Georgia: Bogus Agencies Prey on Jobless

High unemployment in Georgia spawns rogue job centres which rob their customers.

Georgia: Bogus Agencies Prey on Jobless

High unemployment in Georgia spawns rogue job centres which rob their customers.

Last week the Dro employment agency was plying its services from an office in Machabeli Street in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. This week it had gone.

Dro, a privately-owned agency, placed advertisements printed in several newspapers offering help in finding work on a massive new pipeline which will carry Azerbaijani oil through Georgia to Turkey.

The pipeline project is a major employment opportunity, especially for a country as impoverished as Georgia, and thousands of people will end up working there. So the advert drew up to 100 hopeful visitors to Dro's offices every day. Each one paid the sum of five lari (around 2.50 US dollars) and was directed onward to another address.

"Of course no one found anything there," said Revaz Sakvarelidze, head of the Georgian government's labour and employment department.

"Under the terms of this project, it is the residents of regions through which the pipeline runs who ought to be given work first. But that's not even the main point. It's up to the Georgian International Oil Company to give out jobs, and it has not delegated that to any private company."

When this IWPR correspondent went looking for Dro agency on Machabeli Street, there was no longer anything there. The company had either changed its name, moved to another address, or ceased to exist. But its owners had earned a good sum of money.

This fraudulent job agency is just one outgrowth of Georgia's chronic unemployment problem. Officially, 14.7 per cent of the population is jobless, but the figure is probably an understatement since it covers only those who are actually registered.

"According to data we have collected through our own research around 70 per cent of the population has no permanent job," Sakvarelidze told IWPR. "A majority of poor people just don't think it's worth getting registered, as they have no chance of getting a job that way, unemployment benefit is worth 15 lari (about seven dollars) and it doesn't get paid for months at a time."

Sakvarelidze's department calculates that in 2002, Georgian job agencies found jobs for 6,000 people out of the 40,000 who had registered with them. They estimate that there are less than 1,400 vacancies to be filled across the country at the moment.

Nevertheless, in special advertising sections and newspapers and on the news bar running across television screens, huge numbers of jobs are offered every day for people to work as guards, shop assistants or waitresses.

Yet a little research shows that over several successive issues of the most popular advertising newspaper Sitkva da Sakme (Word and Deed), most of the jobs on offer did not change from week to the next. As thousands of unemployed people read the paper, it is implausible to believe that there was no one to fill these their vacancies.

The rogue agencies have a number of tricks to deploy. Lali Grdzelishvili, a pharmacist by profession, says that she has made a lot of attempts to find work, without success. Then she saw a job at a pharmacy advertised by an agency named Dila.

"I went straight to this agency," Grdzelishvili said. "A young woman there was very polite and after I had paid five lari, told me I had to hurry as they had already seen people who wanted to get this job that day."

When she went to the pharmacy, they expressed surprise and said they had no vacancies. And when Grdzelishvili went back to complain to the agency they told her regretfully that someone else must have got the job before her.

Sometimes the agency works in cahoots with the supposed employer. Several people are sent to enquire about a job which may not even exist. They fill out a form, for which they are charged one lari, and wait two weeks before being told politely that they have not got the job. Of course they do not get their money back.

"Just this one thing - taking money off people to provide them with information about a job - breaks the law on employment," Revaz Sakvarelidze told IWPR. "The law categorically forbids taking money from the unemployed. The employer ought to pay for these services."

However, in a country with such a high unemployment rate, this law is not being enforced. Zurab Labartkava, director of the Eliz supermarket in Tbilisi, has no intention of paying any agency to find potential employees, "Why should I be helping out the agency in this way, when I can find workers myself in a country with high unemployment?"

Under a law passed two years ago, job agencies must obtain a license and register with the government's employment department, and give it three-monthly updates on the jobs they have provided. The law is not working - the department has seven agencies on its books, but knows of the existence of 90 in Tbilisi alone.

In an attempt to regulate them, it has tried publishing guides to how they should operate. "We distributed them to all the agencies that we could find," said Sakvarelidze. "We also told the police about the blatantly fraudulent practices we have found. But it is all to no avail."

The police say there is nothing in Georgian law with which they can charge the job swindlers - something which leads Sakvarelidze to believe policemen are mixed up in the fraud.

Sakvarelidze and his colleagues have now drafted amendments to the law, which would give their department oversight of all job agencies and oblige the courts to hear any cases of fraudulent practice within 24 hours. The draft has been submitted to parliament but is still a very long way from the statute books.

Maia Chitaia is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi

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