Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Innocent until proven guilty at a domestic level

Two nights ago I received a disturbing news about our domestic helper in Phnom Penh. I was told by my husband who was informed by his office staff who had received a call from our apartment owner. Yes, we were not told directly because we had been away for one week. It seems that “K”, the domestic helper in question, had come into the apartment one night while we were away, with a large laundry bag. One can easily deduce that she was doing her laundry in our apartment without us knowing.

Anyway, when I first heard about it, my reaction was one of ambivalence. It takes years of life experiences and lessons learned to teach me that nothing is black and white and so, I didn’t jump into any conclusion. In fact, there could be one hundred and one possibilities why this news has reached us in this manner.

First of all, during the five months that K has been working with us, she has never given us any reason to doubt her integrity. In fact, we have been rather happy with her work performance and character in general and therefore, trust her to look after our apartment while we are away, which happens a lot.

Secondly, being a cynic, I don’t really trust anyone and this includes my husband’s office staff, the apartment owner and the guard, who had purportedly reported K’s suspicious activities. So, since I did not personally catch K in action, I rather not execute a guilty verdict before getting to the bottom of things.

Then, on the same night that I received the news, I received a call from K. Basically, she confirmed the report by admitting to the fact that she had indeed brought her laundry to our apartment. She was apologetic but by then, my feelings weren’t as neutral as before. If anything, I was upset that she had deliberately hide it from me as she didn’t say anything when I saw her earlier that day. In fact, all she did was asked me to allow her to take three days off which was granted immediately. The thought that she had come clear with me only after knowing that the cat is out of the bag, upset me further. Nevertheless, I tried my best to sound calm and told her that we would talk when I see her next.

The next day, my anger started brewing more and more when I thought about her betrayal. The thing is, it wasn’t so much as the fact that she exploited our resources for her own gain but more of the way she had returned our good will and understanding. It was only two months ago when we had increased her salary which apparently is rather good for the number of hours she works for us. We have been very flexible with her in the way that as long as she does her work well, we don’t really care or keep tab of how she manages her work. We knew that she is holding two jobs and often comes in to clean for two hours and then leaves for another shift somewhere else. Unlike other domestic helpers who work six full days a week and  getting the same salary, she has it easy with us.

When I talked to my colleague about it, she further convinced me that K has breached our trust and hence can never be trusted again and I should get rid of her while I can. She also told me that I could get a replacement easily. Usually, this would have been the easiest solution but instead I chose not to be rash. I needed to hear K’s side of the story first.

I talked to K today and it turns out that she does have an explanation for her behaviour, furnished with scientific evidence. She has been diagnosed with severe sinusitis and the doctor has advised her not to inhale washing powder while hand washing her laundry. Usually, her sister-in-law does the laundry but coincidentally, she was away the same week that we were away. As a result, she came to the apartment to use our washing machine.

I told her strictly that while I feel sorry for her condition, I wished that she would have told us first. I tried to make her understand that honesty and trust are the most important principles we look for in a domestic helper. I understand that she has every reason not to tell us for fear that we would not understand but at the same time, I want her to know that what she did was wrong and dishonest and we are not unreasonable and unreliable employers. I don’t know why, but when she finally broke into tears, I could sense that she feels genuinely sorry for what she did.

My other principle is that for the kind of mistake she did, she deserves a second chance and a benefit of a doubt. And so, I told her that in future, she should come to us first if she needs something from us and if we ever hear from someone else about any misconduct from her, I will not tolerate it again.

The point of this story is that as employers, we often neglect to take the time to communicate or talk to our employees. We tend to choose the easiest solution such as getting rid of a problem without understanding the cause. In this day and age, we often get caught up with work and if we can save our time from having to deal with petty issues such as this one, we will.

We also tend to lose sight of how things are from the other side. I tried to put myself in her position and I can tell you that being a domestic helper is not such a fantastic job. Being a mother who struggles to give her 6 year-old daughter a good education by holding two jobs, it makes sense for her to think that it costs us nothing for one, two or maybe three loads of washing.

Whether K was being completely honest or not, I would never know but for now, I choose to listen to her and give her my benefit of a doubt because she has provided me with a satisfactory explanation and evidence to prove her innocence. Who knows? I might get screwed in the end for being compassionate and fair, but I rather not break her spirit and cause her to lose a job, if she was indeed innocent.


  1. Hey, I had a part time maid who stole my ang pau money, ate all the limes from my lime tree (during chinese new year) so my tree looked 'botak' and used the dirty water after mopping floors to wipe the sofa.

    I realize ppl. have different value systems, what is wrong to you may not be to them.

  2. Ms. Kong Piang,

    just out of curiosity, do you have hidden webcam in your house? How do you catch your maid doing all this??!!

    I hope you had a talk with your maid about this. While I believe in giving people chances, they need to earn and deserve it too.

    Putting different values aside, if a maid cannot learn to respect your values, then there is no point maintaining such professional relationship. There are times when we need to draw a line.

  3. I also have an Indonesian maid who whose contract will be expiring in the middle of this month. She has been with us for 3 years and so far we have had no problems with her except that she takes things easy at times.

    Recently, my itemised telephone bill had a call to a particular handphone number and it cost me quite a bit. I called that number and a man answered but I think that guy knows my number and he didn't say much but just hello, hello to make it seems that he can't hear me.

    My maid had told me some months ago that her bro in law is now in Malaysia working in Johor. So I don't know if that chap was her bro in law or someone else but in the 3 years she's been with us I don't think she has made contact with anyone outside.

    I don't know if I should question her on that phone call or just forget about it. I certainly don't want any surprises from her in the few more days before her departure for home.

  4. Hi Whatmeworry,

    I think almost everyone who has a maid has something to say about the indiscretion committed by them. As Ms. Kong Piang aptly put it, people have different value system and what might be wrong to us might not be for them. And let's face it, when you put two people together, even if they are from the same cultural and social background/upbringing, there are still conflicting views and values. So, it's only normal.

    The thing is, I may be too idealistic but I believe that as an employer, the relationship doesn't end at paying for a service rendered. For me, it goes further than that especially when a particular employee has become a part of your life. I would assume that 3 years would qualify as that. Therefore, it is important as well for us to impart certain important values such as honesty and trust, as I've mentioned on my story.

    Very often and I don't mean it in a demeaning way, maids do not come from a high educational background. Hence, I tend to believe that they usually act out of ignorance (this only applies to minor mistakes and never be confused with incidents like child abuse, etc).

    From one human being to the other (those who do not have the same privilege as us to develop that kind of moral understanding or consciousness), I think it is our duty to help develop them as an honourable person. I know it's easy to say this because what do we know about their background? We have never been in their position and hence will not be able to understand). But I can say this with ease because they are our responsibilities and also as an employer, we have the right to make sure that dishonesty doesn't happen under our roof.

    Also, we have this funny ways of categorizing people. If your child or family members have done something like this, we have no problem talking to them about it. But when it's an "outsider", then it's like should we bother? And it makes us uncomfortable with that kind of confrontation.

    I still think that practising and maintaining an open communication with any of our employees is important. We don't have to attack them but we can address the issue with dialogue; meaning speak and listen.