The face of poverty: Margret’s story “I would love to buy a new dress sometimes, but I can’t afford it”

POSTED: 06/29/14 4:51 PM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – Yesterday, this newspaper published the first of a series of stories designed to give poverty in St. Maarten a face. Today the second installment – the story of Margret, a retired cleaning lady.

Margret is 70 years of age. Like many other pensioners, she also frequents the Come Center opposite the Vlaun garage on Long Wall Road on Wednesdays for a spiritual word, a meal, companionship and games or handicraft.

Margret used to work at the New Amsterdam store as a cleaning lady. The store does not exist anymore, it closed down after Hurricane Luis hit the island in 1995. “My starting salary was 400 guilders per month,” she recalls. But I was good at my job and the store-owner increased my salary later to 600 guilders, then to 700.”

Minimum wage around the time Luis hit was 500 guilders a month for household personnel and cleaners, so in a way, Margret was doing at least for some of the time a bit better than the absolute minimum.

After the New Amsterdam store closed, Margret was out of a job. She held no more regular jobs and filled in every now and then for other cleaners who were on sick leave.

The Labor Office offered her 2,000 guilders in severance pay after the store closure. She still is miffed about that offer: “I had worked there since 1980,” she says, adding that she did not only work as a cleaner, her employer also trusted her with taking money for the business to the bank.

One day, a man got wind of this and he went to the store to inquire whether Margret was there, apparently to get acquainted with her and to rob her of the money later on. Margret smiled at the memory, because she received him. “I told him Margret was not there,” she says. The man came back several times but never found out that Margret was very cleverly fooling him. Margret, in turn, never became the victim of a robbery.

These days, she is living alone in Dutch Quarter. The house is her own, she says. The Christian Fellowship helped her build it. Unfortunately, the house has problems: the foundation is going down and as a result the house gets flooded during heavy rainfall. “I am not able to pay the repairs,” Margret says. “To prevent the water from getting into the house, I need some blocks to construct a wall behind the house.”

Her pension was recently cut from 635 to 600 guilders. “They said I was getting too much.” The government supplements her old-age pension with 400 guilders onderstand (welfare).

“I go shopping once a month,” Margret says. “And then I spend between 200 and 300 guilders. I mostly buy canned goods, because they have to last for the month.”

For cooking she uses small gas bottles, the large ones are beyond her financial reach. Of her income, 200 guilders goes for light and water, 73 guilders is for her only form of entertainment – cable TV.

The tight budget leaves little room for extravagancies and hardly any room for buying necessities that others might consider normal. “I would love to buy a new dress or some underwear every now and then,” she says. “But I cannot afford it.”

Help from family is not forthcoming, the Montserrat-born cleaning lady says. “My son has his own family to care for.”

Going to the Come Center then, is one of her weekly outings. “If I don’t come here, I am sitting home alone.”

And yet, while money is tight and the government and the community do not seem to be ready to offer some real relief, Margret’s eyes are full of life and determination. The world may have dealt her a bad hand in the twilight of her life, but her message remains optimistic and resilient: “Don’t treat people bad,” she says.

In the coming weeks, Today will publish more stories in the series The Face of Poverty.


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