There’s the usual stuff in my desk drawer: paper clips, receipts, oh- and the valid, genuine passport of someone I’ve never met… Let’s talk domestic help.
One of the unintended consequences of Opportunity X being put on hold (he wrote, optimistically) is that we’ve committed ourselves to employing a maid to cover the fact that both Mrs LC and I would both be working full time sometime about now.
It’s an unusual solution, granted, but the lack of childcare locally, and family networks as an expat, means it’s also a fairly common solution to a common problem here.
So what’s with the passport? For anyone familiar with life in Qatar, feel free to jump ahead a few paras; other readers may benefit from a quick primer on Qatar’s kafala (sponsorship) system.
Regardless of whether you’re a CEO or a manual labourer, the law’s the same: if you’re not from Qatar, your time in the country is directly related to your employment status, or that of your sponsor.
Yes, not only do you need to be ‘sponsored’ to be here – for full time employees, that means by their employer; for partners/+1s/hangers on, that means by your spouse – but you’ll need permission from said sponsor each and every time you want to leave the country (yes, for me that means ‘asking’ Mrs LC; oh, the hilarity.)
- Want to know how and where to get your husband an exit permit? Check out Must Love Dust’s essential guide.
Apocryphal stories abound of people needing to leave unexpectedly for family emergencies, only to be denied an exit visa by their employer.
What’s more, if you want to change jobs, you’ll have to hope your employer provides you with a No Objection Certificate (the infamous ‘NOC’) and getting one is by no means guaranteed.
Whatever your views on the system (and there are plenty of them, like this post from I Love Qatar’s Mr Q) these are the rules.
The sponsorship system will only assume an ever-higher profile as the millions of extra labourers needed to build the infrastructure and stadia for the World Cup arrive, along with more white collar expats to help further Qatar’s transition to a knowledge economy.
Back to that passport…
So why exactly do I have a stranger’s passport in my desk drawer?
The short answer is: to plug a gap between the ends of the school day and the working day.
But why does she have to live in? Surely a maid could clock off when we get back from work?
It’s a nice idea in theory, but we’ve already trialled it twice with little success, and much failure. The lack of reliability in previous candidates (like when they were going to show up – if at all) means we have realised we need another solution.
So with shipping out a grandparent not on the cards, we’ve gone down the sponsor route and taken on a maid, Mrs A, full time. And now that the paperwork’s complete, her former employer has handed her passport over to us.
(Before I go any further, please know that she will be getting it back as soon she starts with us. You don’t need to be a lifelong Guardian reader like me to think that possessing it for a second longer than necessary is just plain wrong.)
For those wondering where she’ll live: pretty much every house here has built-in maid’s quarters (I haven’t seen one without); that’s how much of a cultural norm it is.
But to my British sensibilities, I’m faintly embarrassed by the arrangement – and its implications of servitude and lobster-smeared decadence – and would prefer to wrestle with my moral quandaries in private.
Whether I like it or not, however, I have no doubt that Kid A will make it the talk of the playground about seven seconds after Mrs A arrives, so I may as well ‘fess up here too.
I’d love to say I don’t know how I feel about having a stranger live in my house, but I do.
For Mrs LC, who grew up in countries where domestic help was as much a fact of life as fog and overboiled vegetables were for me, it’s no big deal.
Her folks were living in Botswana when I met her. There, as in Qatar, domestic help just was. Interestingly, reverse social stigma applied: you would be viewed in a worse light if you were able to provide employment for the locals by taking them on as maids or gardeners, but didn’t.
But that still didn’t stop me from thinking it was strange.
I’m also sure I’d get used to the arrangement much more quickly were I about to step into a full time job. But because I’ll still be… home-based for a while yet, it’s going to feel a lot stranger for a lot longer.
Back in Britain, the subject of domestic help is – as with pretty much everything else – explicitly wrapped up in issues of class.
The cultural shorthand is: if you have ‘help’ you’re posh, rich and thick.
You know this as well as I do, because we export that shorthand for your viewing pleasure in the form of Downton Abbey and dozens more programmes like it.
But why should I feel bad about employing ‘help’?
Never mind that it’s my money (well, sort of) and I should be able to spend it how I want. Or that I don’t feel any guilt about paying someone else to fix my electrics or plumbing.
But that doesn’t stop me worrying that this is the start of a long, but no less slippery, slope that has spoiled kids lying in wait at the end of it.
Or worse, spoiled adults.
What if our contract/s get extended? Will we find ourselves five years from now unable to use a washing machine or make our own bed?
I’ll be doing everything I can to ensure it doesn’t happen.
But it’s a risk we have little choice about taking. I just hope it’s not too high a price to pay for our expat adventure.