A middle-aged woman stretched her right hand forward, her words uttered with practiced nonchalance. She promptly instructed this reporter to pay a N3, 000 ‘registration fee’.

By now, her face had contoured into a smirk, and her demeanor like that of someone in haste. Behind her stood a heap of files and papers, mostly abandoned and dust-ridden.

There were some books and an old dictionary on her desk, from which she would later pick a flyer. She is a staff of Esther Breakthrough Nig. Limited, a recruitment agency operating from the busy streets of Ojuelegba, in the heart of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre.

It was in January 2020, two months before the Nigerian government announced lockdown measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. This reporter had posed as a job applicant to document the ordeals of Nigerian job seekers in the hands of recruitment agencies in Lagos and other parts of the country. Located on Number 82, Clegg Street, Ojuelegba area of Surulere in Lagos, Esther Breakthrough is one of the oldest recruitment agencies in Nigeria’s commercial capital.

But upon getting into the reception unit of the recruitment firm that windy morning, this reporter was mandated to pay money in order to secure his chances of getting a job.

“Once you pay for registration, just relax and go home,” the middle-aged staff told this reporter, unperturbed by the noise filtering in from motorists moving along the busy Ojuelegba corridor.

“We will invite you for an interview, or send you to where there is a vacancy very soon.”

Apart from the money, the woman also demanded a copy of the reporter’s curriculum vitae and a passport photograph. She then handed him a flyer detailing the various ‘available’ jobs and the presumed remuneration package.

“Choose the job you want and let me know,” she said upon receiving the N3,000 ‘registration fee’, now grinning.

The average job on the flyer had N50,000 listed as the presumed salary, and the list included opportunities for ‘Front Desk’, Bar Men, Housekeeper, Cook, Customer Care Officer, Chef, “Dest Recovery Officer ” (sic), Laundry Men, and Security Officers. There were also opportunities for Hotel Managers, Lawyers, and Factory Workers, but those placements had no specific remuneration details attached to them.

Upon satisfactory perusal of the flyer, this reporter told the woman that he would prefer the job of a “Customer Care Officer”, and she nodded in agreement. She thereafter told our reporter to go home as he would be “invited very soon”.

Dashed Expectations

But contrary to her promise, many months after the payment of the ‘registration fee’, this reporter was not invited for any interview nor was he called for any job opportunity.

“They don’t have any job to give anybody,” says Tolulope Abioye, a Lagos resident who claimed to have gone through similar ordeals at Esther Breakthrough Ltd. Mr Abioye, who now works on the Island in Lagos, said the organisation has been in the practice of “milking job seekers” for more than a decade.

“Esther Breakthrough has been doing this for over 10 years, milking job seekers,” he said in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES.

“When I was a fresh graduate, many of us paid money to these people. They will ask you to pay N2,500 and submit your documents but the truth is that you won’t get any job.

“My NYSC savings went into registrations and payments made to Esther Breakthrough and other companies claiming to be recruiting graduates in this Lagos.”

Like Mr Abioye, over a dozen young professionals based in Abuja and Lagos told PREMIUM TIMES in separate interviews that they have had to pay varying amounts of money to secure jobs through phony recruitment agencies in the nation’s commercial hub and elsewhere.

Salam Kareem, an Abuja-based accountant, explained that he once attended an ‘interview’ where they were made to pay N20,000 after what he described as a “long, winding interview process.” He never got any job thereafter.

On his part, an Ilorin-based civil servant, who preferred to be identified simply as Abdullahi, claimed that ‘the job recruitment industry in Nigeria is an avenue for multi-million naira racketeering.’

According to him, many of the people running the phony recruitment organisations are “stupendously rich” because they make so much from unemployed graduates desperately searching for private-sector jobs in the midst of the government’s failure to create job opportunities.

Recruitment agencies like Esther Breakthrough are common in Lagos and other major cities across Nigeria, PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation showed. Due to Nigeria’s unemployment crisis, job seekers desperate in search of employment opportunities often besiege these companies.

Crisis

In March, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said that the unemployment rate in Nigeria increased from 27.1 percent in the second quarter of 2020 to 33.3 percent in the fourth quarter.

The NBS in its report said the number of active working population in December 2020, representing those within the age bracket of 15-64 years, was 122.05 million Nigerians.

In June 2020, the number of active working age Nigerians was 116.87 million.

According to Nigeria’s statistics bureau, at least a third of the 69.7 million labour force either did nothing or worked for less than 20 hours a week, making them unemployed. Another 15.9 million worked less than 40 hours a week, making them underemployed.

A Bloomberg report said in March that Nigeria surpassed South Africa on a list of 82 countries whose unemployment rates were tracked, with Namibia leading the list with 33.4%. The report said Nigeria’s unemployment rate surged to the second highest on a global list of countries monitored.

Over the years, the number of people looking for jobs has been rising as population growth continues to outpace output expansion. According to the United Nation, Nigeria is expected to be the world’s third most-populous country by 2050, with over 300 million people.

