Guilt versus greed - how much do I pay this woman?
March 30, 2006 7:13 AM   Subscribe

What percentage of my take-home pay should go to someone who does my laundry and cleans my house twice a week? All sorts of complexity and intrigue inside.

I'm an American living and working in Indonesia, and I rent a house that's a little too large for me but which was all that was available when I was looking around. I think my landlord's daughter, the only one in the family who speaks English, is trying to screw me on the cost of her mom's housekeeping services.

Now, I never would have had a housekeeper, but she offered her services at the time of the lease-signing while her whole family was sitting there, and from the second I started looking at moving into this community, local women approached me with *laminated* references from previous expat tenants and children in tow. It was a very stressful and competitive situation and I made the decision to go with the landlord's wife because it meant that I could save face in the community and claim my hands were tied, which has mostly worked - a bunch of Westerners have moved in in the last few months and there's been a lot of discontent about all the locals, especially the women, sharing whatever new wealth becomes available.

The problem is that I'm not rich by any means, and while I get paid a comparatively good local wage, the amount she's asking is, I think, rather large (about 10% of my take-home pay every month). I'd like to pay her 60 or 70% of what she's asking - which I know from asking my colleagues is the fair, going rate for someone who does what she does as often as she does - but I don't really even know if she's the one who's asking, or if her daughter is the one who's orchestrating the whole thing. I do know she's not the primary wage-earner for her household.

A foul-up here could mean that my requests for, say, window screens, or perhaps some assistance fixing my roof in the rainy season coming up this fall could be ignored or deprioritized. This isn't some gated community with armed guards and Land Rovers and all the trappings of expathood - it's a house in the middle of a kampung, which is basically a village or neighborhood area that's very, very cohesive.

It's a very complex situation power-wise, as I'm probably more advantaged monetarily, but the community's linked by a common language and years, maybe generations of living together and knowing each other, and will almost certainly try to defend this poor woman caught between what they'd see as my violent and unkind cheapness and their relative poverty.

My Indonesian is abysmally poor, though I do try, but my housekeeper's English is basically non-existent, so "just talking to her" is difficult (and, often, side-splittingly hilarious when one of us realizes we have no idea what the other is saying).

In short, I'm having trouble thinking of ways to say I'd like to pay less without devaluing her as a person. I'm also reluctant to criticize her work as a reason for paying less, as there haven't been any problems with it.

Could I just leave a lower amount in an envelope labeled with the Indonesian for "Mrs. Landlord, thanks so much for your work this month!" and they'd assume it was settled? Other ideas? Payday is probably in the second week of April.
posted by mdonley to Work & Money (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Could I just leave a lower amount in an envelope labeled with the Indonesian for "Mrs. Landlord, thanks so much for your work this month!" and they'd assume it was settled?

I don't know how to answer the rest of your question, but no you can't just pay somebody less than you agreed to pay them and assume the matter is settled.
posted by empath at 7:28 AM on March 30, 2006

you most certainly cannot just leave less - wtf?

i appreciate your problem - i too live in a country where domestic labour is common, and i earn a wage where it is expected that i would do this. i have always refused a housekeeper, but when i've employed people for other jobs in the past i have always tried to find the range of going rates and paid towards the top end.

i don't think percentage of your wage comes into it. what is important is the standards of the people you are living amongst - if you cannot find a typical range, look at the minimum wage required by law and pay something above that.

it's hard when you don't speak the language - you need to find someone who does to act as an intermediary. since these people have references there must be an expat community you can turn to. someone there will be able to both give you advice and translate. but you must communicate your intentions - explain that you didn't understand what the local standards were and that you want to pay less or get someone else. those are the facts - what's so insulting about that? to simply leave an amount less than what you agreed is obviously wrong.

if you want to refuse a housekeeper completely, but still want to contribute to the community, you can try alternative means. we have a "fund" that we use to help people we know who are in financial trouble, for example. but to do that you must learn the language.

otherwise, simply be honest. as a rule of thumb: your delicate sensibilities about not discussing mooney are a luxury that only you appreciate; "the poor" know damn well what a market is.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:32 AM on March 30, 2006

No, if you want to pay her less then you need to work it out with her so that you both understand the terms of your arrangement.

