You must have by now come across the story of Jolly Tumuhiirwe, a Ugandan maid who was caught on secret camera torturing 18-month-old Arnella. Tumuhiirwe, who has been charged with attempted murder and due to appear in court on December 8, 2014 has asked the ‘world’ to forgive her for what she did. She is said to have been recorded as having said the following in the aftermath of the horrible incident. “My dad in Kabale was very sick and yet my mom did not have any money. I asked my bosses for some money to send to my dad but they told me that I hadn’t made a month yet and my father was dying, so it kept on haunting me.”

Systems Think,Sam Hlabati

“That is the more reason I referred the anger to the baby but I’m sorry. But that madam (Arnella’s mom) is not easy. She used to say that I steal money from the clothes and Eric’s wallet, I eat the babies food…and yet I can’t eat the food, I’m not a baby, those were all lies, so, I was also not happy from my heart.”

Yours truly wrote a piece that was published in this column on 13 June 2014. I feel obliged to reiterate the same message that I shared then, particularly now that there are hot debates about how to handle the balance between working and getting someone to look after our children.

The ever increasing entrance of women into the workplace has created a phenomenon of dual career couples; thus both husband and wife are pursuing their professional careers whilst simultaneously raising a family. The duality of the careers does not stop the process of procreation and the need to raise children. The absence of both the mother and the father from the household comes with its own problems; the household has to be taken care of and the children have to be raised. These key aspects of family life are delegated to the domestic workers.

In an organisation of considerable size, a week does not pass without a team member phoning in to say that they will not be coming into the office because their maid did not return after the weekend.

The team member would be frantically trying to call the domestic helper whose mobile phone would be routing all calls to voice mail.

That is the order of the day with maids; an absence on a Monday morning is a good signal of quitting the job; especially if it occurs after the wages had been received just before going away on the weekend. The excuse on return to duty; particularly after a couple days of absence would be “Sorry I was not feeling well and my phone was off as there was no electricity”. Phew!, that would be probably a case of a maid having gone to try out a new job and would have changed their mind; otherwise it is silence until they come to collect their few belongings after some weeks.

The employing “madams” are surely trigger-happy at times, if their dishing out of dismissals are anything to go by. Imagine if all instances of unfair dismissals of domestic workers were referred for arbitration, the Ministry of Labour’s arbitrators would account for half of the Public Service staff complement if they were to cope with the workload.

Let us look at the concept of work-life-balance from the perspective of what the employee can do to effectively juggle their social responsibilities in a manner that will not hamper their own careers. I can swear that there are people who have hired more than 10 maids in the past four years; yet they themselves have been employed in one job over the same period of time. If you are one of those persons, or at least know someone who has such a hiring and firing record, you may identify with the saying Vasikana vebasa vanenge vakazvarwa mumba imwechete, vese vanonetsa (a lamentation that all maids are troublesome such that one could conclude that they are from the same family). Conversely, the maids have similar complaints about their employers.

So what would we say about the families that have had the same maid for over 10 years and are still happy about her service? Obviously you will say that those families are lucky. Let us critically look at the obvious reasons why it may be difficult to keep a maid. The reason we have to look at how one should endeavour to keep good domestic staff is that the disturbances in the household and family upkeep will eventually have a negative impact on your career, either directly or indirectly. The direct impact is that you are constantly unsettled with the sudden departure of the domestic worker which leaves you under pressure; most true for the modern working women.

The indirect impact is that your attention is always required to take every new maid through the induction process on how you require certain things to be done in your household.

Chief among the reasons we have to continually change domestic workers is because of our hiring mistakes. The process is usually conducted through the passing of information about a gardener or maid who is available at a time when you are looking to fill a vacancy at your household. The reference is usually through a “good word” that is relayed by the person who is helping the prospective domestic employee in looking for work. The typical domestic employer (that’s you) does not have patience in moulding the employee that they require. The management process is usually an assessment of the capabilities and then summary dismissal; when the next potential better employee comes on the horizon; just simple “body swapping”.

The vicious circle begins and on; and the poor little souls in your household, your children, have to adjust from one “aunty” to the next.

The children for whose care the domestic employee is hired could develop a mentality of disrespecting the instructions of the helpless maid, why would they be bothered by a person who can be fired on the spot; sometimes on the instance of the children’s fabrications of allegations against the domestic. The resultant delinquency that will develop among the children would eventually impact on you the parent when you have to divert your attention to trying to bring back on course. The other reason domestic employers find it difficult to keep their staff is related to remuneration and conditions of service. The hours that these individuals work amounts to real abuse; they are expected to be up before the boss wakes up and they are expected to be available late in the evening till the boss gets to the forty winks stage. Often a maid would change jobs for a difference of an amount as small as US$20 in their salary. You may think that the amount is negligible, but consider what that amount would do to the package of someone earning US$60 a month.

That is an increase of 30 % on one’s earnings. In these hard times, many professionals would change jobs for such an increase.

The domestic employer’s defence would always be that the domestic does not need an increase for they get free food and accommodation.

Next time try paying for your child’s school fees with food; the domestic workers have lives that require money, not payment in kind.

Jolly Tumuhiirwe, the “monster maid” from Uganda was asking for financial assistance to help her parents, according to her statement. If it is true that besides not being given the assistance, she was accused of stealing, then what could have been her feeling about the job.

Would it not be better if we could have maids that we could keep for a longer period? The ones that would see your child through growth from being an infant to entrance into university. The ones that could be seen as part of the family; reliable and dependable. In that ideal world we could focus on our dual careers without much worries knowing that the household and the children are in good hands. That would be your own contribution to ensure your work life balance is stabilised.

No-one can guarantee you the stability of the domestic workforce at your home. No-one will be able to recruit the best domestic worker for you. You have to do the recruiting yourself. The performance that you require from your domestic worker should be conveyed thorough your clear instructions that are delivered with full respect of the humanity of the person receiving the instruction.

Remember to pay reasonably well, putting incentives for good work done. Reward loyalty by reviewing the remuneration package. Your domestic deserves leave, spell it out in advance and you will be able to retain a good person.

You may not realise that the work-life balance in your life is, among other things, affected by the calibre of the domestic help that you have at home, but I tell you it definitely does get affected. As the Zulus would say, “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu”, which means that a person is a person through other persons. That domestic is a human being who is at work just like you are employed in your organisation. The domestic worker impacts your life and you impact theirs, the relationship is in your hands to mould into something that is mutually beneficial.

Though she was not necessarily a maid, Nelson Mandela had a long-time private assistant and “honorary granddaughter” Zelda la Grange, who came from Afrikaner middle-class obscurity to become the right hand of South Africa’s first black president. She had a loving boss for whom she dedicated her life to serve with honour. In return Madiba remembered her in his will, ahead of some of his kith and kin.

The person who takes good care of your household and children is closer to you than your distant cousin. Create a conducive environment for an endearing working relationship with your domestic staff.


Sam Hlabati is a senior professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati