Agents and housemaids: An intricate fraudulent ring still on the rise
It is no longer news that a certain group of handlers known as Agents connive with housemaids to swindle unsuspecting customers or host families as the case may be. Findings show that the ugly trend is still on the rise. Coming in to various homes under the guise of looking for jobs, beneath their seeming veneer of innocence lies an ulterior motive. BUKOLA BAKARE probes further into the workings of this racket, and filed in this report.
The bus moved swiftly down the road, garnering dust on the expressway on its way to the Seme Border area in neighbouring Benin Republic. Loaded with passengers bound for different destinations, sitting quietly in a corner is Sekinat Afiwa, a 20-year-old native of Lome in Togo. Oblivious of the happenings around her, she is lost in a world of her own.
She would go on to say that she is returning home to Togo after a 5-year sojourn in Nigeria where she had worked as a housemaid.
Moving from one state to another – Lagos, Ogun, Port-Harcourt in Rivers, Osun and Akwa-Ibom states- she returns back to her country without a dime. Her story depicts the sudden fall from ‘grace to grass’, having been deserted by the handler who brought her into the country in the first place. Speaking in her native tongue, she narrates her story: “I came to Nigeria in 2008 with the intention of working as a housemaid. My relative brought me here to work and I found myself in several homes where I took care of children. Often times, I would change jobs and usually inform my agent who helps me out with a new placement when the need arises,” she said.
Trouble, however, started in August 2014 for the Togolese when she abruptly wanted to leave the host family she had worked with for a year and half. “I asked for my wages but was shocked when I was informed of how me and my handler had connived to swindle them.” Needless to say that Sekinat felt saddened by the turn of events after realising that her host had found out that she had stolen a bag of jewellery at the instigation of her agent.
It is no longer news that a certain group of handlers known as Agents connive with housemaids to swindle unsuspecting customers. The incident is still on the rise. In a country where survival of the fittest holds sway, couples are desperate to make ends meets to keep their families. Hence, the reason for patronising these agents in the first place. Oblivious that there is an ulterior motive, these agents put up adverts in newspapers, asking for prospective customers who need house helps. They in turn negotiate on behalf of these girls and include their own ‘commission’ into the bargain. Be that as it may, these maids sometimes come into homes to defraud customers.
Often sourced from states such as Kogi, Benue, Oyo and neighbouring countries such as Benin Republic and Togo, a source, who spoke to Newswatch Times correspondent, says that in desperation, most of the unsuspecting clients pay these agents upfront for six months or even a year to hire these maids. Usually, after spending a few months in the house, the girl/boy starts misbehaving and wants to leave the house after looting the home of customers.
According to the Coordinator, ECOWAS Trafficking in Persons Unit, Olatunde Olayemi, in an essay titled: ‘Imperatives in Combating Trafficking in Persons: An ECOWAS Perspective’, “Trafficking in persons is a problem that impinges on human rights in that it is fundamental violation of the human rights and dignity of individuals, depriving them of freedom of movement, association and in certain cases, the right to life.”
In the West-African sub-region, Olayemi says that trafficking is mainly rooted in rampant poverty. Hence, traffickers take advantage of high demand for migrant workers in several areas.
In other words, these housemaids are no exception when it comes to the issue of human trafficking from one location to another within the West-African sub-region.
Speaking on the issue, a mother of two, who pleaded anonymity, shares her pathetic experience. She says that over time, she discovered that some of these agents bring in these maids to various homes, even though they know that they have criminal tendencies. The aim is to make money and rip off customers in the long run.” My previous housemaid arranged with some unscrupulous elements to raid our home while my husband and I were at work. Lo and behold, we came back to meet an empty house. You can imagine if our children were not away in boarding school, what would have happened, what if we were home and we were injured?” She asked rhetorically. The chilly thought alone sent shivers down her spine.
Speaking further, she said these fraudulent agents would take one maid to several clients and depending on how smart he or she is, customers would be at the receiving end after they have been swindled.
Be that as it may, the Lagos State Government already banned the enslavement of minors as housemaids. In the same vein, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and other related matters (NAPTIP) under the leadership of its Executive Secretary, Mrs. Beatrice Jedy-Agba, is making concerted efforts to curb the issue of human trafficking in the country. On assumption of duty on September 6, 2011, Jedy-Agba said that one of her core areas of concentration was tackling the menace of people trading, motivated by ruthless greed and vast returns on investment. “It is an arduous task which I intend to address head on,” she had said.
Sule Maikori is an agent who helps housemaids to find placements in homes. He admitted that some of them have become rogues overnight. “I have gotten series of complaints from clients who often tell me how my maids have carted away valuables from their homes. Many of them turn around to blame me for their misfortunes. That’s not fair,” he retorted.
