Inside Nigeria's House Servant Racket

Problem of young domestic workers and middlemen stealing from clients has become widespread.

Inside Nigeria's House Servant Racket

Problem of young domestic workers and middlemen stealing from clients has become widespread.

The bus moves swiftly along, throwing up dust on the highway as it winds its way to Nigeria’s southern border with Benin. It  is full of passengers bound for different destinations.

Sekinat, a 20-year-old from Togo’s capital, Lomé, sits quietly, lost in her own thoughts. She  is on her way home after a five-year stay in Nigeria where she has worked as a housemaid for various families since the age of 15.

Despite her hard work and her intention of earning her living in Nigeria, she is returning home penniless.

Sekinat’s story is typical of many young women and men who, often with the help of an agent or middleman, come to Nigeria to find domestic work with upper- and middle-class families. Many are trafficked across borders and begin work as minors.

“I came to Nigeria in 2008 with the intention of working as a housemaid,” Sekinat said, speaking in her native Togolese. “My relative brought me here to work and I found myself in several homes where I took care of children.  I would change jobs often and usually inform my agent who helps me out with a new placement when the need arises.”

Things were going well for Sekinat until August 2014 when she asked to leave the family that had employed her for the previous 18 months.

“I asked for my wages but was shocked when I was told that my agent and I had connived to swindle them,” Sekinat said. Her employer had discovered that she had stolen a bag of jewellery at the instigation of the agent who placed her in the job.

Stories like this are common in Nigeria and are on the increase. Middlemen often traffic girls and boys from different parts of Nigeria or from abroad and set them up with jobs as domestic helpers. Some then work with them to steal from clients.

Brought up in poverty, some young women and men feel they have little choice but to take on such jobs. Many are trafficked from Nigerian states like Kogi, Benue, and Oyo as well as neighbouring countries such as Benin and Togo.

The agents then advertise in newspapers for families looking for domestic help. They negotiate a salary on behalf of the housemaid or male servant and take a cut as commission.

Halima is a 20-year-old woman from the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna who has previously worked as a housemaid. Speaking to Newswatch Times through an interpreter, Musa said she was orphaned at the age of 12 and came to Lagos as a 15-year-old with one of her uncles.

 “Life was extremely tough,” she said. “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 sleeve.”

She explained that she began to steal valuables from her hosts and pass them to her agent. One day the client decided to check her belongings and found two mobile telephones, 20,000 naira (about 100 US dollars) in cash and some clothes. Musa was sacked immediately.

“I didn’t realise that such a move was going to cost me my job,” she said. “My [host] had promised to either send me to school or make me learn a trade.”

A source who spoke to Newswatch Times said that a lot of clients are desperate for domestic help and sometimes pay the agents up front – often as much as six months or even a year’s fees. But after working for the family for just a few months the housemaid or servant asks to leave, often after they have stolen something from their hosts.

A mother of two who spoke to Newswatch Times anonymously shared her experience of hiring domestic help through an agent.

“My previous housemaid plotted to raid our home while my husband and I were at work,” she said. “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?”

The mother added that, over time, she had discovered how agents brought housemaids and servants to homes in the knowledge that that were likely to steal from them. She said the agents intended to make money and deceive their customers.

Sule Maikori is an agent who finds young women and men work as domestic help. He denies being involved in wrongdoing, but said that some of those he has employed in the past have stolen from clients.

“I have got a series of complaints from clients who often tell me how my maids have carted away valuables from their homes,” he said. “Many of them turn around to blame me for their misfortunes. That’s not fair.”

However, Maikori confirmed that some agents do plot with the servants they employ to steal from  clients.

Newswatch Times travelled to the city of Ibadan in Nigeria’s Oyo state to find out how housemaids are recruited into the industry. The Kajola area of Ibadan is home to several men and women from neighbouring countries like Benin, Togo and Ghana who are looking for work as domestic helpers.

Moses, who comes from Benin, said that he had been living there for three years. According to him, the level of stealing and deception by agents and those they employ has become so common that it is preventing host families from taking people on.

“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,” he said. “Many prospective customers are much more careful these days when employing housemaids. How do we then find jobs? It’s really an unfortunate situation.”

Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) says it is making concerted efforts to curb the issue of human trafficking in the country.

Beatrice Jedy-Agba, executive secretary of NAPTIP, said in a statement on December 2 that one of her key objectives was to tackle the problem.

"The growing incidence of human trafficking and child labour in Nigeria is not only a human security issue but also a national security threat that should be nipped in the bud," she said as Nigeria marked the annual International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

Betty Abah is the executive director of the non-profit organisation Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection Nigeria.

She told Newswatch Times that the problem of criminality needed to be addressed.

“Greedy agents place these maids in homes like a mere commodity without any iota of humanity,” she said. “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.”

Some say the government needs to tighten the law, as incidents are often not prosecuted. Others argue that the principal cause is poverty.

Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi is executive director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre and she says domestic workers rarely see any of what they earn.

“The underlying issue is that of poverty because in the midst of all these, these [people] never get anything directly because the agent is always the go-between,” she said. “They are being denied the right to education and right to live a normal life.”

However, she also said that some responsibility rested with the parents of the young men and women who are trafficked. She said that they too are often deceived by agents into believing that they will benefit from the work.

“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 [or] she gets as salary,” Akiyode-Afolabi said. “Often times, these agents tell them that they would get about 70 per cent of the money, which is not true in some cases.”

According to Akiyode-Afolabi, while NAPTIP is making efforts to stem human trafficking, the culture around housemaids and male servants is not conducive to eradicating the problem.

“When you see a child in a place and he [or] 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,” she said. “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.”

This report was produced by Bukola Bakare, with support from Partners for Democratic Change and the Institute for War and 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.

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