She Cannot—But I Can!
By Karl Homann
Do you know where and how the woman who cleans your house lives? After hiring Maria eight years ago, a single mother of two, I asked her to show me. She lived at the outskirts of Chapala in a shack made of plywood, a tin roof, and black plastic bags, with a dirt floor and in the middle of a dusty field. When it rained, the water ran right through it. When the wind blew, the dust covered everything inside. No running water, no indoor toilet. No wonder, she had chronic bronchitis and allergies, according to my doctor to whom she has free access.
I said to her: “I do not want anyone who works for me, live in such wretched conditions. Find yourself a real house, small, with stone walls and windows, with a secure door, running water and indoor plumbing.” She did. Can she afford the rent? No, she cannot; but I can.
Cleaning two or three houses a day at 50 pesos an hour, which in many cases has not been raised for years, Maria gains perhaps 6000 to 7000 pesos a month. Can you live on 365 USD a month, even in Mexico, and feed, house, clothe two children, pay the school fees and utensils and take them to the doctor? Neither can she.
Mexico’s inflation rate was 6.35% for the past 12 months. The last five year inflation rate is 21%. Maybe it’s time to raise our employees’ hourly pay rate.
Maria has been working since she was 13 and never went to school. The fathers of her two sons, 13 and 15, give her no financial support. She has no health insurance and will have no pension. She can get medical attention if she goes to the Seguro Popular clinic at five or six in the morning, takes a number and, perhaps, sees a doctor at two in the afternoon. But what good is that to her? She would lose a day of her already meager wages.
When her older son, Gabriel, recently broke a bone in his foot, the visit to a private doctor, the cast, the medication and the crutches came to 1950 pesos. Could she afford a week’s wages to pay for everything? No, she could not, but I could.
Her younger son, Oscar, is 13. He can neither read nor write. He is often suspended from school or just shunted along. Yet, he is an otherwise amiable and smart child. I took him to a child psychiatrist in Guadalajara. The diagnosis: attention deficit, hyper-activity, anxiety and dyslexia. Can his mother afford the 800 pesos per consultation and 500 pesos per month for medication? Of course not. But I can.
Since Oscar is obviously not cut out for an academic career, I take him twice a week to a carpentry class in Riberas (Have Hammer Will Travel), which he loves and gives him a sense of accomplishment.
I am telling Maria’s story, not to brag, but to let people know that her story is not unique. There are many Marias who clean our houses, live from one day to the next and cannot afford any extra expenses for their family’s health or children’s education.
Do you pay your employees’ bus fare to get to your place? At 20 or so pesos from Chapala to Ajijic and return, for example, and any other place in between, that comes to 150 or 200 pesos a week, or three or four hours of their hourly wage.
Or pay for annual vacation days – the number depends on the years worked – as the labor laws require? Or overtime when they work on Sundays, or triple the salary on national holidays, as required by law? Or the Christmas bonus (aguinaldo)? Do you pay a severance fee proportional to the time they have worked for you, when you no longer need their service?
A woman for whom Maria had worked for six years, asked her recently not to come to work for three months because some money was missing from her house, or so she thought. Maria was more upset about having her honesty and integrity questioned than losing her job.
Wait a minute, I said, why three months? The Federal Labour Law requires that any termination of service be in writing, stating the reason for the dismissal. Furthermore, it needs to be accompanied by a severance payment that is commensurate with the time worked and the wages earned. Any such claim expires after two months.
My lawyer wrote Maria’s employer a letter that requested her presence in the office, where the lawyer presented her with the fact that she owed Maria 18000 pesos. The woman was remorseful because the “missing” money had been found, and she not only paid the severance, as required, but also the lawyer’s fee.
Expats contribute a lot to the local community, no doubt, and give to charities. Personally, I give directly to “my” family and know that every peso gets there. That is my way; it may not be yours.
And what do I get out of helping Maria? Lots! First, simply the joy of making someone else’s life a little easier. Secondly, I no longer spend Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve alone or with strangers in a restaurant. I spend it with “my” family, the Mexican way: in front of her house, with a small fire taking the chill out of the night.
And when I get to the point in time where I can no longer do for myself what I do know, Maria can. I will stay in my familiar house, and she will work for me full time, instead of running around from house to house to clean. And I will pay her what I would in an assisted living place, which more likely than not will be three times as much as she makes now.
And when I die, Maria will ensure that my notarized end-of- life directions and the prepaid funeral plan will be carried out. She will be the beneficiary of all I own and whatever money I have in the bank.
For further details, see either the Ley Federal del Trabajo(Spanish) or a summary in English at http://rollybrook.com/employee-pay.htm.