Employing a nanny doesn’t have to mean unending hassle
Ask any parent in Beijing about his or her primary concern and chances are they will have one resounding response: finding a good nanny. The pressures of modern life and work have made nannies (you er sao, 幼儿嫂, or as expats prefer to call them, ayi 阿姨) a necessity for many Beijing families – be they laowai or local – and though agencies and companies offering nanny services abound, choosing the right one can be as tough as parenting itself.
In 2006, the chairman of the Beijing Home Economics Association said that the capital was experiencing an estimated annual shortfall of 20,000 to 30,000 domestic helpers – a number that has presumably grown in the two years since. Last year’s bumper crop of “Little Pigs,” along with this year’s robust birth rates, have created a seller’s market for the multi-million-RMB-a-year industry. Agencies can barely keep up.
Godsend or headache?
The demand has also been growing in Beijing’s burgeoning expat community, many of whom must cope with language and cultural barriers in addition to the travails of family life. “My morning ayi works from 7am to 3pm, and the afternoon ayi works from 2.30pm to 9pm,” explains Sharon Lee, a Singaporean who has lived in Beijing for more than 18 months with her husband and toddler, and has another baby on the way.
Lee, who found her nannies via a local agency that caters to expats, says her helpers ares both “highly skilled and reliable” – both look after her daughter and help with the grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning and cooking. Lee says she also provides both “great benefits,” including paying for classes in English, cooking and CPR to help improve their future job prospects (she is also helping one ayi become a certified kindergarten teacher).
For many other families, however, finding and settling on a long-term nanny remains a challenge. “I’ve hired nannies who just took the salary and left at Spring Festival [and never came back], or said that they had ‘trouble at home’ when we came back from summer holiday and then changed to [another]company,” says Trudi Faulkner-Petrova, an expat from the UK who has a young daughter and has been living in Beijing for 11 years.
Her problem is not uncommon – many local families have their own tales of aggravation. “Both my baby and I liked a nanny who had worked for us for two months and we were planning to hire her long term,” says Zhao Bei, a Henan native who has lived in Beijing for more than seven years.
“One day, she suddenly told me she had to rush home because her daughter had had a car accident,” says Zhao. “I was sympathetic and gave her some extra money in addition to her salary. Several days later, she texted me with a messages asking, ‘Can I come back to take care of the baby?’ I agreed, to which she replied, ‘But you have to give me 500 kuai more than before.’ It was only then that I realized that the ‘car accident’ was a complete lie.”
The uneven distribution of skill, service and customer satisfaction (not to mention all those harried parents) is an outcome of a relatively new industry still experiencing growing pains. “It’s extremely unregulated, and many agencies lack scruples,” says Lee, whose sentiments have been echoed in the Chinese press with tales of families getting arm-twisted into paying red envelopes and accepting dubious contract stipulations just to ensure that their nanny does not leave them high and dry.
A seller’s market
Nannies have their share of their own problems, though. They often must give a high portion of their salaries to their agencies – though the typical range of this cut is RMB 300 to 500 a month (around 10 to 15 percent), some reportedly must pay their entire first month’s salary and then an additional 30 percent of their monthly salaries, which usually range from RMB 1,600 to 2,400 and up for those with more skills and experience. It’s not surprising that in these more extreme situations the quality of their service and morale suffers.
To address this problem, the Beijing Municipal Labor and Social Security Bureau issued standard wage rates and tied them to levels of service (i.e. low, middle and high grades) in August of 2006. Most agencies abide by this code and will refer nannies of different salary levels based on skill and experience levels. But problems remain: Given the dearth of domestic helpers in Beijing (particularly in the light of this year’s Olympic preparations) many agencies simply cannot keep up with the demand.
Be wary of agencies that will lie about the skill (and hence salary) level of their nannies, many of whom are hired “off the street” (or even at the train stations) with little or no experience. Zhao, for instance, says she once interviewed a nanny who claimed to be “highly experienced and charged a high salary, but turned out to not even know how to use diapers.”
Foreigners can be even more susceptible to sketchy deals – Faulkner-Petrova says that in her experience, “companies do not work for the best interests of the employer and often lie about the nanny’s experience and background. They particularly try and get more money out of foreigners for ‘lunch money’, like contribution to accommodation fees.”
Industry problems aside, you’d be hard pressed to find a family that is not grateful for the help. “Without the ayi, my husband and I couldn’t go out for a movie, or concentrate on work. We couldn’t even have dinner together – one of us would need to take care of the baby while the other’s eating. Generally speaking, there are more advantages than disadvantages,” says Zhao.
Difficult as they may be to find, good professional nannies do exist, as do agencies that play it straight. But scrupulous or not, families should know that it’s going to remain a seller’s market for a while yet.
Chinese and foreign understanding, ideas and traditions of child rearing can differ widely. Remember that the best way to get around any potential conflicts is maintaining a cool head and clear and constant communication. “If you don’t speak Chinese, learn important words and phrases – it’s not fair to the ayi to be shouted at when communication between you is nearly impossible,” advises Faulker-Petrova. If they are trustworthy, reliable and look after your kids well, then, in the whole scheme of things, any other problems are pretty much unimportant.”
“Without the ayi, my husband and I couldn’t go out for a movie, or concentrate on work.
We couldn’t even have dinner together”