The Problem with Mae Bans
When I was in Vientiane for two months I lived in a serviced apartment that included daily housekeeping. Every day a team of 3-4 trained maids entered the apartment, swept the floors, did the dished, cleaned the bathrooms, straitened up and they changed the linens and towels once a week. They were hired and managed by the company running the building and were included in my rent, meaning I didn’t know them, no money exchanged hands and if there was a problem, there was a clear chain of command. There were no problems. It was like living in a hotel and I loved having someone else do my dishes and make my bed.
Before I moved to Savannakhet in September, the woman who lived in my house last year and was helping us make contact with the landlords, asked if my roommate and I would continue to employ the Mae Ban, literally "house mother," or maid, as she had done. Her reasons were that this woman was very poor and needed the money. This seemed odd. While I had never employed household staff before, I doubted very seriously that those did took a potential employee’s socioeconomic status more seriously than their ability to do their job.
Upon arriving in Savankahet, we met with the landlords and they too were particularly pushy about us hiring this particular Mae Ban as she had worked in the house for many years and “knew what needed to be done.” They said that she had worked all day every Sunday last year and it was too tiring, so could we change her hours and reduce her job duties? We agreed that she would come 8 to 10 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and we agreed to do our own laundry.
The Mae Ban was difficult to communicate with. She wore a face mask at all times which prohibited me from seeing her mouth move (which I’ve found is very helpful in deciphering a new language.) She grumbled a lot and sometimes butted into my Lao lessons. She clearly didn’t enjoy her work. "What needed to be done" seemed up for debate and rarely seemed to include actually cleaning the house.
The Mae Ban spent most of her time sweeping. Sweeping the living room, the walkways, the grass out front. If I wanted my sheets changed I first half way took off the bedding and put the new sheets on the corner of the bed to “give her the hint.” She did our dishes, but since she only came three times per week, they piled up over the weekend and sometimes attracted bugs.
When I got a new roommate in December, she asked how the Mae Ban worked. I said that she didn’t speak English and wasn’t particularly good at her job and needed a lot of reminders. My new roommate took to writing post it notes saying “clean” in Lao and putting them on the doors to the bathrooms, which, as the showers were clogging, didn’t seem to be getting their fair share of attention.
The Mae Ban was good at throwing these notes away, forcing my new roommate to have to re-write them each week, but pretty bad at cleaning the bathrooms. She most just sprayed water on the floor and called it a day. She was often late, sometimes by almost an hour. The final straw was when we adopted our cat.
The Mae Ban did NOT like the cat. She tried several tactics to air her displeasure. She told us we were not allowed to have animals in the house. This stipulation is not in the lease. The landlords were away in the capital for a month and I politely told the Mae Ban that I would take the matter up with the landlords when they returned. She said that a while ago people in the house had a dog and she had to clean up the dog shit and she didn’t want to do that. I told her that our cat, like all good western cats, shit in a box. She was skeptical. (All of my Lao friends seem to be when I show them the letterbox, evidently Lao people just let their cats go anywhere then clean it up.)
She said she couldn’t clean the house because the cleaning supplies were in the laundry room and so was the cat. When we first got him, we quarantined him to the smallest room until we could get his flea problem under control. We eventually moved him into our workout room on days she was coming and put a big X on the door for fear she would let him out or harm him in some way. The cat did not like being contained to one room and cried and cried until we returned from work. This situation was clearly not working out.
We talked it through. The human resources problem in Laos is real, as is the lack of work ethic and tendency for workers to do only exactly what they are asked and nothing more. We decided to buy a mop and fire our Mae Ban. The benefits were simply not outweighing the costs. The tipping point was when the vet quoted a price for our cat’s neutering: it was the exact amount of one month’s salary for our Mae Ban.
But how do you go about firing an employee you inherited who speaks a language you’re barely conversational in? Tell her, “Don’t come?” Or “I don’t want you to work.” Or some other bastardized sentence composed of the few words I knew in Lao? Being the millennial I am, I turned to Facebook. I wrote my landlord a nice message to the tune of “Upon careful consideration, we have decided we would prefer to clean our own house. Please inform our Mae Ban that her serviced are no longer required and thank her for her service to this point.”
Then, in case our point wasn’t crystal clear, we changed the lock on the door for a week so the Mae Ban's key wouldn’t allow her access to the house. I still see her next door at the landlord’s house hanging laundry (which, she did not do for us,) sweeping or doing yard work. She still doesn’t talk to me. Due to some internet searching and a baking soda/vinegar volcano, our bathrooms are cleaner than they ever have been. The dishes get done daily, and the cat has free reign of the house.