Domestic Help in Bangladesh

A few days, a few months, may go by, but eventually, most expats will acquire some form of domestic help. Bangladeshis have domestic help in their homes and it is a way of life here. Bangladesh is rich in human labor and affordable (to us expats) domestic help is one of the advantages (or just part of the realities of life here) of living here. As an expat, we can afford to pay our domestic workers a good salary, provide a place to live (some are live in), and the arrangement seems to work. I appreciated having help, especially my driver (mentioned him last time), but the key is to find what works for you. I will try to cover what I’ve learned about domestic staff employment but I may have to come back and update this as I recall more details (as I know that this is of great interest to some). First of all, for many expats, this will be their first experience having domestic help. For many, it is the first time, they are the employer with employees. It takes work to learn how to be a good boss. Okay, on to nuts and bolts:

How many staff? Depends on your needs/wants. I had a housekeeper who cooked and cleaned. I paid him extra for extra work helping at parties. I then switched to a part time cleaner who came three days per week.

Where do you find good staff? My advice is to ask around. Find someone who is as picky (oh sorry, as “quality conscious”) as you, and then try to find domestic help like they have. Also, keep in mind that what works for them won’t always work for you. It is easy and hard to find good employees. Sometimes, you will get accosted in your building by staff who tell you that this is their turf and that you have to hire them because they have always worked in that building. Take it as you will (or won’t). Some find this style too aggressive. Also, outside the building, there will be people coming by looking for work (everyone knows that you are new). Another thing, all the domestic staff probably know each other. It’s a network. Many are related to each other (or can bring a “cousin” who can work for you).

Interview: Yes, do. Also do a trial period. One staff I had to let go, sobbed and begged… and showed up days later to beg again, apologizing. But it wasn’t a matter of apology. It just didn’t work.

Contract? Yes, you can draw one up but your staff may not be able to read.

Live in or out? Many domestic staff also live in (all apartments have a “servant’s quarters” but mine was small. I guess free housing is free housing, but, I use my “servant’s quarters” as a closet).

Salary (including insurance, healthcare, bonus, uniforms, and tea money): Here goes… As expats, we pay double what they pay (and we don’t make them work as much) so we are attractive employers.

Driver (mentioned him last time): A driver is a skilled person and they make between 12,000-20,000 taka ($150-250) for 40 hours per week. Drivers have very loose schedules. Some work six days per week but only a few hours per day. Most are sort of “on call” and that’s why they get paid (to wait around). Average pay is 14,000-16,000. Most drivers are men. There is a school for female drivers run by an international non-profit but they also teach men to drive. So far, I’ve heard of one professional female driver but there must be more. Hopefully, your driver has a real license. Some people send their other staff to driving school and this benefits everyone.

Cook: To only be a cook is the top position unless there’s a housekeeper who doesn’t get their hands wet (these are rare). Have them make you a meal to test out their skills. Many of the cooks in the expat pool have worked for other international families and can cook cuisines from all over the world. I know of some folks who diligently taught their cooks how to make their dishes the way that they liked them. I had planned on making a menu of what my cook could make so that he could take it on to the next employer, but I never got around to it. The cook can also go buy groceries. Some can make meals for you without you having to tell them what you want, and this can be a boon to some busy people.

Housekeeper or cook/cleaner/bearer (bears your tea to you): The salary range for an expat’s housekeeper is 12,000-20,000 taka ($150-250) for 40 hours per week. Housekeepers make more than bearers and cleaners (if an employee is a cleaner or bearer only, they make less). They can also do your shopping for you and fetch your dry cleaning etc.

Nanny/Aya (or caregiver): Some families have more than one (one for each child and one as a babysitter. Why not). Some expat families even hire caregivers for their elderly family members. The salary range is lower 10,000-18,000 taka. The aya/ayah/nanny is a fixture in expat literature and the separation from the aya is the most traumatic.

Gardener: Many expats hire someone to grow vegetables for them, plus normal yard work. They get paid around 12,000 taka per month.

Dog walker: I have heard of people hiring part time dog walkers but I would guess that a full time one makes about 8,000-10,000 taka per month. Funny story, one of my friends found that her cook had been giving the dog tea… if you know how strong Bangla tea is, then you know that that dog definitely needed walks!

Bonus? Yes, a 13th month salary at Ramadan for Muslim staff and at Christmas for Christian staff. Once per year unless you want to give them more at another time (second Eid) BUT that is not the norm. This “bonus at second Eid” question is one of the most frequent questions that I hear. Plus, almost everyone gives their staff gifts of belongings like TVs, clothes, bags, computers, etc. especially when trying to organize for a move. The staff will often ask to be allowed to buy or have the things that you don’t want. Almost anything from America is a hot item. Sometimes, the staff will give you gifts. Try to not accept them as they usually can’t afford it (like a 2,000 taka sari).

