help… or burn your shirts
The life of an expat in China means never having to pick up dirty socks or wash dishes. For between RMB8-20 per hour (US$1.17-2.93), many foreigners hire a full-time local housekeeper, or ayi, to relieve them of their household chores, freeing up time for happy hour. A good ayi is an integral part of the household. A bad one can wreak havoc.
When searching for domestic help, many seasoned China denizens reach out for recommendations. But for newcomers, finding a reliable ayi without any support or experience is a challenge. From bridging communication barriers to securing accident insurance, placement agencies can be great resources, but they are not all created equal. Locating a trustworthy company is a feat in itself as some cut corners by underpaying inexperienced migrant workers. This practice often results in an angry ayi venting her frustrations on her unwitting foreign client (or vice-versa).
"The barrier to entry for ayi placement agencies is low, and there is no official oversight of the industry," said Tony Hsieh, CEO of Green Maid, a company that offers eco-friendly training for housekeeping staff. "The demand for good domestic help is higher than the agency’s supply of candidates, and there are too many unskilled applicants who learn on the job by burning holes in your shirts, shrinking your suits or buying fruits full of pesticides."
A good agency should be able to find an ayi who knows what she is doing and what is expected of her, said Christine Liao, chief consultant of CC Shanghai, a full-service relocation company. Her company has an database that they use to to match housekeepers with client requirements.
Even some expats who have China experience prefer to use placement agencies when looking for a housekeeper. Mary Drobnak, a medical consultant who had lived in China for two years during a previous stint, opted to use an agency when she returned to Shanghai.
"I wanted someone ASAP and word-of-mouth recommendations take time," said Drobnak. "Also, the first time I lived in Shanghai, I used friends’ recommendations and had three awful ayis before I found one I liked." The agency’s extra services, including translation support and orientation, were also selling points.
Wheat and chaff
Like any business, an ayi placement agency can be judged on its initial professionalism. If an agency catering to foreigners does not require its housekeepers to have certain important skills or the employees have limited English language abilities, it is probably a scam. Drobnak recommends comparing companies, noting that she elected to use the agency that was more attentive to her needs during the search process.
While finding an ayi with an aptitude for getting wine stains out of your linens and the skills to make a mean lasagna might be tough, locating a trustworthy nanny to take care of an infant or child is even more difficult. Melissa Rollins, kindergarten teacher and mother of 18 month-old Nicholas, believes that there is no perfect formula for finding the right nanny.
"When it comes to hiring nannies, it’s a matter of personal opinion. Some come highly recommended by one family, but don’t suit another," explained Rollins, who employed her nanny part-time for two years before giving birth to her son. "The most important thing is to take your time and offer her a trial period so that you can show her how your family likes things to be done."