The Luxury of Having a Maid in Panama
When we first moved to Panama, I was aghast that the apartments we looked at still had an area as part of the floor plan with a tiny bath and what appeared to be a very small walk-in closet. “What is this supposed to be?” I asked the real estate agent. “Oh, that’s the living area for your live-in maid,” she replied. It was hardly big enough to put a twin bed in and I told her as such. “Don’t worry,” was the reply. “You’ll be able to buy her a special bed to fit the space.” Sure enough, I saw mattresses smaller than twin size advertised in the newspaper not long after, and they were specified for the “maid’s room”.
In 2007, having a live-in maid was still very much the norm in the country. The average salary at that point was around $12 for domestic help. Per day.
Of course, we angered all of our neighbors and friends by hiring our first maid back then for $15 per day. “Stop it!” some of them exclaimed. “You’re driving up the prices for all of us!”And, that was for a maid who came and went every day, not a live-in, as I couldn’t imagine having someone in our personal space 24/7.
We ignored them, and we still overpay to this day. I like to think of it as one of our contributions to the Panama employment market, and maybe even to the rise of the middle class in the country.
Rate in 2007/2008 for a full-time live-in maid with benefits (vacation, social security, etc): $200-220. Rate for a full-time live-in nanny with benefits at that time: $225-250. At that time, finding a maid in Panama was not that difficult.
Domestic wages increasing in Panama
We now occupy a home 1/5 the size of the apartment we originally rented when we moved to Panama in 2007/2008, and now – in 2015 – we pay $35 per day for our maid that still comes and goes. Yep, that’s right: that’s a 233% increase in salary for the gal that works for us over the past eight years. It’s still PENNIES compared to what we paid – back in 2008 – in the U.S. for three hours of cleaning: $60! And, that help (in the U.S.) didn’t do dishes or cut up fruit, when I needed it. Nor would I have asked.
Today’s average pay for domestic help in the city of Panama is around $20 per day, depending on where you live (and how easy it is for the woman to get to you) and how big your home is. In the beach areas on the Pacific side, it may be lower – around $15. Note that generally this rate does NOT include a woman who will also help you cook. This is just for cleaning. (And, I do refer to most maids as women here in the country because doing household work in this neck of Latin America is still very much thought of as ‘women’s work’. The feminist revolution is only just now beginning to be born here, in the younger generations.)
I can’t speak to the rates for maids in the Interior – in smaller towns like El Valle, Boquete, Las Tablas, Santiago, etc. – I imagine because some of those areas are more rural and removed from the city, the rates may be less, but that’s a question better posed to some of the other bloggers in Panama that cover those areas.
Meanwhile, the rates for a maid in 2015 – at least in the city of Panama – for a full-time, live-in nanny: $450 and up. More than double what it was seven years ago. That is, if you can find one at all. Their numbers are on the decline.
Domestic help in Panama becoming harder to find
It’s at least once a month that I hear a complaint from a Panamanian colleague. “Nannies are getting expensive. Maids are hard to find.” My usual response is to turn to them in mock horror, “Let me guess: you’re paying around $250 a month still?” To which, they stammer, “Well, yes, but I can’t afford anything more….”To which my usual response is, “And you haven’t gotten a raise at all in the past 7-8 years?”
And, believe me, most of them are professionals and most of them have. So I ask you: shouldn’t the salaries of domestic help be increasing in that same time period too?
Panama is thriving. The national Minister of Finance just came out with his projections for Panama’s economic growth rate this year: 6.2%. That’s phenomenal in a world where most countries are just trying to stay afloat.
With more companies moving to Panama who bring more jobs to Panama, which means more people relocate to Panama – well, you get the picture. Demand of domestic help is higher, supply is lower, and thus, prices increase. It’s economics 101, people.
Plus, las empleadas as a whole are getting smarter, and more educated, generally about their options in the marketplace.
Domestic help in Panama choosing other positions
Now, let’s be honest. If someone lives in a market that has less than 4% unemployment (like Panama), and they can get a job with regular hours in an office or in a hotel, versus slaving away in a domestic situation that does not have central air conditioning (most homes don’t) and that may have irregular or extended hours, would you blame them?
Some of my fellow expats may be mad at me for saying this, but I don’t blame the young women a bit! This is part of Panama’s upward movement, of positive economic growth, of the rise of a strong middle class – all the things that makes New World type countries New World-esque. And, Panama – as I’m sure you’ve read if you’re reading this blog – is well on its way, at least somewhat.
So, you won’t find me joining my national and long-time expat friends in lamenting their difficulties about the lack of domestic help in Panama – whether it’s a maid or a nanny or a gardener – in 2015.
My philosophy is simple: times have changed in Panama, especially in the past eight years, since we’ve had the opportunity to call Panama our home. It’s for the better: we’ve got more choices. And with more choice, you’re going to pay through increased prices and more competition. And most of the Panamanian local job force have those same choices too. Change is good!
Looking to hire domestic help in Panama?
In my mind, it’s simple, really. Be fair. Be reasonable. And pay slightly more than the market does. Result? You’ll never have problem finding a person that would like to work for you.
Want more realistic insight on moving to Panama, relocating to Panama, or what the culture is like before you visit Panama? That’s what my Gringo Guides to Panama are all about: What to Know Before You Go and More to Know Before You Go.