Navigating Mexico: Domestic Help

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One of the great things about living in Mexico is that, for most foreigners, domestic help such as cleaning ladies, drivers and gardeners are affordable luxuries.

But what exactly can you expect from your cleaning lady in terms of sprucing up your home?

The short answer is whatever both of you have agreed upon. The long answer is that it is complicated.

Domestic help has a long history in Mexico, as in most Latin American countries. In bygone years in Europe, the United States and Canada, in-home employees were common only among the upper classes and have since disappeared as machines for both kitchen and laundries have become more common.

In Mexico, that change has taken much longer.

Mexican upper-class homes might still have a variety of live-in help to assist with cleaning, food preparation, childcare and gardening.

But for middle-class families, live-in help is pretty much a thing of the past.

Until about the 1960s and 1970s, middle-class homes, and even apartments, were generally constructed with a servant’s quarters as part of the edifice, typically off the kitchen or on top of the building.

But with changing times and lifestyles, more and more middle-class Mexican families might now have someone who assists with cleaning once or twice a week.

In the past, internal immigration supplied workers, typically teenage girls, who came from remote areas of the country. The expectation was that the family who brought the young woman would be responsible for her welfare while she was living with them, and some of these girls stayed with a family for close to their entire work life.

But there were no guarantees for the workers. While in some households these workers may have become part of the family, there were no assurances as to vacations, education or retirement.

To some extent, that scenario has changed as government-mandated health care and labor laws have evolved.

But while Mexican labor laws have been in effect since 1931, domestic workers have been, and still, are often under the radar.

Without a written work contract, it is a challenge for a domestic worker to establish years of service or take legal action against an abusive employer.

Since the vast majority of domestic workers today neither live inside the employer’s home nor work all week with the same employer, about 10 years ago the Mexican government began campaigns to move domestic workers into the ranks of the formal economy.

Not many have taken advantage of state benefits such public health care and retirement programs since, although the employer is responsible for paying 75 percent of the cost, the worker must contribute the other 25 percent, which can eat into their take-home pay.

Moreover, many domestic workers are concerned that they will have to pay back taxes on formally undeclared income.

Consequently, most domestic employees in Mexico continue to work in the shadows, rotating from house to house throughout the week, sometimes even working in two households for a few hours each in a single day.

Under this scheme, a domestic worker could end up having a significant tax-free monthly income, charging between 400 and 500 pesos for each home.

Back to the original question of what you can expect from your help, the answer is, as previously stated, whatever is previously agreed upon.

But your maid is not expected to be your secretary, give you massages, clean up after your drunken brawls, work overtime or endure inappropriate behavior of any kind.

Technically, she is entitled to you paying a portion of her government health care, so you should offer, although chances are she will decline.

Treat your domestic help well, and they will return the favor in spades.

Treat them badly, and you will have trouble finding someone to replace them when they walk out.

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