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There are two words in Philippines used very commonly. One is “maid” and the other is “yaya” (which means “maid” or sometimes “nanny”). I detest those words, as they’re degrading. I also detest seeing “maids” dressed in uniforms. Definitely degrading. And I also shudder when I see “maids” pushing trolleys in upmarket supermarkets (wearing their maid uniforms, of course!) while their matriarch employers direct them what to get from the shelves. 

I can recall seeing two “maids”  in a bar in Solaire (fairly flash hotel/casino/entertainment venue in Manila). A family sitting at one table, and they were sitting separately minus any drinks or snacks (and in uniform). My wife Mila told me they would probably sleep on the floor in the family’s hotel room.

Why do I have a problem with this? I’m an Australian, and Australian’s detest “class” issues and snobbery. I’ve lived here 10 years always with household staff, but I haven’t changed in this regard. My earnest wish is that any Australian living here will understand this area and know how to deal with it whilst remaining fair to the staff AND to themselves.  

 

philippines household helpers, or maids or yayas  

 

The Harvie experience in Philippines

 

Nothing happens simply in the Philippines. Every task is multi-step. It’s very common for families to need to bit of help, and therefore to employ live-in staff. As an Australian Filipina couple, if you decide to live in Philippines, you will probably employ helpers yourselves. 

We’ve lived and worked here in Philippines for the last 10 years. Yep, May 2010 we arrived and we’re still here. We have a busy life. Nine kids in our household, and a busy international business to run. So neither Mila nor myself have time to do the dishes or do the ironing. We also have 14 month old Megan, and she’s a little adventuress! So we need help!

Maids? Yayas? Not on your Nellie! We need help, so we employ “helpers”! That’s what we call them. Household helpers!

 

What do we not do

  • No uniforms (see photo below, and you’ll see why!)
  • No using degrading titles like “maid” or “yaya”
  • Not buying them very cheap food to eat and making them go hungry (eg 2 cups of rice and 2 sardines for dinner)
  • Not making them wash the household clothing by hand
  • Not making them act as pseudo-playmates to spoilt children. Our kids treat them with respect.
  • Not making them sleep on the floor
  • Speaking to them politely and not barking at them

 

philippines maid yaya uniform

Awful maid uniform

 

Our household helpers usually put on weight when they start working with us. Some end up going on diets! And they wear what they’re comfortable with. They have their privacy. They have proper beds and hot showers. They are treated like ladies. Our conscience is clear.

 

Mistakes with household staff

 

We learned a few things the hard way when we first came here. Even though Mila is Filipina, when she last lived here she wasn’t from one of those families who employed household helpers therefore she had no idea how things worked. And I’m an Aussie! How would I know?

There is a class structure here! This isn’t Australia! Imagine a long ladder. Richest on the top, and beggars on the bottom. Whoever is up the ladder from you, you believe are better than you. Whoever is down the ladder from you? You are better than them! You smile a lot and are very agreeable to those whom you think are better, and you are contemptuous to those whom you think are not as good as you. I can remember somebody years ago talking down to my wife on the phone, because she thought she was just a “lowly” secretary and she felt superior. When she met Mila later, she was like a puppy because she felt she was above her! Your household helpers will call you “Sir” and “Ma’am”, and will be very shy and a bit scared around you. They will “know their place”!

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, no I do NOT like any of that stuff, but you can’t come into a new society and culture and expect to show them all “the right way” and to change habits and attitudes completely. Just as I will always be an Aussie, your household helpers (AND ours) will always be Pinay. If you roar in and try to change things completely, you will cause immense confusion and you will give the wrong impression….like we did!

 

Some examples

OK, we arrive in May 2010. We employ our first household helper, 18 year old from the Bicol region. She was 4’10” at the very most. We told her not to call us Sir and Ma’am, but to call us Ate and Kuya. She slept in the same room as our daughters. Ate meals with us at the same table. 

 

Day one: Mila goes out with the kids. Helper is in the kitchen. I decide to be friendly and ask her about herself. She tells me about her family. She tells me she loves her father, but that he doesn’t love her. She starts crying! What am I supposed to do when there’s a crying child? I give her a hug and tell her that she can treat our family as her own. (I can sense anyone with experience cringing at this, and anyone inexperienced thinking “Well, yes of course!”)

End result? Helper thinks I’m in love with her! She gets an attitude around Mila. She does very little work. Eats ice cream and drinks coke every day. She hangs around me acting cute. I miss this completely, because it never occurs to me that an 18 year old would be flirting with me. She lasts 3 weeks in total!

 

Month 2: We hire a driver. Intelligent man who speaks good English. I ride in the front seat and talk with him about everything. Get him to join me in a drink after work a few times a week. Meet his family, and invite them to dinner. Mila makes him coffee when he arrives in the morning (while the helper eats her breakfast). We trust him to run errands, and don’t count the change. He recommends his uncle as a car mechanic.

