It’s a typical scene in one of Cairo’s most well known shopping areas, abuzz with families popping in and out of stores and stalls. To maximise their shopping experience, many parents have dropped their children off in a specialised kids’ area attached to the mall. Even a cursory glance into the fully-packed kids’ zone reveals the situation clearly. The majority of the children are accompanied by foreign babysitters. There is no doubt that the market of foreign maids in Egypt is on the rise, with six out of ten babysitters of African descent, and only one of the remaining four Egyptian.
About five years ago, only well off families had a foreign maid at home, most probably a Filipino dressed in a white uniform who was paid in US dollars. But inside an average Egyptian household, it was customary to have an Egyptian servant who came in once or twice a week for general cleaning, or else a teenage housemaid who permanently stayed in the house with a pre-agreed monthly vacation. Nowadays, the situation is vastly different. Many families have approached maid agencies to help them employ a foreign servant due to the unavailability of Egyptian maids. One of the primary reasons: many women in Egypt, especially working mothers, believe that there are potentially more problems with having an Egyptian domestic servant rather than a foreign maid.
Hanan Al-Moussa, a 35-year-old working mother, says she has stopped hiring Egyptian servants because of the “many bad experiences” she has witnessed with them. “Many of them have stolen my jewellery, money and children’s clothes… This is in addition to the poor quality of service they provide,” she says. Also, Al-Moussa, who is away from her house for 40 working hours per week, says Egyptian maids are not as responsible as foreign maids. “There is a really big difference between having an Egyptian babysitter who you know through a friend or relative, and a foreign maid who comes in through an agency,” she says. If a foreign maid steals anything from the house, the responsible agent knows how to either deduct the costs from her salary or to return the stolen items back to the house, explains Al-Moussa. “This is unlike Egyptian maids who are mostly thieves and cannot shoulder the responsibility of the entire house,” she generalises.
But Amira Saleh disagrees. “I have had many difficulties bringing a foreign maid into my home. They don’t understand what we say and their English is not so good. Most of them take at least three months to get accustomed to the house system,” she says. Saleh had a Nigerian housekeeper for almost four months and says the servant was “very slow… I would ask her to make me a cup of tea and she would make coffee with milk instead.”
Foreign maids are usually divided into categories based on experience. African immigrants, mainly coming from Nigeria, Ghana or Guinea, do not mind cleaning and babysitting at the same time. Newcomers who have been in Egypt less than three months earn about $400. Just one year ago, inexperienced Nigerian maids used to accept a monthly salary of $350. “Now the situation is different…They ask for more money because the demand is increasing every day,” says Essam Abdel Hamid, a maid agent who has been working in the field for more than seven years. He says that experienced African maids, who have been working in Egypt for more than a year, usually do not agree to do both housekeeping and babysitting. “They ask to do only one of the jobs because they feel they are more qualified than the newer, inexperienced ones,” he says. Abdel Hamid explains that an average African house helper works for 26 days with four days of vacation per month. “Some agree to sell their holidays while others do not… It depends on the agreement the maid has with the Madame (employer),” he elaborates.
A community of Nigerian maids
Dammy Oyinda, a Nigerian servant who has been in Egypt for over a year, says she used to work as a babysitter and a cleaner at the same time for about eight months, but now she only accepts cleaning assignments. “It is very hectic to work both. If the load is too much I can just change houses after three months,” she says. Oyinda explains that a group of about 30 Nigerian girls gather at the house of their Nigerian agent Khadija. “She is the one who brokers the deals to bring girls from Nigeria to Egypt. The agreement is that we come to Egypt and pay her our salary for the first year before we can save our own money,” she says.
Oyinda, whose Egyptian name is Salwa, is Christian, but she sometimes had to lie and claim she was a Muslim when she was working for a Muslim family. Speaking on how she finds work in Egypt, Salwa says she suffered a lot in the first three months and couldn’t change her job, but then she got used to the nature of the work. Originally a hairdresser in Nigeria, Oyinda says she had to come to Egypt to send money to her four-year-old daughter back home. “I want to make money here so when I go back to Nigeria, I can give people money, not ask them for money,” she says.
Nigerian maids are divided in Egypt exactly as they are in their homeland. Muslim servants come from the North and Christians are mainly from the South. “We do not speak the same language, but we are a growing number in Egypt,” Oyinda says, explaining that sometimes the large influx of Nigerian maids in Egypt leaves many unemployed. “A Madame can replace us anytime because there are hundreds of other Nigerian maids who are available to work instantly,” she says.
Khadija, who brings Nigerian girls to Egypt, travels every month to mediate agreements for more Nigerians who want to come for work. “Every month I return with about 20 new girls. They stay at my house and I take care of them,” she says. Upon their arrival, most Nigerians are able to secure five-year entry visas.
Oyinda says she usually turns to Khadija if she faces any difficulties with her Madame. “Sometimes my Madame wants to buy my holiday and I want to go and rest, so I call my agent to intervene,” she says.