It sucks that you don't share a mutual language with your housekeeper, but you need to work past that. Since you don't speak Indonesian you need to get someone to translate.
posted by bshort at 7:46 AM on March 30, 2006

From a US standpoint, hiring a housekeeper is a luxury. In total I would not spend more than 10% of my salary on all luxuries, including things like eating out, movies, books, music cds, clothes, etc. Do a rough calculation of what your luxury expenses for a typical month are, excluding housekeeping, and then figure out the difference so that it adds up to 10% of your salary. Offer her that. From your calculations, if that is not satisfactory to her then you have a problem. Obviously if you fire her for charging too much, I wouldn't be surprised if your rent increased. To be on the safe side I would start searching for another place before any confrontation.
posted by JJ86 at 7:52 AM on March 30, 2006

I'd pay her less and have her clean your house once a week, or once every other week.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:58 AM on March 30, 2006

I think it depends on your other expenses.

Relating it to my own situation- Right now, I could not afford to spend 10% of my take-home pay on a housekeeper, but if, say, I didn't have a car, I would be able to swing it just fine because I wouldn't have to pay insurance.

And in terms of paying for services, I always prefer to err on the side of generosity. If you can't pay her what she's asking, don't waste her time- let her be free to find a better paying job working for someone else.
posted by elisabeth r at 8:00 AM on March 30, 2006

and as to why? 'I am saving more money to send home to my family, and I don't need a cleaning service more often than once a week because you do a very good job.'
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:00 AM on March 30, 2006

It sounds to me like you are getting royally screwed and you know it. Sounds terrible to say, but a lot of people in Indonesia are itching to take advantage of green foriegners.

How much are you actually paying her?
posted by dydecker at 8:05 AM on March 30, 2006

Thanks for the criticism - the whole situation is tricky and I've never done anything like this before, so it is a great help. Luckily I've got some lead time on this so hopefully things will work out. Some responses:

JJ86: The rent's paid in advance for a year. (That's just how it's done here.) The immigration people aren't keen on me moving around.

empath: No amount was agreed in advance. No number was discussed at the time of the lease-signing, and now the daughter has presented me with a number I find a little high. I have asked the other expats around (some of my colleagues live in the same neighborhood) who also think it's high.

andrew cooke: I am learning Indonesian, and the situation, as far as I know, hasn't become the talk of the neighborhood yet. I don't mean to be insanely insensitive with my comment about leaving less than initially requested - I've never had any sort of hired help before, and no price here is non-negotiable, so I didn't know how to proceed, though your advice about finding out the minmum wage and paying a fair bit more than that is good and I'll ask about that at work tomorrow. Fair comments about "the market" though; I've never had to sell my labor in such a raw, direct way, and I'm learning that most of my assumed notions about work, business and money are roadblocks to understanding the economy here.
posted by mdonley at 8:07 AM on March 30, 2006

Have you already agreed to pay the higher price? Or just agreed to use her services, and are negotiating the price?
posted by MrZero at 8:09 AM on March 30, 2006

Oops, question answered on preview. Sorry.
posted by MrZero at 8:10 AM on March 30, 2006

Ack, more comments -

dydecker: No money has changed hands yet - it's a pay-by-month deal and I've not lived here for a month yet.

elisabeth r: I have few expenses (no car, no kids, no satellite TV or internet or anything like that), but I do have to pay back a housing loan in paycheck deductions for the next few months and buy appliances like a refrigerator and stove, all of which are going to eat up relatively large chunks of my income.

