On Thursday night after dinner, Felix and I were out on the porch with friends discussing the pile of dishes stacked in the sink and who should do them. “Leave them for mana,” he said, referring to Florencia*, our landlord and neighbour. “I’ll leave her a normal amount,” I said, meaning just a couple of bowls and spoons, not the whole dinner-party junkyard, “I’ll do some now too.”
We were talking about mana because she comes to clean our house every Friday. And Monday, and Wednesday. She sweeps the floors, does the washing, washes the dishes, takes out the bins and tidies up. She’s our landlord, our neighbour, and also our cleaner.
One of the friends we had over for dinner lives outside of Dili and was curious to hear we had a cleaner. She explained that where she’s from, America, only the very rich have cleaners. I agreed that’s the same in Australia — we’d sometimes get a cleaner for a day as a gift for mum, and my parents’ rich friends had them, but no normal people had cleaners. Not people like me. I saw on Instagram this week that three hours of cleaning costs over $100 in Australia, and Florencia does that three times a week for us.
Cleaners are for the rich. So why do I have one in Timor-Leste?
The simple answer is obviously because here, I am very rich. Even on a volunteer stipend I have a degree of wealth and mobility that could only be imagined by a large chunk of the Timorese population: I drive a car, where many of my colleagues drive cheaper scooters or don’t drive at all; I eat out frequently, where most Timorese people I know cook at home for every meal; I own my laptop and DLSR and smartphone and charge regularly with $5 or $10 of pulsa, phone credit, at a time, not the $1s or $2s loaded onto pre-paid bricks more common here in Timor-Leste. And in a country with a great and vulnerable number of people looking for work in a tight employment market, labour is cheap, people are willing, and women, in particular, have limited opportunities for work.
Thhe change of circumstances and bump up the income bracket afforded by my move to Timor-Leste has me facing a thorny question: I can afford a cleaner, and it does provide my land-family with income they may not otherwise have. But is it right? Should I be living so luxuriously, particularly given that I’m here trying to help?
Researcher Terence Wood tackled this question in an excellent post written a few years ago for the Devpolicy Blog, titled “Should aid workers lead comfortable lives?“. He considered his needs as a foreigner in Honiara — secure housing for safety, and creature comforts to alleviate the stress, fatigue and discomfort that comes from working in aid and development — with the fact that many countries where aid workers and researchers work, like Timor-Leste and the Solomons, don’t have the economic middle-ground I take for granted in Australia, and “affording aid workers some degree of comfort and safety often requires going all the way to affluence.”
But he also, rightly, pointed out the opulence often associated with aid work — the guarded gated compounds on Dili’s beachfront road, the sunset cocktails and weekend speedboat dive trips, the gleaming four-wheel drives crowding Dili’s dusty streets, and too, the fact that mana cleans my house for me thrice weekly — is discomforting, particularly when you imagine what the money could otherwise be spent on, how locals view foreigners living like this, and how much the do-gooding foreigner can really achieve if they’re living in an expat oasis completely disconnected from the communities they’re trying to serve.
Wood concludes that it feels wrong to be experiencing comfort in the midst of profound lack, and I’m now self-examining my decision to have hired home help in a similar way. I’m thinking in particular whether the employment is possibly abusive, and whether it’s aligned with my feminism to allow myself to hire a female cleaner.
Domestic workers are often vulnerable to physical, sexual, economic and emotional exploitation and their abuse is a serious problem. But to my knowledge, the domestic work that happens in Timor-Leste is very like my own experience of privately hiring a cleaner — a landlord or neighbour will clean another house or service a car in the same compound to pay their way or bring a little more money into the house in the time they have available to work, nothing more formal than that really occurs, and while workers are vulnerable to under-pay and lack of formal sick days and leave, the horror stories of physical and sexual abuse of maids are perhaps not happening here.
