Upstairs, Downstairs: Housekeepers & Home Cleaners in Portugal

How to find someone to clean your house in Portugal without breaking the bank – or your humanitarian ideals.

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If, like me, you were unwittingly sucked into the Downton Abbey universe, even holding out beyond the sudsy Matthew Crawley “paralysis just kidding not paralysis” plotline, you might also have fancied yourself a would-be Lord or Lady who would have naturally – naturally! – been kind to servants in Victorian England.  So fair, just, and benevolent would you, and I, be that any maid or valet would have been honored – honored! – at the opportunity to help us dress into the innumerable layers of our frocks and overcoats.  AITA, you might ask, as you check your reflection in the polished silver? The Dowager Duchess, maybe, but moi? Definitely not.  Everyone knows that yelling at the help falls to villains and scoundrels. 
In non-Victorian Portugal, with the possible exception of the “stealth wealth” set that inspires series like Succession, even the well-off don’t usually have a full-time butler or house manager or whatever euphemism they use these days.  However, according to the International Labor Organization, Portugal falls within the top ten countries worldwide with the greatest number of “domestic workers” or cleaners, cooks, and other household employees.  In other words, “it’s so hard to find good help these days” remains a surprisingly common sentiment in Portugal.
In this article, I’ll talk a little about the cultural role of domestic workers in Portugal to provide some context that might help explain what you’re likely to observe regarding The Help.  Then, I’ll compare and contrast the two main ways the Portuguese find and hire home cleaners so you can decide which option is best for you.

Backgrounder

Like in most countries today, Portuguese empregados domésticos, domestic workers as they are legally referred to, are mostly women, or empregadas. Historically, they were known as criadas de servir or serviçais until around the mid-20th century, and were usually poor, uneducated women from the interior of Portugal who came to bigger cities to find employment as domestic help in exchange for room and board, Downton Abbey style. 
criada
Criada de servir. Image source: Conta-me Como Era.
criada2
Criadas de servir. Image source: Porto, Profissões (quase) desaparecidas by Germano Silva, Porto Editora.
However, unlike Downton Abbey and the creative imaginings of Julian Fellowes, many wealthy families took advantage of these unequal power dynamics, exploiting the women financially by withholding pay and/or turning a blind eye to male members of the household abusing them sexually, leading many criadas to be cast out on the streets pregnant where they were forced into prostitution to survive.  Nowadays, legal protections in Portugal are much better, but occasionally stories still emerge of absolutely Dickensian treatment of empregadas, especially undocumented immigrants from Brazil and Africa.  This is not to single out Portugal, though, because mistreatment of domestic workers is a global problem not specific to this country.  (You can check out the Netflix series Maid for a take on this issue in the United States.)
As in the rest of the world, wages for empregadas continue to be very low, and a large percentage still work under the table.  This means the women don’t pay into social security and therefore don’t earn enough to qualify for a pension at retirement age, often continuing to work until they are much older than other workers. 
There is a bright spot on the horizon, though.  With the rise of incomes, foreign residents, and probably The Internet, a growing number of companies offering home cleaning and other household services have sprouted up all over Portugal.  Because the empregadas that work there are formally employed by the company, the company pays their wages and their social security contributions.  In principle, this offers more security to workers, and the cost is then passed on to people who hire these companies.
If you are moving to Portugal, and if Jeeves hasn’t already hired the “staff,” this means you have two options here if you don’t want to scour your own toilet bowl: hire an empregada directly, which means you are the employer; or hire a company, who hires their own empregadas and you just pay the company for its services as you would for any other kind of company.
I haven’t been able to find any statistics to back this up, but my intuition is that having an empregada who works full- or part-time in your home tends to be the more typical arrangement in Portugal.  In part, this is likely because it is less expensive, particularly for families that don’t “regularize” the empregada’s employment with the social security office.  However, I also get that sense that, culturally speaking, to have an empregada seems to play an important role in Portugal beyond just extra help around the house: status.
You can see this most prominently in building construction.  It’s not uncommon to come across relatively newer apartment buildings from the twentieth century, constructed up until about the 1980s or so, with a small room near the kitchen that would have been a quarto de empregada, a maid’s room.  This is true even in apartments that are not large or especially lux, suggesting that an important part of signaling arrival into the middle or professional classes involved a live-in maid.  (My mother-in-law, a genteel woman of modest family, has a dining room table she bought in the early 1970s that came with a built-in bell to call an empregada.)  Nowadays, a live-in maid is uncommon in Portugal: the flow of poor, uneducated women streaming out of the countryside has dried up quite a bit with gains in formal schooling.  Most of these maids’ rooms have been remodeled away to expand kitchens and bedrooms, and newer construction tends not to have a quarto de empregada in the first place – unless it’s intended for wealthy Brazilians moving to Portugal.  The live-in maid tradition continues alive and well in Brazil and at least some Brazilians are happy to import it here. 
Among certain classes, you can also observe the status importance of having an empregada in the way people talk about particular tasks.  Sure, they’ll bring cookies to the kids’ school event because their empregada will make them.  Or, feel free to deliver the package whenever because their empregada will be there to answer the door.  I’ve known people here living in a cramped apartment who have a full-time empregada, cleaning I have no idea what.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not exactly The People’s Blogger, toiling away on the land for the glory of the proletariat. Still, I’m pretty sure I would horrify a non-negligible percentage of the Portuguese parents at my children’s school if I confessed to having cleaned a bathroom before.  Mum’s the word, folks!

