A sort of form-less rant...

>> Thursday, 11 March 2010

So much to write about, so little energy...

I should be sitting learning verbs and ordinals for my Russian lesson tomorrow (and no, before Wednesday this week I didn't know that 'ordinals' is the collective noun used to refer to 'first, second, third, fourth' etc etc either. What it is to have a private UK education, eh?). But sod that. Instead, I'm going to blog about the grist that keeps the mill of expat life in Moscow - and, I know, in a lot of places elsewhere - moving round. You guessed it. The Cleaning Lady.

I've written about my relationships with cleaners before, and to be honest for all my good intentions to be more business like and less appeasing once I arrived here, I find myself unable to do it.

I think the problem is, I ask questions about their lives. And now I know too much about them.

The cleaners in our little expat corner of Moscow are, by and large, Philippino. And they are, sometimes, taken for granted and advantage of. These are women who have travelled thousands of miles from their homes to the frozen north for the opportunity to earn enough money to support their families back home, to send their children to school, to pay for those children's university educations, to build a house for them and their parents to retire to. In short, to find some way to make a better life.

It's a simple equation, you might think. Come to Russia (or England, or the US, or the Middle East, or the Far East or really, practically anywhere), and spend a few years working your socks off to accumulate enough cash to take home and meet whichever goal it is you've set yourself. But it comes at a very high price.

Most of these women are not spring chickens. Despite their often youthful looks, many of them are early to mid-thirties and have left young families behind them to be cared for by their grandparents. It's often 2 years or more between visits home, and I've met some Philippinos who have children as young as 4 and 5 years old waiting for them. They work seven days a week - if they can - and all the hours god sends, all the better to earn money to pay off the comparatively high price they've paid to get here, and to save enough to go home sooner. In order to keep their costs down they often live 4 or 5 to a room, and spend very little money on themselves.

In addition to the job of cleaning and nannying (which in itself can be hard manual labour), and which many of them are over qualified for, having previously worked at completely different jobs back home before being seduced by the lure of quick, but definitely not easy money, they are subjected to various forms of harassment. To start with, the local population are sometimes not what you might call welcoming; Muscovites are not particularly open to those of ethnicities different to their own (recent studies have found that up to 60% of Africans living in the city have been subjected to racist attacks, for example).

Added to that there is a certain level of constant exploitation of vulnerable groups by more powerful ones. Just this week I was told that many of the cleaners in our area were late because they were being targeted by the police who had staked out the building a lot of them live in as they left for work. Understandably, a large number of them decided to wait it out avoid confrontation, by not leaving for work until the police had found something more worthwhile to do.

In addition, once they do make it to work, some of these women are treated less than well by their employers. It's a story from a different country but a friend recently told me how, when he was working in the Middle East, he was berated by a client who informed him that all the expats were ruining the market in Philippino cleaners for the locals. When my friend asked why, the answer he was given? Because the expats let their cleaners / maids out. Onto the streets. Where all they are going to do is spend all their money and get pregnant.

Unbelievable, right?

Sadly, not. And there are people everywhere who think this way. Some friends of mine who have been in Moscow for a while now decided a couple of years back to host an annual Christmas lunch in their home for the Phillippino community; a sort of a 'thankyou' for all the hard work and support they give (over and above financial rewards, obviously). It's a great success; they have a lot - a LOT - of guests that day. And yet there are people (employers) who don't get it. One half of the couple who hosts this lunch, not so long ago, was told by an acquaintance of a crazy family who - get this! - invites loads of Philippino's into their house at Christmas and feeds them! Waits on them, in fact! No, really! Who would do such a thing?

Ahem, said our friend. That would be me. (End of conversation).

I could go on. But I won't, because for every story of bad treatment and lack of courtesy there are many examples of these ladies being treated with respect and being made to feel part of the family. And even more importantly, most of them appear to eventually reach their goal and accumulate enough cash to go home.

I really hope and pray that it's worth it.

Note: in the interests of full disclosure; yes, we do have a Philippino cleaner working for us. Because, just like back home, not many locals want to do such a job - and neither do I...


The Green Stone Woman 11 March 2010 at 19:55  

At least I know you will treat your cleaning lady wonderfully, but it's a sad story. I had heard of this before about people like this living in the Mid East. Very sad!

nappy valley girl 11 March 2010 at 20:25  

Great and very interesting post, PM. And it is terrible what some of these people have to endure. I have an Ecuadorean cleaner here who has not seen her children for 10 years. Hearbreaking. The Middle East story is appalling, but does not surprise me. You hear about it happening in London too, sometimes - maids living in semi-slavery.

Nicola 12 March 2010 at 01:39  

Fantastic post. I have a Polish cleaner and we were only talking today about the difficulties she has had here in the states. Turns out she is a fully qualified organic chemist back in Europe. Of course her qualifiations aren't recognised in America - and it will cost her over $100,000 to continue her education here and obtain a similar qualification to what she already has.

Paradise Lost In Translation 12 March 2010 at 08:13  

Sadly, an all too familiar story. The Philippines are incrediblypoor. Even in the Philipines parents work on other islands & don't see their children for yrs. We have Philippino shere in Albania too. Actually they mostly work in beauty salons here wch i sa better job. But th eracism here from Albanians is unbelievable.
I LOVE that idea of hosting a Christmas dinner for the Philippino community.

Potty Mummy 12 March 2010 at 18:47  

Irene, I do try to treat her well. And why wouldn't one?

NVG, ten years? My god.

Nicola, impossible, isn't it?

Paradise, me too. Assuming we're here, will definitely be offering my services.

Expat mum 13 March 2010 at 21:43  

Like Nicola, I have a Polish cleaner. She is an accomplished artist and restorer, having studied at the Crakow Institute of Fine Art. Even though she's legal here, it's still very difficult to get other work. Mind you, the cleaners here earn a lot less than minimum wage so she's probably financially better off cleaning.

My old nanny was also Polish. She was a Physical Therapist in Poland and is trying to re-qualify here. First she has to take English proficiency exams, (4 years) and then her Physical Therapy stuff. Probably talking ten years and a lot of money.

Sparx 14 March 2010 at 16:33  

We used to have a Latvian cleaner who was very good - she was also, almost stereo-typically, a doctor back in Latvia. We lost her after 8 months when she had made her nest egg and was going home; we missed her but were very pleased to see her go. Licensed min-cab drivers in London are another lot - often very highly educated and with a family back home or putting themselves through re-training to qualify in the UK. We are so damned privileged.

Rachel M. 15 March 2010 at 01:24  

That was a great post Potty, thanks for bringing this to light. I can't imagine being separated for so long from my daughter and hope it's worth it for these women in the end. Sure does make me appreciate the advantages I have in my life.

evision,  30 March 2010 at 12:22  


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