Our mana, Florencia, has three primary school-aged children and an infant, and the couple of hours she spends cleaning and washing for us fits in with her own routine. We pay her a standard wage above the minimum wage regardless of how many sick days she takes. But, of course, our mere failure to abuse our cleaner, dock pay for sick days or impose a strict 8-to-6 is not, of course, noteworthy, and the fact that her working conditions aren’t draconian isn’t, of course, cause for praise.
And it’s not the end of the story, either. As Marianne Bevan articulated in a brilliant blog post called “‘The Help’ in Togo“, I must also consider what I’m inadvertently perpetuating by hiring a Timorese domestic worker.
Regardless of my best intentions, am I just another white imperialist reinforcing a systems that says white women can gain off the backs of brown women?
In a post I’d recommend reading in full, Bevan wrote on hiring maids:
In a recent article on the use of domestic service, Zoe Williams detailed how at a conference on increasing the number of women in boardrooms, Virginia Bottomley told participants that “if you want to do well … do not do your own ironing, do not bake a cake. Women do well in India because of domestic help”. But, as Williams notes, “there’s an inevitable follow-up question isn’t there? What about the domestic help? Do they do well?” While (mostly) white, middle-class women have made considerable inroads (well, kind of) economically and politically, how have women (and men) outside of these categories fared? These questions bring up a number of issues around what role the domestic service industry plays in perpetuating race and class-based inequalities and hierarchies.
While I’m under few illusions about the grand things I’ll achieve in Timor-Leste, my stint here has undoubtedly helped me professionally: I’ve had articles published in publications I couldn’t crack in a crowded Melbourne market; I’ve taken roles as an ‘adviser’ and ‘manager’ because I can afford to advise voluntarily in exchange for experience; and I know the lines on my resume that say I’ve lived abroad will help me stand out when I’m applying for jobs back home. Here in Timor-Leste, I’m getting ahead.
Can I say the same for the woman making that happen? I wouldn’t have time to write if I had to clean the house. I wouldn’t have the energy to volunteer full-time if I was heading to work after doing laundry all morning.
Us foreigners must recognise our do-gooding often comes from a place of privilege, Bevan wrote, and consider whether the feeling of having ‘made a difference’ trumps the goal of dismantling unequal systems. I arrived in Timor-Leste as a wide-eyed volunteer determined to throw my weight behind a fight for equity, not just to advance my own career.
So how does having a servant fit in with that?
Bevan acknowledged that behaviour like my decision to have a cleaner may seem minor, but it is symbolic. Sure, my housemates and I are giving Florencia a wage she likely otherwise wouldn’t have had. But we’re not the “neutral employer” Bevan also wanted herself to be — Florencia’s work is helping me get ahead but perhaps merely keeping her stable — and we must engage in a “much more uncomfortable emotional and intellectual process of questioning privilege” if we’re to understand this complex system.
The economic gap between us as the affluent employers and Florencia as the dutiful domestic help represents a systemic class inequality that my feeling sheepish or introspective at requiring her help doesn’t resolve. But, Bevan wrote, to see myself as the ‘bad guy’, as a “personification of privilege, all behaviors laced with a kind of inherent selfishness and Western arrogance,” is unhelpful, for both me and Florencia. I don’t want to end her employment — I don’t want to take that wage from her family and I simply don’t want to have to clean my own house. Plus, a rash decision to end her employment, as Bevan again wrote, simplifies and ignores the complex reality of the system in which we’re both operating. “There is no such thing as a clean break,” she wrote.
Despite the conviction of this post’s headline, I’m still unsure about whether I can justify my decision to hire and retain a cleaner — I have no plans to ask Florencia to stop cleaning, but I must consider the challenges and opportunities this arrangement provides for both of us, and how that fits in more broadly to my work here. Reflection is a starting point. As is doing my own dishes.
* I initially wrote this post using Florencia’s real name, but went through later and changed it to afford her some privacy and distance. I’m confident very few, if any, people reading this blog know who she is, and I wanted this post to be more about my existential contemplation of the ethics of having domestic help in a different context from my own than about the story of my neighbour, which of course isn’t mine to tell.