By The Grace of God: I have thought about getting her to come only once a week, but I want a little more time to go by so if I decide to do so, I have some justification for my claims of the absurdity of twice-a-week laundry for a single guy with lots of clothes. The landlord initially suggested a twice-a-week deal, and not thinking clearly, I accepted.
posted by mdonley at 8:14 AM on March 30, 2006

I would worry less about being perceived as having "violent and unkind cheapness" and more about getting a fair deal. As you say, no price is non-negotiable. If you just give in to an unreasonable amount, you'll win yourself a reputation as a mark. You may earn more than many, but they would be still just as tight with their money if they had your salary. I suspect you'll get more respect if you work out an amount thats in-line with the going rates.

Its probably impossible to get ahold of there, but Carl Fanz's The People's Guide to Mexico (book) discusses this situation (and dilemma) at length, and is very enlightening.
posted by gemini at 8:18 AM on March 30, 2006

Did they negotiate 10% of your wages as an actual percentage, or is it a number that correlates with about that much of your wages? If it's the former, do they know what your actual salary is because it was open information at some point while you were negotiating the rent? If it's really on a percentage basis and they don't know the number, you have a few options.
posted by mikeh at 8:44 AM on March 30, 2006

mdonley: Are your expat friends getting twice a week or once a week service, by the way?

Furthermore, part of your apprehension may be the confrontation aspect. Getting a translator, in person or to translate a written request, may mitigate that somewhat.
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:47 AM on March 30, 2006

Since you have not yet agreed to the price, I would talk to the daughter, explain that you think that the amount is too much, offer an amount that you think is fair, and explain that you will need to find someone else to do the work if they want the higher amount.

If they end up wanting the higher amount and you find someone else, I would still pay them the full amount that they requested for the work done so far, as a gesture of good will towards your landlord.

Oh, and of course reducing the frequency of cleaning should be handled at the same time.
posted by alms at 9:04 AM on March 30, 2006

I completely agree with alms--why not just do a counter-offer, like you would with any other negotiation situation? You've asked around--you know what housekeepers make there. Something lower but not insulting shouldn't hurt your landlord-tenant relationship too much. If the housekeeping service is so competetive there, they're used to bartering, surely.
posted by lampoil at 9:26 AM on March 30, 2006

mdonley - it could very well just be the opening offer and they're expecting you to haggle. As you already have noted yourself, every price there is negotiable. So negotiate! Determine what the housekeeping/laundry service is worth to you first or find out from your expat friends what a fair price would be and then start bargaining.

On preview: essentialy what alms and lapoil said.
posted by ooga_booga at 4:22 PM on March 30, 2006

If you don't want to confront her until you've lived there longer and have learned some of the language, perhaps you could go with what was agreed for a few months, then cut back to once a week -- thank them for helping get you settled and acclimated, but you really don't need twice a week anymore. (Or whatever not-entirely-untrue reason will be accepted after you get to know the area better.)
posted by desuetude at 7:31 PM on March 30, 2006

It does sound to me like she is ripping you off, and I think you're making it too complicated. I would simply sit down with the English speaking landlord's daughter together with her mother, offer tea, coffe, cakes, and say with much smiling "I appreciate your help, you do an excellent job and I appreciate it, but we never discussed payment terms. The amount you are charging me, X, is too high for me and unfortunately I cannot continue to pay that amount. I would be very happy to pay half that amount, and I do very much hope you will find that acceptable. If you feel it is too low, however, I will entirely understand and look for alternatives. "

Then after a bit of polite back & forth, agree on, say, .65X.

You are entirely within your rights to do this. They took advantage of your newness to the country by offering the service without giving you a chance to find out what the market rate is. They then merrily proceeded to charge you more, figuring you don't care. Nothing wrong with that. But now that you know better, you are completely free to renegotiate. Just be friendly and firm, lots of smiles and cake, and you'll be fine.

Oh, and welcome to Asia.
posted by mono blanco at 7:47 PM on March 30, 2006

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