Expat Life

How to Find the Right Helper for your Family Abroad

When moving to Asia, Middle East or Africa with your family, chances are you will be hiring household help. You may be expected to even, by other expats or the local community. Whether it is an amah, ayi, auntie, domestic helper or maid (different countries have different words), here are some tips that will help you find the right person for your family abroad.  

And yes, I totally understand. This may pose some issues for you, both practical and moral. Maybe because you may not have grown up in a family that had household help. Maybe because you are not sure if you need help, or want help. Maybe because you feel sorry for the women doing the job. This blog is not about that. 

Have you decided you want to find a domestic helper?

Here’s 5 tips to help you choose the person that will be a blessing to your family. It is based on my experience hiring household help in China and Brunei.

1. Identify your families’ needs

Ask yourself what help you need for your family. Abroad, things do not work in the same way as at home and can take more time, such as grocery shopping or running errands. You may not speak the local language and you probably do not have family near to help you.

If you have kids under 4 years old your needs will be different from a family with kids in high school. Try to identify what help you need and for what tasks.

  • What are school hours and locations for your kids?
  • What after school activities do they have?
  • Do you have pets that need care when you travel, are you close to school or far away?
  • Will your husband be travelling a lot for work or will he be home for dinner every night?
  • Does your helper need to have a driver’s license?
  • Do you want someone to mind the house when you are away all summer?

Make a list of tasks that you may need help with.

2. Identify your own needs

Also take into account your own needs. Just because you are a “trailing” spouse does not mean you have to put aside your own needs and be only of service to others (don’t even get me started on that topic).  No need to be a martyr if you can afford household help. It can be hard as you hear family and friends back home with an opinion who don’t understand your choice to hire help- or your own inner critic. But hey, they are not in your shoes. It is about building your own village abroad, a life you enjoy.

Are you planning to work, work from home or not work? Do you love cooking or hate it? Does mopping your floor relax you or it is something you procrastinate about as long as possible?

This is your chance to do more of what you enjoy and less of what you hate.  

It is ok to do things that give you joy and if a helper can support you in doing more of that, hire one to help out with tasks you enjoy less. On the other hand, don’t get people to talk you into hiring full time help if that is not what you need or want for your family- or yourself.

So, don’t forget to include things that would be great to outsource. You can spend the rest of your life doing annoying tasks when you are back home again 😉

3. Where to find a reliable domestic helper?

Word of mouth is the best way to find a reliable and trustworthy “maid”. Ask around for people who are leaving. Look on expat Facebook groups where ads are placed. If you don’t have many friends yet, ask your neighbours, your husband’s colleagues, put up a notice of what you are looking for. You can also go through an agency, though it helps if it is a trustworthy one- so again word of mouth. 

They’ll probably also find you- once word gets around, you may have ladies turning up at your doorstep and sending you messages.

4. What’s essential for you?

Over the years I have noticed that there are main categories of work that are important to families. The 3 C’s: Child Care, Cleaning and Cooking. Often, helpers are excellent at 2 out of 3, with one category being less their forte. For example, the amah is wonderful with kids and a good cook, but you find dust under the beds. Or the ayi is great at cleaning and can make decent local dishes, but you do not like the way she interacts with the kids.

Figure out which tasks are most important to you. Maybe you love cooking and just use her help with prepping or not at all. Maybe your kids are older and will not interact much with your helper. Maybe you have no driver’s license yet and need someone who can drive. Make sure that they can do at least the most important tasks.

5. What are the legal requirements for a helper?

Different countries have different requirements about help. Some require a minimum salary, some make a helper’s work permit dependent on your permit. Some require that you provide housing to your amah/ayi, or free food. Some have an age limit, some request health insurance.

For example, in Brunei your helper’s work permit is dependent on your work permit, unless you find one who is a permanent resident. The Philippines government requires a minimum salary of 600 Brunei dollar. There are restrictions in Brunei for amahs wanting to work when they are over 55 years old. But in China you could more or less hire or fire anyone at will if you wanted.

Make sure you find out about these rules.

6. Interviewing potential candidates

If all is well you have now found several potential candidates through word of mouth or an agency. Ideally, they will come with a CV and references, but that is not always the case. Here are some questions to ask them:

  • What tasks can they do that are relevant to you: cleaning, ironing, cooking, baby sitting/ child minding, driving, gardening?
  • What tasks don’t they do? Is that a deal breaker?
  • What languages do they speak? Do you understand their accent?
  • Have they worked for foreign families before?
  • Have they worked for dual career couples or are they used to having a stay at home mum/dad around?
  • What age were the children they have cared for before?
  • What type of activities did they do with the children?
  • What age are the children?
  • Do they have children themselves and where are they?
  • If you have pets, do they have any allergies or other reasons not to want to care for them?
  • Do they need to live with you or do you or they prefer live out?
  • Work hours, salary and holiday expectations (don’t forget to check legal requirements here)

Get the PDF version HERE

Be aware that there may be cultural differences at play during the interview. Perhaps ask others around you for their input about the local situation and then make your own assessment.

7. Trusting Your Gut

Ok, this one is really tough if you are new to a country and have never had household help. Because what do you base this trust on? Still, I invite you to start listening to your gut feeling. Make sure to interview at least 3 potential candidates.

Imagine yourself being around this person. How does that make you feel? Are they a quiet or a louder personality and how do you like that? How do they interact with you children? Do they show interest in your children? Do you see a connection between them? You can have them play together for a bit.

Even if you do not speak each other’s language, body language will tell you a lot – theirs and yours. Somehow, my husband and me always came to the same conclusion when we compared our gut feeling and the answers to questions.

8. Check references

Always check references of preferred candidates if they have them. Call or email if the family is overseas. Were they happy? Does the letter reflect the quality of their work adequately? What were the good and not so good points in their work? Have they had any issues with this person? Did they perform the tasks you want of them?

9. Don’t be naïve

In addition to checking references, do not be naïve. Do not believe all the horror stories other expats may tell you, but stay level headed. There are helpers who steal, who scream at the kids, who sleep with Sir behind your back. Those who quit without warning, or those possessed by ghosts (true story!).The vast majority do not, but it is wise to be aware and be vigilant.

10. Cut your losses if it doesn’t work

When you have found the “right” person, ideally have a trial period of 1-2 weeks, or even just 1-2 days. So you can see if the other is what you thought they would be.

I trust you will treat your helper with respect and humanity, that goes without saying. If at some point down the line you feel like it is not working, address it with your helper. Without screaming or scolding. Be clear about your expectations (and are you being realistic- nobody is perfect?). Make sure to make time to answer her questions and give clear instructions. See if things improve after a few weeks or a month. If not, it may be time to find a new helper.

Here’s a pdf of Finding the right helper for your family abroad to use during your interview process.

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