to be licensed to do this. Never take on an unregistered domestic helper from a foreign country. This spells trouble!  Foreign maids should be hired via specialized Maid Agencies.    

Live-In Maids

Unless labor is extremely cheap and good maids are abundant you will settle for a single maid who takes on several duties at a time. Formerly maids used to live-in which means they have their own room/quarters. Sometimes they share their accommodation with their husband who is the gardener or driver and even their children and employers may have difficulties to know whom they are actually supporting.   Nowadays they have much smaller quarters being a single sometimes tiny room with a bathroom cum toilet attached. When home searching you will be shocked to see some of those maid's rooms which may be converted store rooms/cabinets often with no window at all. Keep in mind that many come from hovels and very poor housing and do not expect too much when forced by a poor economy in their home country to work abroad. Nevertheless you should apply your own standards without pampering them too much.   Employing a live-in maid depends on your host country's conditions as e.g. in China servants are not allowed to stay with their employers, in Taiwan house prices and lack of maid rooms rule out the live-in option and in Singapore there are so many other choices (laundry, ironing, provisioners) you do not need a live-in maid unless you have small children.   A live-in needs to be investigated thoroughly for security reasons and you must train her to observe certain Safety and Security Rules. A major advantage of a live-in however is to have always somebody at home to watch the children, receive phone calls and deliveries, supervise workers scheduled to repairs and guard the home.    

Part-Time Maids

If you do not want to deal with the responsibility and the loss of privacy that comes with a full-time live-in maid you can hire a part-time maid for your housekeeping. They may also be a solution on a short term basis if your live-in maid is on leave or you need a pet or plant sitter when on holiday.   Part-time maids are best hired via a specialized agency which is recommended by another expatriate. This kind of help is getting more popular in Southeast Asia and consequently more companies are offering this service. Part timers are usually locals as foreign maids are often not allowed to take on more than one job.   If you hire maids via an agency they should be trained and employed and paid by the agency which is responsible for all legal and insurance matters. Part-time maids should follow a certain protocol of work laid down in a manual by the agency.   Check the contract if the agency provides you with the same person cleaning your house regularly or if different people will enter your house each time. This may be a security problem. Stay in when your part-timer works for you at least for the first few times to help her getting familiar with her new work environment and build trust.    


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 correctly 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, appoint specific duties to each helper.  
Cook Preparing table, preparing + serving meals, cleaning the dishes, shopping
Driver Chauffeur, maintenance of cars, courier services
Nanny Child care and supervision
Maid Home cleaning, laundry, ironing
Gardener Garden maintenance, porch and terrace cleaning, cleaning of water tank, pool service
Guard Guard the premises, gate control
  Unless expressively advised by the employer none of your helpers should interfere with the duties of another. When hiring household helpers in Asia it is very important to clearly state guidelines and have them followed.


As most of us never had domestic helpers before they do not know what to expect from them and how to deal with them. Most of the new expatriates feel guilty of having someone working for them instead of doing the work by themselves. 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 but equally are prepared to do the job you are paying them for. 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 servants and expatriates it is mostly out of misunderstandings and misconceptions about each others culture. You need to constantly work on this and should never expect too much.     What to expect from a cook If the cook has not been working with expatriates from Western countries before you should not expect the cook to know how to cook Western food at all. Find out what food they cook (curries, Chinese, Nonya, fried food etc.) and if they can follow a recipe book in English as - with the exception of the Filipinos - most of them cannot. Many ingredients will be unfamiliar to them which makes it very difficult to know how dishes should look and taste in the end. Cooks who have not be trained in Western cooking and baking need a lot of your time to learn the trade unless you want them to cook local dishes only. Untrained cooks will be also not familiar with your microwave and other kitchen utensils used in Western cooking. It is best to find a cook trained by another expatriate before, but this experience and training will come at a price. Do not expect cooks to know anything about healthy cooking at all!   What to expect from a driver If chosen by your company they will know what you require. Many drivers act as dispatch clerks and need to know not only how to cope with the local traffic and a posh car but also how to find the localities. For many this is a BIG problem as they have never been trained how to read a road map!   If you have ever wondered why cars in Asia are mainly automatic, many drivers do not know how to use a gear and clutch properly - you can observe this phenomenon when driving in a taxi. There are no special rules how to become a driver and sometimes even the license may be bought. Ask for references and have a test drive to a locality more unfamiliar to him than the schools and the office. You need to question references though as these may be invented.  
What to expect from a nanny There is no such thing as a trained nanny in Southeast Asia. The closest you can hire is a trained nurse from the Philippines who has specialized in children. You need to train your nanny or maid by yourself and make sure she understands your requirements and expectations before you hire her. If you intend to leave your children behind with the nanny/maid when you are traveling, the best solution is to move the children together with the maid to a friend's house. The 'kids and maids sharing' will keep your minds at peace as help is on hand in emergencies.   What to expect from a maid Ideally your maid to be is a good cook, a cleaning fanatic, a self trained tailor, an experienced nurse and she loves children and all animals on the planet! Indeed, if you listen to the topics prevalent in most conversations between female expatriates these fairies are the only acceptable choice when looking for a maid.   Realistically, you need to find out your most important requirements and then choose the maid who fits into them. Nobody can be perfect and if it comes to housework you should be the best to know this. Be prepared to offer them a fair amount of training and be patient with them. Further advice see Living with a Maid.   What to expect from a gardener Gardeners are mostly older people who have retired and still need to work to finance the education of their children or need to support their family in other ways. Again gardeners are not trained as a rule and so they mainly clean the garden, cut the grass, bushes and trees and sweep the patios and drains.   There is not much knowledge about plants and nature let alone the consequences of use of fertilizer and pesticides on the environment (including the human being!) and many will not be able to understand and read or write in English. Do not expect them to know the names of the plants in your garden and check with books what might be poisonous. See Emergency Network 3.   If you want to have anything landscaped e.g. a new flowerbed you should approach the local market garden for assistance.   What to expect from a guard The rule is: nothing than a means of deterrent which he may have in common with a good watch dog which will be able to bark on top! Do not freak out when you come home late at night and find your guard sleeping in front of your door. We once took a flash photograph from ours and he did not wake up. Guards mostly have two jobs: guard at night and another job dutifully carried out during the day.   The poor chaps simply try to earn some extra money when sleeping and they probably wouldn't if not in dire need! If you want to have more security you need to engage a security company with sometimes better results as their employees are checked regularly and replaced in case of leave and sickness.    

