A good friend of mine used to joke that "only boring women keep clean houses," and being anything but boring myself, I have always vowed to pay someone to do my cleaning if I could ever afford to do so. But I got a rude awakening when I triumphantly posted in my Livejournal that I'm paying my new maid 500 ringgit a month for eight hours a week of labor. To see my actual cost, divide that by 3.5. When I posted that blog, I did so with the idea that my American friends would be jealous, a rare occasion because having a maid is one of the few perks of living in Malaysia. Instead, my friends informed that this 40-yr old woman will be make $4.46 an hour, making me a sweat shop slave driver. The money I am giving her is what she asked to be paid for the amount of work that she proposed to do, though, so what that amount meant hadn't entered my mind. And I have the air conditioning on with NPR's All Things Considered in the background. Surely she could do worse.
My conscience was unsettled, though, so I decided to check up on whether she's getting a good part-time wage for Malaysia. Actually, it appears that house maids are doing pretty well according to this salary guide. There currently is no minimum wage in Malaysia, but look at this article which proposes a minimum wage of 1,200 ringgits. My maid earns almost half of that for eight hours a week. If she has two other houses, she's doing better than that, and if she works 40 hours a week, she's making almost double what authorities here think is a living wage. Despite what you might think, by paying maids so highly, we are empowering these women in a market where their unskilled labor would earn far less in other sectors.
But if all of this is true, then why do I feel like I am doing something wrong? I boycotted Nike shoes and Taco Bell tomatoes back in the day because of labor abuses. Of course, my house cleaning is hardly a matter of out-sourcing U.S. jobs or paying illegal immigrants less than locals. In fact, I am paying her more because it's possible to get Indonesian girls to work for you full-time for 500 ringgits. But do I only make myself feel better by saying "Oh, but someone else is worse!" Or am I legitimately doing what any overseas employer does, which is to pay the local going rate? Methinks I doth protest too much.