It was not unusual – before the pandemic – for the wealthy to move between multiple homes on the basis of a weather report. As all their homes were staffed, stocked and on standby; it was only a matter of their pilot confirming a departure time.
The one thing they had not anticipated is that the people manning their homes, many of them furloughed or fired, would choose not to be there when they landed. “It’s particularly housekeepers, the starting point of all big homes,” says Paloma Irving who runs the exclusive recruitment agency Irving Scott, “they’re gold dust”.
Many of the top European candidates, she says – particularly the Portuguese – have moved home because of Brexit, leaving a small group of Philippinas to set the terms: “One top agency with 35,000 candidates on its books could not find one single [housekeeper] to put forward. The English don’t want to do domestic jobs and the salaries commanded are not enough to lure someone European to stay in the UK”.
Housekeepers are suddenly finding themselves with more leverage when it comes to their terms. “Where a housekeeper would once have lived in, she now wants to live out,” says Irving. “Where she used to work five-and-a-half days – which often means seven in practice – she now wants weekends off”. Housekeepers can also expect a lot more than the £35k they once earned (with tax and National insurance paid on top by the employer).
Some High Net Worth clients, assuming the economic fallout of the pandemic would give them the advantage, tried to reduce salaries only to find their staff vanished overnight. What cleaners, housekeepers, nannies, butlers, valets, gardeners, and office managers have discovered is that when their employers are home for a continuous period, they only get more demanding.
Nannies now expect rota positions. That means two weeks on, two weeks off, requiring the family to employ two people instead of one. Likewise, housekeepers will only work one out of three weekends meaning the employer has to find two others or – God forbid – look after themselves at the weekends.
The downside of rotas is that staff have a chance to escape and socialise. This is leading to another new trend amongst the HNWs: asking that their staff don’t venture out when not on duty. “Some clients do ask their live-in nannies and housekeepers to self- isolate on their days off,” says Marina Shevchenko, Recruitment Consultant at Morgan & Mallet International.
“But it does not mean that they have no freedom; they are asked not to go out to crowded places and not to meet a lot of new people. Candidates are normally provided with nice and comfortable accommodation and everything they may need.” Reading between the lines, what the employers really mean is “you can’t leave the estate.”
The fear of more lockdowns combined with Brexit has resulted in many large houses being shut down, Fane tells me. Even those who can find a housekeeper from the limited candidates on offer might find their Loro Piana sweaters are being thrown into the dryer by a novice employee. “The service industry is not what it used to be,” says designer Philip Hooper, Managing Director of Colefax & Fowler interiors firm. “In the Edwardian era, people knew to use wax and wash things in vinegar. Now they use bleach everywhere.”
The only area where candidates are lining up for jobs is on the administrative side, mostly because it can be done remotely. Business is booming, says Fane: “people are re-assessing their lives. Candidates you would never expect to see are putting themselves forward”. Nannies, maids and chefs work long hours, but PAs can clock off at 5pm. As for salaries, they can go way beyond £70K (plus benefits). Having a list of all combinations and passwords (to offshore bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, safes and burglar alarms) puts them in a good negotiating position, to say the least.
Gardeners – one of the trickiest staff members to recruit – are now so in demand that clients have to pay them in lavish gifts rather than hard cash (a gardner’s salary was standardly £25k) so as not to upset their wealthy neighbours. “Everyone knows the going rate and gardeners compare,” says the wife of a well-known industrialist in the Cotswolds. “We gave our gardener a BMW and agreed to pay all his petrol as an incentive not to leave.”
One gardener to a HNW worth family resigned when his employers said they would be leaving the UK and spending the summer in their home in the south of France. He had become accustomed to daily strolls around the property with his clients, and endless praise, and was unhappy with the thought of them absconding.
The only solution is to do what the President of Angola did and offer a salary to a prospective housekeeper that was five times the going rate, plus a house in any country of her choice. The Portuguese housekeeper in question used to be ours. She now owns a large compound in the Algarve.