Other Nigerian maids come with their husbands, who are usually workers in Egypt or students at Al-Azhar University. Rahomat Hussein is one of these. “I accompanied my husband who studies at [Al-Azhar] University. I have to work to help him. This is my first month in Egypt and I am happy,” she says. African maids who have their families in Egypt do not usually sell their holidays. Aisha, a maid from Guinea, says her husband does not allow her to sell her vacation because it is the only time they can meet. “He studies in the university and I have to work to help him with the accommodation costs. It is not easy working for an Egyptian family,” she says.
Abdel Hamid says that his office works closely with Nigerian agents. “They come with a couple of girls every day and wait in the office hall until a family calls for a suitable maid,” he says, explaining that he takes in their passports to guarantee that they will come back to the office in case any problem occurs with the house they have been working in. Abdel Hamid says most Egyptian households prefer maids from Ethiopia, but they have to take one day off every week. “They are cleaner than the Nigerians and the Ghanaians, but some people are afraid they carry HIV,” he claims.
Hala Amin, a mother of three, says she is always concerned about the health status of foreign maids. “It is easier to have a foreign maid, but I am always afraid they carry illness. I have to send them for blood tests to make sure they are healthy,” she says. Abdel Hamid does not conduct medical tests for African or Asian maids, but says the office can perform the checkups with extra fees.
The maids of Southeast Asia
Abdel Hamid says that Indonesians and Filipinos are considered the “best” in the foreign maid market in Egypt, often earning the highest salaries in comparison to their counterparts. “An average Indonesian maid earns $700 a month and the average Filipino asks for $750 to $800,” he explains. Nesma Mohsen, who has an Indonesian maid named Fatima, says she is satisfied with the maid, but says the only problem with her is that she refuses to take care of the children for long periods. “She came in as a cleaner so she does not accept working as a babysitter at the same time. So I had to have another girl stay with the children when I am away,” says the mother of three.
From households to nurseries
Looking at the market for Egyptian maids, Abdel Hamid explains that they no longer accept work on a monthly basis. “I can provide an Egyptian servant for a one-day basis for the wage of EGP 70. None of them accept permanent work anymore,” he says. Om Ismail, an Egyptian housekeeper who also works as a porter, says she prefers to work in different houses throughout the week rather than committing to a certain family. “It is better that way because if I get into trouble with one Madame, I won’t lose the entire job and have to start looking for another one from scratch,” she says. Om Ismail explains that she used to work for one family for a month at a time but decided to switch between houses for a higher income.
Other younger Egyptian servants in their twenties refuse to work as housemaids. They prefer to explore other jobs such as nannies in nurseries or kindergarten schools. “I used to work as a housekeeper for EGP 750 a month, but the treatment is not good and the workload is too much,” says Noura, a 25-year-old Egyptian maid. “I applied as a cleaner in a nursery and it is a much more stable job.” Explaining the difference between working in the two environments, Noura believes that working in a nursery is “lighter” than in a house. “I work with 12 other nannies so the work load is lighter. It is fairly divided between all of us and at the end of the day it is better for us to work in a public place,” she says. Safaa, her colleague, who works as a nanny in the same nursery, says she stopped working in houses because she found it “humiliating”. “When I used to work as a cleaner in a house, I was ashamed to tell my friends or relatives about my work. Also, the financial compensation is very unfair,” she says. An average nanny in a middle-class nursery earns from EGP 900 to 1200 a month. “We also earn overtime for extra hours worked in the nursery,” Noura says.
With the rising number of working foreign maids in Egypt, Safaa and Noura believe that the demand for Egyptian servants is decreasing. “Many women prefer to have foreign maids because they believe they are more obedient and cleaner. But it depends from one Madame to another,” Safaa says. Noura says that she knows of working mothers who send their kids to nursery and others who hire a foreign babysitter to stay with the children at home. “Many complain that their care for children is not like ours. We speak the same language and we know how to pamper the kids and play with them,” Noura says. There are, however, some Egyptian maids who still prefer to work in houses, like wives of porters in several Cairo neighbourhoods. Many of them continue to seek jobs as domestic cleaners to provide extra income for their families. Others have been serving families for many years and their commitment to them obliges them to stay in their service. Karima, who has worked with the same family for more than 10 years, says it is hard for her to start seeking a new job even if the salary is higher.
“I have been working with this family for ages. I saw their major events and happenings and I feel I am part of the family,” she says, adding that as she is getting older her Madame is thinking about hiring a foreign maid to assist in the daily work, but that she would never let go of Karima. “Foreign maids can never replace Egyptian servants. They are temporary workers and will go back to their countries at some point. It is us who will be supportive to the families we work with for long periods,” says Karima.
Despite the decreasing demand for Egyptian servants, many working mothers remain indecisive on whether to hire a foreign maid who provides a more stable service for a higher financial cost, or to rely on Egyptian cleaners who find it easier to switch in between jobs and are considered by some to represent a riskier choice when hiring home help.