End result? He ends up running personal errands in our car. He steals change money. The car suspiciously has more things going wrong with it than is mechanically possible. When we decide to sell the car, he arranges a buyer for us. Later on the buyer comes around and gives us our driver’s COMMISSION for the undervalued car that he bought from us!! Fired him the next morning!

 

How to be a Boss

 

In Australia, we respect a boss who acts like he’s one of us. In Philippines? They think you’re stupid and a soft-touch, and will take advantage of you! And you won’t suddenly change this! Try to be an Aussie, and you will come unstuck just like we did on numerous occasions. 

 

What it means is this:

  • Remember you’re not in Australia or dealing with Australians!
  • Let them call you Sir and Ma’am
  • Eat meals separately from your staff
  • Don’t socialise with your staff
  • Men? Beware of anything that will make female staff think you “like” them
  • Ladies? Exactly the same thing with male staff, like drivers!
  • NEVER try to have a romantic relationship with a staff member
  • Don’t try to be “friends”. You are the boss, and they just work for you. Nothing more. Don’t mistake a smiling face for friendship.
  • Oh, and I suppose it’s a personal choice. But we have a helper for baby Megan, and used to have one for Maggie (6) when she was a baby. We’re too busy and too old for sleepless nights. But we otherwise raise our own kids, and helpers don’t get involved. Better not to have them raised with odd superstitions and eating mountains of rice!

Treat them kindly and ensure that they are comfortable and live with dignity, but make sure there is a clear line between family and staff. Don’t give them free reign of anything in the fridge, or you will see some serious gluttony. Same applies to household products. 

 

Things we have seen

  • Washing machines and driers used for 1 shirt, 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of undies and one bra
  • Washing machines having 9 packets of Downy (local fabric softener) used for the above
  • Expensive fruit and other food items eaten by preference, while the cheap bananas go rotten
  • 3 showers a day using 3 clean towels
  • Shampoo disappearing rapidly
  • Working hard and enthusiastically when Mila and I are around, and going slow the moment we’re not 
  • Several more who mistook friendliness for romantic interest. (Those who are hoping to become a kabit (mistress) will usually last about 3 months if you don’t take the bait!)
  • Definitely things stolen over the years, so be prepared to check bags when someone goes out

 

Harvie household helpers now

 

harvie household helpers

 

These are our current three household helpers. Two are excellent. One has been with us for nine years, and contrary to everything I said has truly become one of the family. She’s like a daughter to me. Another has an excellent attitude and work ethic, and we’re taking the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” approach. The other? I recognise flirting these days, so won’t be lasting long. Such a pity, when you know what poverty they come from. But you can’t change someone’s basic nature.     

 

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Jeff Harvie is a Registered Migration Agent from Australia, but resident in Philippines since 2010 with his Filipina wife Mila and large extended family. Experienced with the Philippines culture, cross-cultural relationships and bureaucracy as well as Australian visas and Australian Migration Law, he writes with authority and fortunately with enough informality and humour that the average Aussie gets it!

 

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8 Comments

  1. Steve Hawker

    Well said Jeff, there is definitely a fine line with helpers and you have given great pointers. Though we don’t have live in helpers and probably never will we certainly employ a lot of local contractors that always aim high only to be shot down by the better half with a little guidance from myself to achieve an equatable outcome.

    As they say “it’s more fun in the Philippines” and I always say “slowly slowly”
    Thanks for your insights Jeff.

    Cheers, Steve.

    Reply
    • Jeff Harvie

      Yes, baby-steps. Expect some steep learning curves!

      Reply
  2. Brian Stoker

    Thank you for writing this essay Jeff. It is so absolutely true and you have expressed it so well.
    I have made the same mistakes in Australia too.
    Familiarity breeds contempt.
    But you put it so clearly.

    Reply
  3. Mike Trotter

    Hi Jeff. Great stuff! I too got caught out as you did on staff/employer relationships and learned a few hard truths. Yes, Aussie culture and Filipino culture are very different when it comes to this situation. I learn now that when in the Philippines, adjust and accept their style of culture. Don’t try and be different. Treat Filipinos as their culture demands. Likewise in Australia, Filipinos should be treated same as any Aussie with an understanding they may still be making adjustments to our culture. Thanks for the write up. Very enlightening.

    Reply
  4. Graham John Hunt

    a great read and an illuminating one, thanks Jeff

    Reply
  5. Chris

    Thanks for this mate we are looking at getting a house helper just to come over for a few hours a day and do all the basic house hold chores getting stressful for us doing it while working 12 hours or more per day
    I’ve never actually liked the idea of having someone do these things for me grew up very independent feels weird but will be soon once we can find someone we can trust

    Reply
    • Jeff Harvie

      “Trust” is something I hadn’t covered. We always make sure the helpers come from a long way away, so they don’t know anyone locally. Helpers have been known to leave doors unlocked for a friend to come in and burgle the place!

      Reply

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