ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 17
Front Page Plus

Goodbye ayah, hello agency!

It’s big business, as more and more people turn to agencies for hired help

By Ayesha Inoon

Leela has been a maid at the De Silva household for 21 years. The children have known her almost all their lives, and she is considered part of the family. “Initially she arrived only for three months,” says Mrs. De Silva, “but she liked it so much that she decided to stay. The children are grown now and there isn’t as much to do, but we’re still glad to have her.”

Suranga – a busy executive - on the other hand, has employed over 25 maids in the past two years, none of them lasting for over a couple of months. With a five-year-old son and four-year-old twins, Suranga, whose wife is a teacher, could not manage without domestic help. “When the kids were babies we needed two of them – one to look after them and one to do the housework. Now we have one, who helps my mother with all the work.”

Today, cases like the De Silva’s are rare. The trusted ‘ayah’ or ‘appu’ who served the family loyally for generations is a dying breed, and in their place is appearing a new institution – the ‘Agency’ or an organisation which provides domestic helpers at a certain fee.

Although initially, getting a maid from an agency was the last resort for most people, it is fast catching up as a quick and convenient – though perhaps more expensive – method of getting hired help.

Most agencies require that a customer pays the agency the equivalent of one month of the employee’s salary. If the maid or other aide leaves within the course of three months, the agency provides a replacement, sometimes twice. However, if they leave after three months the customer is required to pay the initial amount and go through the whole procedure again.

A majority of the domestics provided by agencies are those who have worked as housemaids abroad, although there are also those who have worked in local homes, particularly the homes of expatriates. Salary scales vary from Rs. 6000-8000, depending on the type of work they have to do. A daily help is usually paid between Rs.250 – Rs.350 a day. Also, there are different salary scales for expatriates, due to their specialised requirements, the agencies say.

There are mixed feelings among those who have hired domestic aides from agencies. Many complain that the domestics leave immediately after three months, and they have to go through the whole process again, not to mention train a new person from scratch. Suranga himself feels that those who come from agencies are snobbish and inflexible when it comes to their work. “They are precise about what they are going to do – if it’s cooking and cleaning, they refuse to do anything else, such as watch the kids for half an hour. The baby sitters refuse to do any housework. They have too many demands,” he said.

He adds that while the agency at first may provide him with a person who meets his requirements, they usually leave before the stipulated period, and the ‘replacements’ provided are rarely as good as the first. Recently, he says, he has taken to personally visiting estates in Hatton where there are usually willing workers to be found, though that too is becoming rare since the younger generation prefers to work in factories or other establishments for salary benefits such as EPF and ETF.

However, there are also many who find that going through an agency is a much easier and reliable method of getting hired help. “I was suspicious about the whole thing at first, but it has worked out quite well for me,” says Nimali, a mother of two. Her maid has been with her for over six months and runs the household quite efficiently, she says, adding that she avoids interfering with her work since it would then become a case of ‘too many cooks’.

How do the agencies themselves come by their workers? How are they able to guarantee their efficiency and reliability?

“We have our agents in different districts through whom we contact those who are available for employment,” says the Director of one agency. “Then we ask them to come here with their relevant identification and interview them about their previous employment, abilities, their health and how often they would need to take leave.” If the person says he is a cook, they do not simply take them at their word, but ask them to prepare some dish to test their skills.

Many of those who run the agencies agree that it is hardly possible to give a hundred percent guarantee of the honesty and reliability of the employees they provide, though they do try to assess their character as far as possible.

“So far we have not had any complaints about robbery,” says the Director, “but if we do hear of anything like that we have all the relevant information about the employee in our files – their identification, place of residence and through whom we contacted them. If necessary we will assist the victims and the police to track them down.”

Another Manager of an agency says that she always advises employers to be careful and not to leave their valuables lying around, even though she first interviews the candidates thoroughly to ascertain their reliability. “We do not know what these people will do if they are tempted by seeing money or jewellery lying around the house. People should be careful anyway,” she says.

“The majority of agencies are unable to meet the heavy demand for workers and have waiting lists. “Usually I have at least 30 to 40 requests a day,” says one woman who runs an agency from home. “But I am usually able to provide someone within a week or two.”

She adds that it is not only the employer’s needs that have to be looked into, but also the employee’s. Most domestics ask for homes with small families and specific work requirements – such as only the cooking.

As with other agencies, she requires customers to sign a legal agreement with the terms of employment stipulated, including whether meals are provided, and that the aide shall not be given any additional task other than what he or she has been hired for. The booming business at these agencies show that despite the doubts, many people are using domestic aides from agencies and also that many of us are dependent on domestics in our day to day lives.

However, Fazleen, a young mother of three, has decided that domestics are not worth the additional hassle they bring, particularly the lack of privacy within your own home. “It is just a matter of time management, effective housekeeping – and a supportive husband,” she remarks.

Shamali, on the other hand, feels that domestics are a ‘necessary evil’. As a fulltime software engineer with an aged mother-in-law and two young children to care for, she says firmly that she needs the two domestics she has at present.

“Quality time for the children, as well as my husband, is not possible if I don’t have domestics,” she says.

Ultimately many of us would agree that we do need domestics for the smooth running of our daily lives – from agencies or otherwise!

* All names have been changed

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.