Oct 2018 update: I have made some changes as my personal views have changed over the past year; the survey results are all the same just modified some of my opinions and recommendations. We have also changed Haus Meris!
In Papua New Guinea, many expats employ a Haus Meri (Pidgin for house lady) to clean and tidy their houses or apartments a few days a week. A Pikinini Meri (child lady) is someone who cares for children during the day, usually at the child’s house. Whilst the pay is comparably low compared to Australian cleaners, an extremely high unemployment rate in Port Moresby makes it an attractive position for some nationals. Compared to other low skilled positions in PNG, Haus Meris make a very decent income.
I recently conducted a survey that I advertised on an expats of POM Facebook page and got about 90 responses. I’ll use this data as well as my own anecdotal evidence to try and present some information about the Haus Meri industry.
Discussion and results
What do I know about Haus Meris? I’ve spent the last 16 months or so hanging out in my apartment during the day due to ridiculous visa issues so I have developed a pretty good friendship with Rita (name changed for privacy) who comes twice a week. Turns out, 2 days a week is a pretty common theme across PNG.
The first couple of months were quiet and awkward but we soon started chatting, laughing and learning. She tells me about how PNG “really works” and I tell her that mopping after vacuuming is a far better way to clean floors. Most people also chat to their Haus Meris in person.
Rita was introduced to us by one of my partner’s colleagues who, because of the High Comm bubble, is also our neighbour; turns out it’s not that uncommon.
She has told me that she much prefers cleaning places that don’t have kids, no surprises there. We have a pretty minimal setup so 08:00-15:00 with about an hour for lunch twice a week is plenty of time for her. I’ve heard and seen other Haus Meris clocking off at about midday which isn’t surprising if you live alone and there is very little cleaning to do.
So, money. I am sure this will be a great point of contention purely because of the spread you are about to see. In our case, we simply asked her previous employer, and resident of our apartment, what they paid her and continued with that. I got many “Other” responses to this question but they all focused around the same theme. I lumped a lot of people into yellow that wrote extended responses explaining how they set the rate, e.g. labour laws, performance, many years of service, yearly increases or asked around then decided to increase from the average. They all don’t escape the fact that the Haus Meri did not state her rate. I asked Rita why she has never asked for a raise or questioned the rate I put in her contract, her reply was simply, “I have no idea what to charge as I don’t know what anyone else charges”.
So what is the typical daily rate? K50. I didn’t bother with working out the average as there were some big outliers but basically, anything around the K50 mark seems to be pretty common.
Pikinini Meris came in at about the same rate…
When we first started paying Rita, I just left cash on the counter as most people do.
However after we got chatting, she told me that she had a problem saving and often her family/wantok and lack of discipline would mean she had nothing by the next fortnight. One of her previous bosses had helped her set up a BSP bank account and an EDA Supa account in her name, however it hadn’t been used in years.
I helped her set up a second BSP Plus Saver account which is a savings account that has no card associated with it and encourages savings. We split her pay over her regular BSP Kundu Account, Plus Saver and EDA Supa account according to her preferences.
Lending money, seems to be a common occurrence though. There were a few responses that stated they were happy gifting money or paying for things like medical bills which I moved to the next chart.
Speaking of medical bills a lot of responders have not bothered with a medical check. I took Rita to Port Moresby Medical Service in Boroko and paid approx K600 to have a blood test, xray (for TB) and general medical examination. The doctor was great and talked to us about blood pressure and strategies to lower it as hers was very high. I printed off some information about high blood pressure that contained simple English as a follow up as Rita didn’t understand some of the things the doctor said.
Rita now goes to a clinic called Lawes Road Clinic which is opposite Trukai Rice and next to Post PNG on Lawes Road. They offer free check ups for ladies and Rita has been happy with their services so far.
Since then (about 12 months ago) we have changed her lunch diet from tins of Ox&Palm bully beef, Em Nau salted biscuits and sugar filled tea to mixed veggies, brown rice with coconut oil and a couple of boiled eggs. Her blood pressure has plummeted to healthy levels, she has lost weight and says she feels a lot better. It took a while for her to work up the confidence to use the rice cooker and the gas but is happy now.
What everyone else does was a mixed bag. A lot of people, assumedly housewives/husbands, wrote in the Other option that they make lunch for their Haus Meris when they are making their own lunch, so I created an option for that and lumped them together.
We’ve all heard the hilarious stories about Haus Meris trying on clothing, having parties when they think their employer is out of country and washing their own clothes in your machines. My favourite is the employer finding photos of their apartment on Facebook as the Haus Meri posts selfies during the day. Whilst most of these can be seen as grounds for dismissal, why else have you let your Haus Meri go? I tried to group as many as I could together so the chart became useful but near the end, the Google Form database broke and I was left with the below.
