Monday, 16 January 2012

Katjie is a no-show

Our domestic worker was supposed to arrive at approximately 04:00 am this morning. She didn't. When Mo called her (because I steer clear of all potentially confrontional issues with our domestic workers, family, friends etc etc; choosing simply to hide behind him), her daughter told him that the taxi had failed to pick her up. She will be here on Thursday.

I'm not so sure.

This woman, named Katjie is about 55 years old. She had worked for us until about two years ago, when she left, saying that she wanted to retire from domestic service. I understood that perfectly and supported her, making various suggestions as to what she could do to earn extra money in her own town. Obviously she was getting tired of working away from home for such long periods of time. I understood that completely too . The life these women are forced to live, leaving home and often their children, for months at a time, is heartbreaking. It makes one appreciate one's family unit, and the fact that we can be there for them 24/7. I often feel guilty that in order for them to be here assisting me with my kids, they had had to leave theirs.

They are often greatly underpaid and exploited. We have always tried to be fair when it comes to their salary, working conditions, working hours etc. In addition, in our home everyone understands that they are here to assist us- not slave away for us. I have heard of and witnessed some of the atrocities which some of these women are forced to endure- very often by people with whom I was well-acquainted.

Because of the personal nature this particular employer-employee relationship can sometimes assume, and the fact that sleep-in domestic workers share our space and our lives so closely, this relationship is often fraught with tension. They live as part of the family, but are to some extent always subservient by virtue of the fact that you are paying their salary.

I have never managed to strike a good balance. Because of my nature and the fact that I see myself as dependent on them, I tend to relinquish control completely. Instead of this making for a more harmonious relationship, it often causes more conflict as they then find it easy to ignore my requests (to do tasks which form part of their job). When I try to assert my authority (I am hearing laughter in my head) as the employer and attempt to insist that a job be completed, it is often met with resistance; which is when I am forced to get Mo to step in. Although he is the one whom they regard with more authority, at the end of each relationship; he is the one whom they respect and even like more.

Often my relationship with them would have been ruined by the fact that I attempted to stand up for myself or stand my ground on a particular issue.

I truly am a wimp.

I really really hate this relationship. I am not cut out for it and I hate that I am so dependent upon it.

Aunty Katjie ended up working in a neighbouring suburb about two weeks after leaving us. I can only assume that she had left for more money; which was fine with me. We always paid the going rate, and I would have been happy to support her leaving if she had told me that she had been offered more money elsewhere (really, I would have). Leaving one job for a higher-paying one  is a completely normal thing for an employee to do, but once again the fact that the relationship becomes so personal often makes the decision to leave an uncomfortable one.

Someone I knew realised that her anger at her domestic worker leaving had resulted from the fact that their relationship had turned into one of friendship. When the employee left, she had therefore viewed it as a betrayal of their relationship.

The complexity this relationship sometimes assumes is often exacerbated when there are kids, who don't view the worker as an employee of the family at all, but as a friend or sometimes even a second mom.

So I completely understood Katjie's reluctance to tell us the truth as to why she was leaving. She too hates direct confrontation, which she had probably assumed the discussion would become had so told the truth.

She was not averse to passive-aggression though. I often wondered if she was spitting in our food when we angered her for any reason.

She was also not afraid to speak her mind. She became very sulky at one point when we had told her that we could not afford to buy a television for her quarters as yet; but she was welcome to watch the television in the house. She had threatened to leave if she didn't get a TV of her own.

So why are we even considering taking her back, you might ask. She had had a good relationship with Nuha and was just starting to bond with Aisha, who had been a few months old when she left. I know that she will not do anything to harm the kids deliberately and she had proven that she could be trusted with our property and large amounts of money belonging to us.

Better the devil you know, I suppose. I cannot bear the thought of letting a new person into our home and family- I just do not have the strength for that right now.

Before she agreed to come, she had requested R800 for her 2 youngest kids' school shoes. (I have no idea what type of fancy school shoes she was buying her kids that cost so much!). She requested Mo to send this along with R500 for the taxi.

Upon hearing this, I became really uncomfortable. It reminded me too much of her 'Buy me a TV or I'll leave' ultimatum. So Mo offered to send R500 for the kids' school shoes and would pay the taxi driver his fare when they dropped her here. She had agreed to this arrangement.

I cannot help wondering if we've just been had. I guess we'll have to wait until Thursday to find out.

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