Home Cleaning Options: Be an Employer or Hiring an Employer?

The principal difference between hiring an empregada directly and hiring a cleaning service is that if you hire an empregada, you become their employer, and, as such, have certain employment and social security obligations to fulfill.  If you hire a cleaning service, the service is the empregada’s employer and you just pay the service as you would any other company, and don’t have those employment and social security obligations. 
The other main difference comes down to price.  Per hour, it may be less expensive to hire an empregada directly because you do not have the overhead costs that a cleaning service does, which means cleaning services generally charge more per hour.  On top of that, many people in Portugal, the United States, and pretty much everywhere else all over the world hire someone to clean their home without a formal employment agreement, meaning the workers have no labor protections and no right to collect a social security pension against those wages.  They may not even earn minimum wage, which is illegal in Portugal. 
I would like to gently encourage you not to pay an empregada under the table, and to pay them *at least* minimum wage, especially if you are a flush American coming here to retire cheaply or remote work in the Algarve sun or, you know, blog.
Portuguese minimum wage in 2024 is 820 euros a month, about US $883.  To calculate the yearly salary that equals, you multiply 820 times 14: all employed workers receive 14 “monthly” wages with an extra subsídio de férias (vacation benefit) paid in July or August, and an extra subsídio de Natal (Christmas benefit) paid in December.  (The worker only earns these benefits if they’ve been employed for at least six months, and the amount is prorated for periods of employment less than six months.)  So, for a full-time empregada washing your dirty underwear 40 hours a week, the equation to get to the hourly minimum wage like we use in the United States would be 820 euros x 14 “months” = 11,480 euros per year ÷ 12 months = 957 euros “real” monthly wage ÷ 160 work hours per month (40 hours per week x 4 weeks per month) = about 6 euros per hour.  That’s less than US $6.50 per hour, basically the US federal minimum wage fifteen years ago.  In other words, peanuts. 
Unfortunately, most empregadas do not earn substantially more than minimum wage.  But be prepared to pay more where there is more demand for household help (i.e., bigger cities like Lisbon and Porto) or if you have any special requirements (i.e., extra cleaning, running errands, a high-net-worth household that requires specialized knowledge or signing an NDA, etc.)
I’m sad to report that I have heard and seen and read about people in Portugal debating whether an empregada’s work is worth 6 euros an hour or 6.50 or 7, and, honestly, it’s just…pitiful.  If you think paying 7 or even 8 euros an hour for someone to clean your house constitutes a grave injustice to your wallet, I have some bad news for you: you do not make enough money for an empregada.
Now, if you’d prefer to just not wade into this sociological-historical minefield at all, you’re in luck.  You can hire a cleaning service instead. There are a variety of pros and cons of hiring an empregada direct versus hiring a cleaning service that go beyond the factors I’ve already discussed, so I’ve tried to summarize the main ones in the table below.  First, though, let me say one last thing on the subject of work hours.
An empregada you hire directly typically works for you either full time, which is now 40 hours per week (it used to be 44 hours), or part-time for an agreed-upon number of weekly hours.  They stay in your home working that whole time, so if the basics are finished you can ask them to do additional tasks.  By contrast, cleaning services here generally use a basic formula of how many rooms or how much square feet the apartment or house has in order to calculate how many hours it would take one person to clean it; then, they charge you accordingly.  However, they reserve the right to send a team of two or three people who can do the same job in less time.  So, for example, you may purchase a “four-hour cleaning” and three people will clean it in an hour, and you can’t ask them to stay longer to do other things without buying another cleaning. 

