On the salaries of domestic staff

An uncomfortable early task is to negotiate the salaries of domestic employees.

Haiti, as every article ever written about the island is quick to state, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. (There. I have written it too now; a rite of passage.) This means salaries are low.

Nothing like Chiclets gum to while away those hours spent walking

It also creates a certain tension. You don’t want to rock the boat (and potentially skew the local economy) by paying too much, you don’t want to seem like a soft touch, and – let’s be honest here – one of the benefits of living in a developing country is, for us westerners, affordable domestic staff. It is one of Haiti’s very few ‘comparative advantages’ (a brutal euphemism for deprivation).

At the same time, for a confirmed liberal who has written many words about economic injustice, and who – in turn – is quick to condemn the grotesque salaries of western bankers at a time of financial crisis, paying poverty wages feels deeply hypocritical. You also want your staff to feel like they have a good deal. After all, they are looking after your children and keeping you safe.

So what to do? Well, basically you aim for a magical “fair wage” that offers staff a better opportunity than they would have otherwise, but still broadly in line with prevailing market conditions. The excuse you make is that – at least as a newcomer – you don’t really know who you are hiring, there will be a lot of training involved, so you will wait to see how they work out before offering a potentially more generous deal. (Experience from Africa suggests that people quickly forget these first world predilections, and settle into the local way of things. We shall see.)

Go to school, work hard, maybe you'll be able to negotiate a better salary

You also promise to yourself to treat your staff with dignity; offer them occasional luxuries from the fridge (luxuries they would never otherwise afford) – but at the same time not to create a sense of entitlement to your possessions. It is a constant balancing act.

For example, we hire Finante as a nanny. We discuss with a previous employer how much she is paid. We use what little knowledge we have about wages from other negotiations. We consider the task she faces. And thus, for this initial period, via various arcane and ultimately arbitrary calculations, we settle on the not-so-princely figure of 65 Haitian dollars, which is 325 Gourdes (Haiti’s evocatively named currency – which is around US$8 a day.

[Update. We lifted it to 400 gourdes a day. That is $10. Still not exactly high].

She makes a minimal effort at negotiation, but her heart does not appear to be really in it, and she accepts quickly.

It’s striking – unemployment is so high here that the employer is totally in the driving seat. A curious sensation to be the boss, after being on the other end of the transaction for so long. One can feel its powerful allure.

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2 responses to “On the salaries of domestic staff

  1. loving the pics mark!

    there was a lot of debate on this in cambodia when we were there. average salary for a nanny had gone from 75 to 200US in a couple of years. there is the obvious argument that it is pittance for the amount of hours and work they do. on the other hand, there was the fact that teachers, police, lawyers and the like were leaving their jobs to become drivers and nannies for the expats. there is another argument that eventually you reach the limit, and where one family might have hired two people, they can no longer afford to do so, so one is out of a job (gone from a salary of 70 back to zero). at the end of the day, and for the most part, the aid economy tends to not be very good for the local economy…

    • yes – there is always the fear of heart surgeons becoming taxi drivers to feed the international presence. it is a false economy, and can be quite damaging. and yet…

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