Cleaning up our language: Why we should retire the use of the word 'maid'

It’s outdated, gendered and harks back to an exploitative era of employment that we all should have moved on from

Young housekeeper cleaning floor mobbing holding mop and plastic bucket with brushes, gloves and detergents in the leaving room house floor helping his wife
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Do you pay someone, full or part-time, to clean your house or look after your children? I’d consider this person a cleaner or a childcare professional, not a maid, and I think they should be referred to as such.  

Before you call me overly politically correct, let's remember the origins of the word "maid". If you head to Merriam ­Webster and look it up, you'll be redirected to "maidservant", the definition of which is "a female servant". Do you pay the person who cleans your house a living wage? I hope so. This means they are not a servant – they are an employee.

You don't call your accountant your balance sheet servant – or, indeed, if we want to go down the gendered path, your balance sheet boy. The people who help others run a happy and clean home deserve the same respect as those who punch numbers.

The term "maidservant" has been kicking around since the 1300s, but it was only around 1500 that it began to be used in regard to "domestic duties". In Victorian England, domestic work was the second-largest category of employment; and maids were required to remain unmarried, dedicating their life to their work.

So, when you call your cleaner/housekeeper/nanny your "maid", just consider whether you are comfortable using a word that used to be succeeded by "servant", and OK with the fact the term explicitly defines this as a role that can only be undertaken by a woman. I don't see many people complaining about their "butlers" on Facebook these days and, in 2019, we should all be using language that suggests men, too, can be employed to dust, mop and tidy.

On Facebook, some of the UAE's most nail-on-a-chalkboard residents do discuss their cleaners/nannies on community groups in a tone that suggests they consider the position more "maidservant" than "cleaner". For example, something similar to this: "My maid is really annoying me – I have a brunch coming up, but she's refusing to work on Fridays to help look after my kids, even though I hardly ever ask her to work for more than a few hours on her day off. Any tips?" 

When you call your cleaner your 'maid', just consider whether you are comfortable using a word that used to be succeeded by 'servant'

My tip? Put yourself in their shoes: would you work on your only day off for your employer without promise of time in lieu or compensation so that your boss could go out partying with friends? 

How about you approach your in-home employee the same way you would someone you manage in an office: give them some incentive and motivation to go the extra mile. Do they have annual reviews? Chances for career progression? Or, at the least, a promise of their compensation changing if they continue to perform well?

Now, this isn't a judgment on all those who hire domestic help in the UAE – I know many people who give their at-home employees due rights, respect and fair compensation. I myself don't currently have a regular cleaner, but I also don't have children, and I do book someone from an agency to help me with a deep clean every few months.

I mostly book the service because these people are professionals: they somehow manage to remove the oven splatter I've been hacking out for weeks, making it all look effortless. They also get to those corners that my peripheral vision seems to completely miss week in, week out until a tumbleweed of dust begins to skip past me, whirling around in the air-conditioner's wind.

Labour regulations continue to evolve in the UAE to make sure outdated practices are dusted away. Last month, the government removed job title requirements when sponsoring your family to live in the UAE. Last year’s visa amnesty meant many who had found themselves overstaying illegally were given the opportunity to request a new visa that allowed them to stay on for six months to find a new job and sponsor or to leave the UAE and return home without facing fines or jail time (as would be the case in most countries around the world if you have overstayed your visa).

The amnesty was an acknowledgement that the world’s most economically vulnerable often find themselves in an impossible situation, and many times because of negligent, disrespectful employers who treat them as less than human.

In 2017, the UAE Domestic Workers Law put in place a number of minimum statutory requirements, including a 14-day end-of-service gratuity for each year of service, one day off a week, 30 days’ leave a year and a return flight home every two years. And last October, new legislation was rolled out that sees a Dh60 per employee insurance policy to ensure that people, whose bosses can’t pay for things, don’t go without end-of-service benefits, holiday and overtime allowance, unpaid wages, return air tickets and medical assistance if injured at work (the Dh60 policy can be paid out at up to Dh20,000).

The Ministry of Human Resources’ free phone line is incredibly helpful and Tadbeer Centres are now dotted across the country to give domestic workers somewhere official to turn, and ensure they are given proper visas and training upon arrival to the country.  

So, with the laws moving into the 2020s and away from a tarnished global history when it comes to treatment of domestic workers, I think it’s time our language had a spring clean, too.