Paying the Help and Tipping in Lima

As I mentioned in my posting about what I like about living in Lima, I wrote that I would blog about domestic staff. One of the nice things about life in Lima is the affordable help. Most people use the term “empleada” as the term for domestic help since traditionally one’s domestic help was a “female employee” and some refer to them as a maid. I use the word cleaner if they are someone who comes to clean or “ama de llaves” (homemaker of the keys) if it is a female housekeeper. Expats pay between 60-150 soles per day, average 70-90, soles per day. Some pay up to 180 (Peruvians may pay less). Domestic help sometimes lives in the home, but these days, this is becoming rare even for the Peruvian households to have live-in help.

I think that payday is twice a month or per day (if part-time). If the employee works full time, then they must have a contract and insurance. If they are part-time, they don’t need insurance. Twice a year, in July (to be paid by early July) and December, there is a bonus payment. The bonus is half of a month’s salary (there may be some calculation for how many years they have been employed, but I think that’s a percentage as well). Some people pay for a uniform for their staff. These days, the uniform seems to be a polo shirt and khaki pants (not distinguishable as a uniform — at least to my untrained eye — I guess it’s sort of like “gardening clothes”).

The doormen (porteros) also receive a bonus in December. Commonly, a Christmas Panettone (a type of sweet bread) is given in December. Or money. One can give them something in July as well. Or, one can give them nothing. It’s not required.

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Tipping: Generally, tipping has become common at higher end restaurants. It’s 10 percent. At the local places, just a few soles if you thought it was good service. No tipping in taxis. That said, if you have parked somewhere, generally you tip the parking attendant or the person who has flagged you in (and kept an eye on your car…). Just a few cents like 50 cents or a sol. Some stores, like Wong, have bagboys (they are always young men) who carry your groceries to your car or house (yes! if within a certain distance), but they don’t need a tip and the ones who carry your stuff to your car will actually refuse a tip.

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The Best Things About Expat Life in Lima – Or, It’s Always Avocado Season

In celebration of Peru’s independence days, “fiestas patrias,” (July 28 is independence day and July 29 is a holiday for the armed forces and police), here is my posting about what I think is great about living in Lima. As I did for some of the other places I have lived, I have already written about what I don’t like about living in Lima. Before living in Lima, I had visited more than five times as a tourist. The first time was immortalized in this blog posting. Now that I’ve been here for more than a food-frenzied weekend, the following things are what I like about living here.

The food scene: The restaurants. It seems like every week, there is a new restaurant opening, and thanks in great part to Gaston Acurio, the culinary scene has become part of the national identity. There are fancy-foamy-intellectual dining establishments, fast food franchises, family-run restaurants, neighborhood favorites, and hole-in-the-wall secrets.

The immigrants: This is one of the reasons that the food scene in Lima is great. Thanks to the Chinese (Chifa is a normal word here for a Chinese food and restaurant, and it is as ingrained in the local food choices as hamburgers), the Japanese (Nikkei is the word used for both the food style and the Japanese Peruvians — this month celebrating 120 years in Peru), the Italians, the Lebanese, and all the other immigrants who have been been contributing to the deliciousness in Lima. Thank you to the newest (those two Thai restaurant owners, those Pakistani and Indian guys, that American with the chocolate shop, and those three Swedish ladies, that Mexican guy, and the Venezuelans, and all of those others whom I have yet to discover… I’m looking at you, shawarma palace!). Plus, many of the Peruvians are domestic immigrants — from somewhere else in the country (bringing things like their delicious cheeses… which I’m told is called “country cheese”).

The Palta Fuerte (the palta fuerte is too delicate and buttery to be exported, I’m guessing): It is always avocado season. When buying an avocado, the vendor will ask the day and time that you plan to eat it so that they can sell you one that will be ripe at the precise moment that you plan to enjoy it. “Palta” is the word for avocado in Peruvian Spanish. No one in Peru says “aquacate” even if they may know what you are talking about. At a restaurant, you can ask for a side of palta and it’s totally normal, like asking for butter (but better).

The juice (plus fruit and produce in general): the lemonade (they offer it made with pureed lemongrass at most places), the passion fruit, the orange juice, the blackberry juice. Plus, the pineapples are delicious and the mangoes have a season (like Edwardian socialites). The Edward mango is especially yummy as it has fewer fibers.

The chocolate: Go to El Cacaotal. That is my one must-do for visitors, for newbies, for chocolate haters… now serving hot chocolate and coffee!

The cultural offerings and activities: cooking classes, chocolate tasting lessons, Cordon Bleu courses, surfing classes, dance schools, wine tasting lessons, the circus, theater productions, gyms, yoga, concerts, archery sessions, wine and paint classes, museums, open studio nights, expos, marathons, fairs, farmers markets, and almost any other activity that you can imagine in a metropolis (there is always something to do). Even comicon.

The walkability: they even have ciclovia. Yes, you can walk here. There are sidewalks, parks, and hiking trails.

The neighborhoods: I like that there are actual neighborhoods, farmers markets, barrios, districts, parks, malls (mega ultra modern and local “centro commerciales”), and the coast (its own microcosm).

The positive attitude toward expats/foreigners: Generally, as a foreigner, I don’t feel hate or suspicion from the locals. The Peruvians are,  generally, pro-American culture, and certainly pro-European culture. While most Peruvians don’t approach/talk to foreigners, they also don’t harass them and follow them around (as would happen in other countries where I have lived)… It’s funny, the little things one appreciates. As a foreigner, one can have a life here without being a circus act.

The security: I am completely amazed to see people out jogging, with headphones on, at night. Granted this is along the more patrolled streets but I am still amazed. Utterly. Amazed. Every. Single. Day. Really. Still. Ah-maze-ed.

The view of the ocean: Yes. It’s amazing. Beaches too. If one likes sand.

The public toilets: Almost all grocery stores and malls have public toilets. One has to remember to not flush the toilet paper, but, at least they have toilet paper, although, not always in the actual stall — so get it beforehand.

Delivery: Like in Bogota, almost anything can be delivered.

The taxi prices: $2 for a basic short ride of a few miles. Sometimes $7 for an hour’s ride.

Help: there is always someone to carry the groceries, the taxi drivers help with luggage, the doormen help with stuff, and domestic help is a normal part of life here. I’ll write more about that in a separate posting. Aside from the domestic cleaners, there are nannies, gardeners, drivers, porters, dog walkers, DJs, caterers, dishwashers, movers… you name it. I have an “event tech” whom I hire for parties. I may change that title to “event engineer” as engineer seems to be the new generic term for “trained” (I was chatting with a taxi driver who told me that he used to be a “production engineer” — he potted yogurt in a lab. He chose to drive a taxi because the yogurt potting only paid $670 per month, double the minimum wage, but he makes double that as a taxi driver, even though he works double the hours. But, at least, he is his own boss).

The prices for dental care: as with most things, one can pay lots of money for dental care, but one can also get good dental care for $17 (cleaning and checkup). But, if one wants to pay $170, one can. Many of the dentists have trained in other countries and their certifications in those countries may not be valid here.

The prices in general: from picture framing to groceries, to clothing alterations, to the above mentioned items.

And, did I mention the palta?

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!