Uniforms: Much is said of this. Usually something about two uniforms per year or the money to buy or have made a uniform. The amount I was asked for was (negotiable like all other prices in this country) 2,500 taka. I think that for most staff, this is a form of income. That said, some staff do wear uniforms. There is a certain dignity in wearing a uniform when at work, and that I understand.

Tea money? Many people give their staff tea money or lunch money. This is how they supplement the low wages. Tea money of 1,500 taka per month is extremely expensive tea and is more likely to be food money. To expats, $13 is nothing but I’m guessing that a Bangladeshi can buy a cup of tea for two or three taka.

Other expenses: There will be other expenses that the staff ask for money for: their children’s weddings, school fees, hospital fees, a new cell phone, etc. etc. It is up to you as the employer to decide if you want to pay it or lend it. Some people withhold some of the salary and keep it as insurance or savings for such events (make it part of the initial salary discussion). In the true spirit of “if you don’t ask…” You will get gotten but you can probably afford it. On that note, you will hear lots of “You have so much; and I have so little.” Many people will pay for the staff’s children’s school fees (what’s $120 to you when you can provide an education. It’s a form of charity).

To end the discussion of money, you (or I did) may likely pay salary + tea money + uniform + “emergency life expenses” per employee. I’ve heard some expats say, “it’s less than car insurance in the U.S.”

Other duties: In general, if you have a good relationship, your staff can do many things for you that will make life easier. I had my driver do all sorts of errands from getting my lace fixed (yes, one guy who can re-weave cloth for 100 taka) to buying jersey (very hard to buy in bolt form here) to finding a place to sell bottles. Some people actually have their staff help as “lady’s maid” and do massages, hair removal, pedicures, manicures, hair cuts, or paint mehendi/henna on you. There may actually be some people who have a “lady’s maid” but I haven’t heard of any (my friends aren’t rich enough). But, when you need to dress for a wedding and need your sari wrapped, you can have your staff do it for you (usually 500 taka at a salon).

Keys/Privacy: Some people do lock cabinets or rooms. Some give one key to the door (so the other lock can be used by you). Some keep the key to the car and have the driver come get it before they go anywhere (a Bangladeshi friend had the experience of discovering that his driver was using the car as a taxi business while he was at work.) Some people worry about stealing… and lock up their oil and flour… Many people lock up a room just because they want a level of privacy. After all, the domestic staff know EVERYTHING about you. They take out your trash.

Dismissal/Severance/Firing/End of contract: If you leave or dismiss your staff, it is normal to give them one month’s notice and pay them a severance pay in proportion to time served. Usually it is a month’s salary for each year. Even if you have to fire the staff for some reason, it’s normal to give them severance. If you liked your staff, try to find time to write them a letter of referral. They will use this for future job hunting.

At expat parties, there is an incessant buzz of talk about domestic staff. I try to not get involved. But these are some of the subjects people talk about:

“How much do you pay your….?” “Should I give a second Eid bonus at the second Eid?” “Do I give the bonus at the beginning or the end?” “She won’t leave at the end of the day and just hangs around!” “She’s lazy but she’s honest.” “Why do I need a full time driver when he just sits around for 30 hours of each week?” “I sent my driver to English school.” “I sent my cleaner to cooking school to improve her professional skills.” “How do I get my cook to use less oil?” “How do I get my cook to make food for less than 20 people?” And so on.

I think I answered most of this questions above except: The cooking oil question — I have heard people tell their cooks that they need to lose weight. Or that the cook can keep whatever oil is leftover in the bottle. Like with most lessons, repetition is important. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Banana bread made by my housekeeper.
Banana bread made by my housekeeper.

I hope that this has been helpful.

After a year in Bangladesh, I realized that I had made a mistake. When I got to Dhaka, I had the intention of hiring a woman (empowerment and all that) but instead I hired a man with a full CV (he came well recommended). What I realized after a year is that I should have hired a young woman and sent her to school to learn English, to sew, and to give massages. I could have had a tailor and a massage therapist at home. Next time!

Driving M’s Adventures – The Driver

A few expats choose not to hire a driver/chauffeur. But, most do. M’s Adventures, this blog, would have be nothing without the very capable driving skills of my driver. Having heard other expats discuss hiring a driver, these are some of the pros and cons:

PROS: No need to think about parking, maintenance, gas, security… Give someone a job… On call at any moment… Like a private limo service… The driver knows where things are located… They can run errands… When the traffic is gridlocked, I can get out and walk the rest of the way and the driver can bring the car later… I don’t have to worry about drinking and driving…

CONS: I like to drive… I like the independence… I get an adrenaline thrill driving in Dhaka traffic… I don’t want to forget how to drive… Now that I’ve driven in Dhaka, I can drive anywhere…

Typical traffic in Dhaka.
Typical traffic in Dhaka.

Some expats employ a driver but also drive. You know where I stand (or sit) on this issue. Cheers!