Cultural and Religious Differences

Many problems with domestic helpers result from your misconceptions and lack of knowledge about their background. Social behavior and etiquette, hygienic practices and food taboos are all regulated by their religion and culture and will often clash with your own rules and perceptions.   See Hygiene and Health for more information on how to train your helpers on food handling, hygiene and social etiquette.   Before you hire a domestic helper you need to know the following: Muslim Servants 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 Servants 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 food or other restrictions which could affect their work performance. Thais do not wear a traditional dress when working in the homes of foreigners.
Hindu Servants 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 be able to converse with you differ substantially and depend on their educational background. Some may have worked in Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines before. As this is very substantial for understanding your instructions and the children you have to place a fairly good command of English high on your priority list.   Filipinos have a good comprehension of English trained in a High School or college. Some have nursing certificates and have been on midwife courses or have even graduated as teachers. Filipinos are mostly Catholic Christians.   Indonesian maids are either usually Muslims speaking Bahasa Indonesia. Many have a poor knowledge of English and a background of 6 - 12 years in school and college. The Chinese Indonesians are Buddhists or Taoists and may speak a Chinese dialect but are often illiterate.   Indians come either from the South or the North of India and are mainly Buddhists or Hindus. Generally speaking, those from the North have a better command of English than those from the South.   Sri Lankans have often worked in Saudi Arabia before and speak English fairly good. They passed either O or A levels and are mostly Buddhists.   Thais are usually Buddhists. The younger generation has a fair command of English as they attended primary and secondary schools.

Assessing Your Needs

It all boils down to the usual question: what are your requirements? You need 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 baby-sits. Take care of the baby yourself
Family with small children: Partner not working Get 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. Bachelors cannot hire live-ins for obvious reasons.   If you will 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 servant ask them what they like to wear for work. Traditional dresses may restrict movements and cleaning procedures.

Interview and Test

Depending on the country your future helpers will not speak the English language at all. Some will have a better than nothing ability to understand 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 servant by someone else, you need to hire a translator. Whenever you have a choice try to hire someone speaking English. Otherwise we advise you to take up a course as soon as possible by yourself 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 of your needs. Examples: ●  A cook is on top of your requirements: you need 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. ●  Mainly you have to rely on your own intuition when it comes to hiring but if it does not work out you can dismiss them.   See the Maid's Interview Assistant    

Maid Agreement

While agencies generally make you and the maid sign an agreement we advise you to either review this agreement and add some important details or to use our Maid Agreement Modules to create your own. Ideally a lawyer checks the result as the modules are only guidelines and do not replace proper legal advice.   In addition you may use the Maid's Schedule Assistant according to your own needs. This schedule is particularly helpful at the beginning when all of you still struggle with culture shock.   Maids appreciate having clear rules, which they can look up when in doubt. You may like to make use of Maid's Food and Laundry Rules shaped by a number of experienced expatriates living in Asia for many years.   We strongly advise you to fill in the Maid's Safety & Security Rules with your details as soon as possible and display them in a prominent place. E.g. next to the telephone. Further advice see Hygiene and Health and Safety and Security Rules in the chapter Emergency Network Part 3.       Back Next