Closing and suggestions
I’ve been lucky that I have been able to spend a lot of time at home with Rita and teach her the ways I prefer my apartment to be cleaned, e.g. mop bucket changed at least 3 times so dirt is not just being moved from room to room. She has also taught me a lot about how another culture works and how much I take for granted being raised in Australia.
We are about to increase her days to 3 days per week and help buy her a new sewing machine to encourage her to learn how to perfect clothing repair and alterations; she has already successfully tailored (darted) a business shirt of mine. She realises that Haus Meri work will not always be a viable income for her and desperately wants to learn new skills, including saving.
About 6 months ago I started explaining the concept of inflation, salary negotiation, supply/demand, competition to her. Only last week as I was talking to her about the results from the survey did she state a strong case (inflation based) about why she deserved a pay rise. Of course there was many “sorry”s and attempts to back out of the conversation but I’m very impressed she is standing up for herself and realising her value.
Rita’s message for expats
When I asked what message she would like to give the expats of POM on behalf of all Haus Meris, Rita told me the following:
– Setting up savings and super is something they all want but usually don’t know where to start. When you go back to your home country, consider what the Haus Meri will be left with.
– What are your expectations of what they should do when allowing contractors/workmen into your apartment. There are stories of multiple contractors giving themselves tours of bosses apartments. Haus Meris feel unsafe if they don’t know contractors are coming or if there is only one other man in the house with them.
– A reference is very important when you are leaving the country. Please take the time to write a meaningful reference. I stepped in and asked if it would be a good idea if the Haus Meri wrote 10 things she was proud of doing well so that employers who never interacted with their Haus Meri knew what to write about, Rita said that was a good idea.
– Make sure the Haus Meri knows it’s ok to leave a note when they run out of time and a small job still needs to be done. They are worried that it might be seen as poor performance.
– Lunch is important. Tinned meat/fish and biscuits is a terrible meal. Please encourage your Haus Meri to change what she eats as she will be unlikely to ask herself. Even toppings on biscuits, like peanut butter, would be nice. Don’t forget to provide food if there is an arrangement in place.
– Remember that some Haus Meris don’t have running water at home. Some Haus Meris would like to wash their clothes at your place. I said that this is unlikely to be alright with a lot of expats but she said that she has heard of Haus Meris getting fired for doing it.
– Don’t fire your Meri at the first mistake. Communicate clearly your expectations as not everyone has the same rules or assumptions.
When we were chatting, Rita admitted to me that she initially used to take her tinned meat and biscuits home to her family and go hungry for lunch. She said it’s common to take allocated food home as families need it. I explained that it was her job to provide food for her family, not her employers.
What can you do for your Haus Meri (in my humble opinion)?
I can guarantee you that if given the chance, she will likely be keen to start a savings plan.
– Offer to pay into a bank account, or two accounts if a second savings account might help with longer term savings goal.
BSP has a 60% market share so probably the best to go with them as her friends are likely members. See my bank analysis post for more information; careful of excessive fees!
– I don’t recommend a super fund anymore as it adds too much complexity onto payments. Of course if she wants to, go for it. I’d recommend the BSP Plus Saver as a way to have an account that has no easy card access and has a better chance of being kept away from family/wantok that want to help themselves to her savings.
Offer to change her diet to something that has less sodium and sugar; if she says no then at least you tried. I suggest teaching her how to use the rice cooker, assuming it also has a steaming tray, and get rice (brown rice was contentious to start with but is now accepted) and frozen mixed veg or broccoli going; two tablespoons of coconut oil in the rice cooker from the start too. Then put 2 eggs in water on the stove. Can’t be more than K5 per meal, gives you a hit of folate, fibre, carbs, fat and protein. Take a sickie and spend the day with her teaching her how to use your kitchen!
While you are at home with her, offer to demonstrate how you expect things to be done. Rita takes so much pride in her work and insists that other Haus Meris are the same, e.g. I’ve repeatedly told her I don’t need my pillow cases ironed but she says that she loves making the bedroom look neat and tidy.
Thanks for taking part in the survey if you did and I hope this information helps you make better decisions for the person that is making your life a whole lot easier!
2019 Update: Our new Haus Meri bought to my attention the cost of transport some Meris have to get to work. She has to catch 3 PMVs (the local bus service) each way. At K1 per PMV this means she is spending almost 10% of her income on transport (we pay her K65 per day and no longer provide lunch).