My New Favorite Tailor in Dhaka – Tailors Johnny

After many hundreds of hours spent thinking about tailoring, I’ve got a new favorite tailor — he is on time, makes clothes that fit, and he is not creepy (according to one of my friends). Getting tailor made clothes is a normal pastime in Dhaka. It’s part of every day life for the Bangladeshis (although there are also retail shops where you can buy ready made clothes), and as an expat, this will most likely become a part of one’s daily routine as well. Previously, Juhl/Jewel, Juhl DIT 1, was my favorite but after he got too busy last summer, I ceased going to him. Now, the tailor comes to my house — Tailor Johnny! He is the nephew of Al Babar tailor also located in DIT 1 and he is the tailor known for his halloween and glitterball costumes.

Give Tailors Johnny a call.
Give Tailors Johnny a call.

Tailor Johnny speaks enough English to understand basic tailoring requests (plus he text messages in English which is useful) but works best from a photo or a sample. But, he can actually measure you and make clothes from those measurements. He is the ONLY tailor in I have found who does not make the clothes too tight. Plus, he can also make mock-ups of your suits etc. and then use pins to adjust it to fit perfectly (this may sound like no big deal — they do this in Thailand and elsewhere at tailor shops — but in Dhaka, this does not happen so it’s rare to find someone who actually can “tailor”). Tailor Johnny is also punctual. This also sounds like no big deal but it is. His prices are not cheap (for Bangladesh) as pants/trousers, fabric and make cost runs about 1,000 Taka ($13) and adjustments to existing clothing runs about 700 Taka.

Tailors Johnny is punctual.
Tailors Johnny is punctual.

One of the few drawbacks about finding and publicizing about a good tailor is that he may get too busy. The tailors get busier during Ramadan so it can take longer to get one’s clothes back. Most tailors take a few days to a week to finish a project. But, during Ramadan, it can be weeks to months. The other busy time of the year for tailors is December-January which is wedding season in Bangladesh. Unlike in Hoi An, Vietnam, most tailors in Dhaka cannot mail you clothes.

I hope that Tailor Johnny can handle the publicity that his reputation is getting him.

Skirting Around the Lungi – Search Terms

I thought I would stop skirting around the issue of what brings readers to madventures.me (later I’ll address the top search terms that people use when ending at my blog). Many bloggers have tried to figure out SEO (search engine optimization) so that they can get more traffic to their blogs. I can only guess that I hit upon a perfect SEO combination sometime in 2012… perfect if you want people to search for “lungi” images. The lungi is traditional Bangladeshi menswear. Although collectively, I’ve written about food and travel 99 percent of the time, my two blog postings about the lungi keep popping up. Here are some of the search terms people have typed in that lead them to my lungi postings. Enjoy.

Many men wearing lungis.
Many men wearing lungis.

“lungi man” (straight to the point)

“sarong lungi naked” (but it’s funny because if you are wearing a lungi, then you are wearing clothing)

“sexy lady in lungi image” (this is funny because a lungi is menswear – like a lady’s sarong)

“restaurant off crack babani 11” (not sure which crack in banani 11 is being referred to)

“lucky me factory september 21 2013” (I have no idea what they were searching for)

“bangla hot six” (this is a popular search so if it refers to the number six, maybe it’s a real thing. If it is a misspelling, then never mind)

“banhladesh hot sixx” (a theme is appearing)

“thread me bare”

“men naked in lungi”

“dhuti dance dress” (a “dhuti” is the name of an article of clothing)

“gae halud fashion for men” (again, not really sure how much is caused by the inability to spell)

“places & contact person to get phensedyl syrup in dhaka gulshan” (Huh?! What is phensedyl syrup?)

“love images on ricksaw on rain” (affection for the images or Bollywood romance scenes?)

“what are black artpaper in dhaka” (I don’t know either. What is black artpaper?)

“non spicy chicken fry outlets in dhaka” (this is funny to me because it shows the level of concern people have about scovilles)

“khmer kela bayon 2013”

“ganga dress in dhaka”

“are laces made in bangladesh” (“laces” in Bangladesh English are “ribbons” to some of us)

“romantic spots in baridhara dhaka” (oh, boy)

“sweaty kameez” (again, I think we’ve come back to the main search theme)

The Rock Stars of Yosemite National Park

"Tunnel view" of Yosemite Valley.
“Tunnel view” of Yosemite Valley.

There are some places that remind me of how beautiful this world is and how lucky I am to see it. Yosemite National Park is one of those places. Yosemite (one interpretation of the meaning of “yos-e-miti” is that it means “those who kill” and the native tribe was warning the early visitors — who mistook this warning as the name of the valley) is a beauty, both photogenic and gorgeous in the flesh. There are so many great stories to be heard about the valley, El Capitan, Half Dome, and all the other rock stars (ha!) of the park.

El Capitan, or the "inchworm."
El Capitan, or the “inchworm.”

El Capitan, considered by many to be the largest monolith in the world, is actually called “inchworm” in the local lore. The local story explains how the lowliest smallest creature, the inchworm, saves two bear cubs who fell asleep on top of the rock.

2,500 feet of falling water at Yosemite Falls.
2,500 feet of falling water at Yosemite Falls.