The ubiquity and low cost of domestic help is one of the aspects which makes life in Cebu less tiring than in developed countries. Once one gets used to having servants, it's hard to imagine how folks in the West ever get anything done, after taking care of their own cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, etc. On the other hand, those imbued with a basic sense of human rights may initially find it hard to adapt to the system.


In English, the common Cebuano euphemism for the word servant is "helper." On numerous occasions I've managed to shock Cebuanos by using the word "servant" rather than the politically correct euphemism. "No, no!" they'd exclaim. "They're not servants, they're helpers!"

Well, actually, the truth is that they're closer to slaves. While labor laws regulating the treatment of the domestic help do exist, most Filipinos do not know about them, refuse to believe that they do exist when informed about them, and ignore them even if they do know about them. Stay-in helpers - servants, slaves, scullion - work from early in the morning till late in the evening, hardly ever get a day off, eat food that their masters would never touch, and are paid a pittance. This is the norm and almost no-one does otherwise. There even horrendous tales of helpers who were burned to death while locked up in their rooms during their employers' absence.

Helpers are kept by almost all Cebuano families, not just the wealthy. Getting a helper is the first thing a Cebuano will do once she can afford it. In fact, if you pay your driver too much, you may soon be surprised to discover that his family is living in greater luxury than yourself. Originally, the idea behind the concept was for well-off relatives in the city to look after a poorer relative which her family in the provinces could not afford to feed. Nowadays, the impoverished distant relative aka helper is an essential part of everyday existence without which life would grind to a halt.

The ubiquity of helpers - every family has at least one, and some have a whole army - accounts for the lack of day-care centers in Cebu: there is always someone around to take care of the kids. It also explains why sales of washing machines are limited - even the mansions of the wealthiest families, who own factories and whole malls, lack washing machines, since it is cheaper and better to have a helper do the clothes by hand. Similarly, lawn mowers are unheard of, since you can just have your resident slave carefully snip away at the blades of grass with a pair of scissors.

The interesting thing about servants in Cebu is that, whereas the typical Cebuano family will treat its helpers no better than you or I would treat a dog, the helpers are usually allowed to express their personality - unlike in north Asian countries, where servants are expected to function like expressionless automatons. For instance, if the employer - respectfully referred to as mam or sir - does something funny, the Cebuano helpers will laugh with glee, making not much effort to hide their mirth. Cebuano employers, while being cruel slavedrivers as far as material benefits and working hours are concerned, will not be upset by this.

Technically, the word yaya refers to a nanny, but the term is often expanded to include the all-around maid. A labandera is a washerwoman, and a kusinera is a cook.


Helpers are typically paid between 1,500 and 2,500 pesos per month, in addition to room and board. You may be shocked by what constitutes "room and board," however; often the helpers will be expected to sleep on the couch, on mats on the floor, or - if they are lucky to have a room of their own - in a tiny room the size of an office cubicle. Helpers are usually fed food of discernably lower quality than that eaten by their masters; the unlucky ones regularly make do with stale rice on the verge of spoiling.

Now, it should be noted that helpers do not speak English. A maid who speaks English is in fact the rarest of beings; the tens of thousands of Filipino domestic workers exported to Hong Kong and the Middle East are, in fact, very often college graduates who failed to establish a career in their chosen profession. If you require a maid who is educated - i.e. speaks English - you will have to spend a bit more than the normal rate. My advice would be to memorize some basic Cebuano rather than get a sosyal helper who make poke her nose where it doesn't belong.

Finding a Helper

Numerous agencies advertise their services via newspapers and street signs. However, Cebuanos recommend not using an agency, warning that someone referred to by an agency will be often in cahoots with a gang of criminals, and that you'll quickly end up robbed and burgled. This is a good point; if you let someone into your house and have them take care of your kids, being able to trust them without reservation is important.

The usual way of finding a helper is to ask friends and relatives in the provinces. If your helper did not come referred by someone you can trust, and cannot be traced via her family, I would recommend a drug test; there are umpteen clinics and labs in the uptown area which carry out blood tests for minimal fees. The last thing you want is to end up with a shabu addict in your house. And don't worry: the applicant won't be offended by a drug test.

Employing a Helper

Funnily enough, a lot of foreigners tend to treat their domestic help as if they are real people. The helper will get an airconditioned room, weekends off, a real salary, and so on. Well, you are free to do what you believe is right, of course, but you may regret it in the long run. The helper, unaccustomed to having more money than necessary, will simply squander your cash. Moreover, she will respect you less and snicker at your weird antics rather than like you because of them. There is not much point in seeking the affection of the domestic help, anyway.

Spoiling your domestic help is probably just as bad as having no domestic help at all. Cebuanos will be quite aghast if they discover that you are living without any helpers. Rather than respecting you for doing your own chores, you will be looked down upon - except by the Filipino-Chinese community, who don't look down on manual labor as do other Cebuanos.

Be that as it may, if you do decide to get one - and you should, when in Cebu, do as the Cebuanos do - be sure that your helper has a TV, or at least a radio. A lonely helper will quit, no matter how well you treat her in other respects. Working for your family will probably be the loneliest period of her life; helpers tend to come from poor families, which tend to be extended, large, and close-knit. The helper may find herself sleeping alone for the first time in her life, even if she is middle-aged.

Filipinos are by nature a hard-working people. In most cases, the main problem you will have with your helper will be ignorance, rather than laziness. Countless things you may consider to exist within the domain of common sense will be new and difficult for her. For example, you may ask her to cook a meal, and be surprised when the house explodes. The fact is that many helpers come from poor rural families, where cooking is done with firewood; she may never have seen a gas-powered cooking range and have no idea how to use it.

Your helper may never have tasted spaghetti. She may not be able to tell the difference between the microwave and the computer. She may not be able to distinguish between rotting leaves and plastic bottles - both are considered garbage to be ignored, or swept up and burned in a corner of the yard. The important thing is to be patient and to try not to get upset too often.

Your cultures are so far apart that it often makes little sense to try to explain why something is to be done in a certain way. Just make sure your helper understands what your rules are; whatever rules you set for her will be obeyed as long as you repeat them often enough - even if they may seem silly and pointless to her.


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