Information about Haus Meris (housekeepers) in PNG

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!

Background

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.

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.

About a third of respondents (29) answered with K50 per day. Note that the graph style changed as I broke the Google Form database near the end of my analysis and I needed to manually recreate this graph in Calc.

Pikinini Meris came in at about the same rate…

X-axis is kina

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 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 meat, Em Nau biscuits and sugar filled tea to frozen 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.

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.

 

 

11 responses so far.

  1. Olga says:

    Thank you so much for this information, some of it was s real surprise. Will make some changes and see how we go.

  2. Irene G says:

    A real insight on the workings of POM housekeeping. Thank you.

  3. Celina says:

    Great work on putting this informative piece together. I’ve never been able to convince haus Meris on saving plans, but compounded interest could be a game changer – with a slight pay increase to boot.

  4. Milana says:

    Most people are very busy at work and got no time to ask and consider what hause meri wants.. I know we have to act like civilised but sorry I’ve got no time to worry about her needs…they all are grown people and if I have to worry every time I let her in my house about these things( which I’m busy) then why I’m a hell I do need her services?? Ridiculous article I think. We all are employees . I found PNG people are lazy!

    • PeeEnnGee says:

      That last sentence was unnecessary to add, especially if you’re a resident here in PNG, reaping the attractive benefits of an expat over your PNG colleague.

      It would seem that you haven’t been to most of our rural areas (even to an average household in the urban area) to see how we live without the comfortable perks you take for granted, like power, technology, running water and HAUSMERIs!

      So please don’t generalise.

  5. Renee says:

    Simon, I know you mean well but this blog post is condescending, patronising and the stench of rich, white male privilege is almost too much to bear. Not to mention the fact that your activity admitted to here is illegal, you cannot withhold money from your employee! You are not a bank. You seem to be completely ignorant of power imbalances in your relationship with Rita, your suggesting that you withhold money from her pay is not something she will feel comfortable disputing. You can claim that she has consented to this but you need to understand that you are her white male employee, and she needs this job desperately. In any case it is evident that she did not fully understand that the money was being kept for her by the fact that she asked you for a loan. There are labour laws in PNG that you are breaking by withholding her pay. You, her employer, are not allowed to keep money from her and then control her access to it. You can help her set up a savings account but you cannot keep her money! As for the super account, this is beyond ridiculous, the Super company sounds dodgy as hell, do you honestly ever think she will see that money? Life expectancy in PNG is 62 years! Superannuation makes sense in developed countries because we may end up retiring for as many years as we spend working, that is just not the case in PNG. There are many ways that people in PNG prepare for retirement by investing in various low energy money making enterprises, and a superannuation account is not necessarily the right choice, you need to find out what is going to work for her, and again, your Haus Meri needs to be in control of her own money, and it sounds like she really needs the money right now. Which brings me to the ‘stealing rice’ scenario… do you really begrudge this poor woman a bag of rice to feed her family? When you are taking away half her pay? Oh and possibly the most patronising part of your article was the bit where you only allow her to eat brown rice, boiled eggs and frozen veges for lunch… seriously? That sounds disgusting. Yes we should be teaching about the relationship between health and food, and we should be providing healthy food choices, but surely you can offer something better than that. I provide for my Pikini Meri fresh meat (stored in the freezer), rice, bread, condiments, fresh vegetables, and a bunch of other stuff, and I also buy Ox and Palm and those little fast noodle packs because she really loves them, she knows they are unhealthy and she eats them once or twice a week but you know what? I eat crap sometimes too because I can’t be bothered cooking or preparing something healthy and I am glad I don’t have an employer such as you policing me about it. These woman may be uneducated but they are smart, and they have brought up families, and they actually do know what’s best for them and their families, they don’t need the ‘clever white man’ to control their finances and their food! Help Rita by talking to her about savings, investments and health choices, and assist her in setting things up, but please don’t control her money and her food.

    • Simon says:

      Thank you for your feedback Renee. I frequently forget to check my privilege and always appreciate being reminded to do so.

      As Rita contributed ideas, gave feedback on drafts and eventually read the final article, I will be sure to show her your comment so she can see her own situation from someone else’s point of view.

  6. Natasha says:

    Hi Simon, Thanks for the article. Very interesting. I wanted to ask more about the Eda Supa that you contribute to for Rita. You mention that contributing is a bit of a joke and you have to be very careful to ensure that the money you contribute is allocated to Rita’s account. Do you still think this is a viable way of saving for retirement? Also, do you know what the retirement age is when people can access their account? The information on the Eda Supa page suggests that if you do not contribute for more than 3 months your account is inactive and you’re encouraged to contribute – but what happens if you can’t? Will the account still be there for you when you reach retirement age? Be grateful for your feedback. Thanks!

    • Simon says:

      Great points Natasha. Since writing this article and receiving so much feedback, I have started to rethink if superannuation is the best option to recommend. One of the main reasons I encouraged Rita to use a super account is that she told me that she finds it difficult to save money over the long term as her family have access to her bank accounts and she finds it difficult not to spend money when she has it available. Her super account is separate and, since there is a K20 withdrawal fee, she told me she is encouraged to not consider accessing it.
      Sita has since begun the process to open a BSP Plus Saver account that is separate to her regular BSP account. Once that is up and running and it proves to be an effective way for Rita to put money aside for her own future, I will sit down with her and we’ll figure out what’s the best option.

      • Natasha says:

        Thanks Simon. It appears like the system is just against people. If you have a bank account and there’s no activity for 3 months then the bank closes your account and you lose all the money you had in there. It doesn’t exactly encourage people to save does it? There is no best option sadly.

        • Simon says:

          I know they don’t close the account as Rita had not contributed for many months before I employed her. It would be good to get clarification as to what an inactive account means though. No interest maybe? It was not difficult to reactivate her supa account though.

          Makes you appreciate other countries who have active competition so that they have no choice but to provide better options for their customers!

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