Table: Compare and Contrast

Hiring a Cleaning Person YourselfUsing a Cleaning Service
Lower price her hour✔︎
Higher price per hour✔︎
As their employer, you have employment and social security obligations to cleaner✔︎
Since you are not the employer, you have no employment or social security obligations to cleaners✔︎
Same cleaner each time✔︎
Cleaner may be a team and team members may vary each time✔︎
Cleaner spends more hours in your home; can do tasks that take longer, like laundry✔︎
Cleaning team spends fewer hours in your home; can’t always do tasks that take longer, like laundry✔︎
Cleaner will use the products that you buy✔︎
Cleaner brings the cleaning supplies✔︎
Cleaner may be more flexible in things they are willing to do, such as watch a child home sick from school, or will do more things without you telling them first✔︎
Difficult to establish relationship with rotating team so less flexibility in what you can ask✔︎
No substitute if cleaner is sick or on vacation (cleaner has a right to 20 work days of paid vacation after six months of employment)✔︎
Personnel who are sick / on vacation always substituted✔︎
You have to find the cleaner✔︎
Company finds its own cleaners✔︎
You contract a monthly service and cannot suspend the cleaner’s pay when you are away✔︎
You only pay for the days/times you need✔︎
Cleaner may leave in pursuit of a better position and you have to find your own substitute✔︎
If you do not book ahead or schedule a regular cleaning, the company may not be available when you want cleaning✔︎
If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering what my personal experience has been like regarding this subject.  The answer is I have experimented with both options: I’ve had an empregada work 20 hours a week in my home and I’ve purchased weekly or bi-weekly cleaning through a service.  At this point in my life, a weekly or bi-weekly cleaning is enough.  Also, though I get far fewer “cleaning hours” for the money that I pay a cleaning company, I wasn’t born with a big enough spoon in my mouth to be entirely comfortable sipping on a latte while my empregada sweeps the floor around me every day as I “work” from home. 
I do think that for families with young kids and/or people working long hours outside the home, having a part- or full-time empregada can be a very good solution to “having it all” – ok, not “all” but at least having a little more free time to not work and clean and parent 24/7.  Let’s face it, you can have an empregada in the house all day, every day, and still find yourself scraping *a lot* of food off the floor when there are littles at home. (See my post Raising Children in Portugal for a deep dive on the subject.)
In sum, compared to the United States, where it’s rare to have a full-time housekeeper, it’s more affordable in Portugal.  That’s true even if you’re paying an empregada a salary above Portuguese minimum wage.
Finally, how do you find an empregada or a cleaning service?
Most Portuguese find an empregada by passing the word around among their friends that they are in the market for an empregada, and the friends will ask their empregadas if they know anybody available.  There are also placement agencies who will charge you a fee to find you someone.  You can see what’s available on Google.  Most of the agencies can help you in English and can also help get you set up with an employment contract for the empregada – everyone is technically supposed to do this but most “contracts” are just verbal agreements – as well as enrolling them in Portuguese social security.  The definitive guide to the employer (i.e., you) / domestic worker (i.e., the empregada) relationship can be found on the social security website here.
As for a cleaning service, let Google be your guide.  There are dozens of companies, and many of them will let you book online in English.
Happy cleaning!
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