However, Maikori says that it is not untrue that agents and housemaids have connived several times to swindle their bosses; some have even lost their lives in the process.
A few years ago, there was the case of a female pilot whose houseboy connived with some unscrupulous elements to murder her in cold blood in Lagos. Her body would subsequently be dumped inside a septic tank in her compound until it was discovered a few days later due to the stench from the decomposing corpse.
Halima Musa is also a 20-year-old indigene of Kaduna, who had previously worked as a housemaid. Getting her to talk is reminiscent of making a camel pass through the eye of a needle. Speaking through an interpreter to our correspondent, Musa said she came to Lagos as a 15-year-old from the North with one of her uncles, and added that she became an orphan at the age of 12. “Life was extremely tough. I found myself in Lagos in 2009 where my uncle liaised with an agent to link me up with a host family. Little did I know that he had something else up his sleeves.”
She further explained that she began to steal valuables which she would in turn send to her agent. Trouble started one day, when her mistress suddenly decided to check her belongings and found two handsets, the sum of 20,000 Naira and some clothes. That was the last straw that broke the camel’s back and she was asked to leave unceremoniously. “I didn’t realise that such a move was going to cost me my job. My madam had promised to either send me to school or make me learn a trade.” Sadly, all those lofty plans for her have gone down the drain.
A trip to Ibadan, Oyo State capital, gave an insight into how some of these housemaids are sourced. Travelling from Lagos, our correspondent waded through the expressway in Ojoo Road, Ibadan to locate some of the girls who live around Kajola area of the city. Further investigations revealed that there are several individuals who desire to work as housemaids but they have no job placements yet. With the eerie silence within the area, the storey building which houses some of the men and women from neighbouring countries like Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana is an unpainted one. Walking through the gates of the building, entered Moses Sesede, a native of Benin Republic, who said that he had been residing there for three years. “It’s a bit difficult to find job placements because there have been stories of how agents and housemaids turn themselves into criminally- minded rings to swindle customers. Many prospective customers are much more careful these days when employing housemaids. How do we then find jobs? It’s really an unfortunate situation.”
Executive Director, Centre for Children’s’ Health Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE) Nigeria, Betty Abah, reiterated that agents and housemaids would continue to defraud customers if the issue of modern day slavery is not nipped in the bud. “Greedy agents place these maids in homes like mere commodity without any iota of humanity. That is why fraud can be perpetrated by these agents and the maids. More so, there is no background check on these maids before they are employed.”
Also speaking on the issue, Executive Director Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, says that most parents should be blamed for subjecting their wards to the kind of situations they find themselves. “The craze for money is often the bait why these maids misbehave.” She continues: “The erroneous belief parents have is that if they send their children to work as housemaids, they would be given a certain percentage from what he/she gets as salary. Often times, these agents tell them that they would get about 70 percent of the money which is not true in some cases.”
Akiyode-Afolabi added that while NAPTIP is making efforts to stem human trafficking, Nigerians are not reporting certain situations. “Often times when you have this kind of situation, the housemaids would narrate their story to someone while the agent also tells his own side to another while the employers would also narrate their own story so it’s a web. When you see a child in a place and he/she stays there for three months and is moved to another place on the same street after squabbles, people don’t see it as abnormal. We have this ‘omo odo (housemaid) concept in our culture. In addressing the issue of fraud being perpetrated by agents and housemaids, people should know that we all have a role to play in addressing the issue of trafficking. I feel that the implementation of laws on trafficking in Nigeria is very poor.”
Furthermore, she stressed that government has a huge role to play by strengthening the legal framework. “There is the need to also create a lot of advocacy and public awareness. Government needs to work with the National Orientation Agency and liaise with the NGOs as well.”
I think it is a very complex situation in our clime. Culturally, there is a lot of belief that it is normal. Many parents will tell you that they allowed their children to be trafficked and become housemaids because they are poor. The pertinent question to ask them is how richer have they been since they’ve sent their children to work as housemaids. The underlying issue is that of poverty because in the midst of all these, these wards never get anything (money) directly because the agent is always the go-between. They are being denied the right to education and right to live a normal life. They’ve been transformed into some sort of slavery which is trafficking in a sense.”
Commenting on the fact that maids who live with host families commit crimes in connivance with their agents or handlers, Akiyode-Afolabi stated that anybody (party) who commits a crime would have to face the law. “Anybody who has gotten to the level of understanding his actions must be responsible for them so in situations where housemaids are made to commit crimes, defraud their host families and/or become an accessory with their agents, unfortunately, the law would have to take its course,” she submitted.
This report was produced by Bukola Bakare, with support from Partners for Democratic Change and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. It is part of the Access Nigeria/Sierra Leone programme funded by the United States Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.