Data from the NBS shows that the nation’s GDP per capita declined by 0.02 percent, 4.16 percent and 1.78 percent in 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively.

In January, food inflation climbed to 20.57 per cent year-on-year, making it the highest since July 2008. Analysts blame the rise on COVID-19 pandemic disruptions, dollar shortages, and lingering restrictions on imports of certain food items, and incessant attacks on farmers.

In the midst of the biting economic reality, the nation has seen a surge in cybercrimes and sundry criminal activities among unemployed young people, while others desperately looking for jobs are being ripped off by fake recruitment companies.

No Exception

Several months after normalcy returned due to Covid-19 and the attendant disruption brought by the nationwide lockdown, PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter returned to Esther Breakthrough at its Ojuelegba office. It was in the first week of March 2021, and this reporter again disguised as a job seeker.

Unsurprisingly, this reporter was asked to go through the same routine of money payment and document submission.

“The pandemic has changed many things but we will call you once there is opening,” a female receptionist said upon being asked about the prospect of getting job placement. PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter, however, left the firm with a promise of returning to make the payment but he never returned to the agency.

Sanya Daniel, a resident of Surulere area who spoke with this newspaper, explained that the company is ‘notorious’ for such practice, adding that PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter’s experience was no exception. He also dismissed claims that Esther Breakthrough may not have been able to help this reporter secure a job due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s not because of the pandemic, they just don’t have anything to offer beyond extortion,” he said.

“There was no pandemic over 12 years ago when they collected money from me and my friends and we got no jobs. Many young people in Surulere and environs already know them; they don’t even go near Esther Breakthrough because it is a waste of time and money.

“To be fair to them, I know one person who got one ‘small’ job from them. But, my brother, I also know more than 30 people who never got anything despite making payments at different periods.

“What I have realised is that it’s a gamble. They ordinarily don’t have any job to give but they are ready to extort millions of desperate young people. So whenever they manage to get one single slot, they will just throw it out to as many people as possible.”

Mr Sanya narrated the ordeal of one of his friends who, three months after making ‘registration’ payments at Esther Breakthrough, was asked to resume work at a nearby bucateria in Surulere.

“My friend didn’t know until he got there and realised it was a neighborhood ‘Buka’,” Mr Sanya said amidst laughter.

“Upon getting to the ‘Buka’, he almost fainted. He was a graduate of accounting.”

In April, a fellow who picked Esther Breakthrough’s telephone number when PREMIUM TIMES sought to put to the organisation details of its findings promptly hung the phone. Later in May, this newspaper visited Esther Breakthrough’s head office in Ojuelegba but the company declined to respond to PREMIUM TIMES’ findings.

Mr Sanya explained that apart from Esther Breakthrough, young Nigerians pay higher amounts in other recruitment agencies, especially in big cities like Lagos.

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Jide Abdul, a Lagos-based real estate consultant, told this newspaper he once paid N20,000 at a private recruitment firm which had over one hundred graduates in attendance.

“I remember it was around 2014 and the interview was held around Ogba in Lagos. There were many young people there that day,” he said.

“So you can imagine how much these guys make from young people due to the state of unemployment. It’s a huge, massive, multi-million naira industry.”

PREMIUM TIMES’ findings showed, however, that phony recruitment agencies are fleecing young graduates even in cities outside Lagos.

Best Consult, Abeokuta

In Abeokuta, Ogun State, Deborah Ashade and two other graduates of the National Open University (NOUN) told PREMIUM TIMES of their ordeal in the hands of ‘Best Consult’, a recruitment firm operating from the Adigbe end of the Ogun State capital.

According to Deborah and her friends, in 2020, the company sent them invitations for job interviews and they paid the sum of N5,000 on the day of the said interviews. They never heard from the company thereafter.

When PREMIUM TIMES visited the location of the company in Abeokuta last March, residents said the recruitment firm suddenly vacated the space, and nothing was heard of its founders’ whereabouts afterwards.

The experiences of Messrs Jide and Sanya, as well as Deborah and her friends are not rare in Nigeria, a nation where many young people are unemployed, and others have been pushed toward the edge of desperation, depression, and death.

Ese Oikhala, a Consulting Associate at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based think-tank, said the country’s persistently high unemployment and underemployment rates, coupled with two recessions in the last five years and a pandemic which ground most business activities to a halt, have obliterated all hope and fed a sense of desperation on the part of many Nigerians.

She explained that despite their education, Nigerians are chasing a shrinking pool of jobs, which pay low wages amid a high inflationary environment.

“Set amid the backdrop of worsening economic conditions and anemic job growth, Nigerians will do anything to secure any advantage, including chasing unlikely job schemes, high-risk investment vehicles and starting small online enterprises,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.

She called on the government to boost local and foreign investors’ confidence as it is critical to attracting the investment necessary to fund capital projects and create the jobs necessary to tackle unemployment and the current low growth environment. She also canvassed for smart regulation and elimination of policy uncertainty.

“Tax concessions, reducing red tape and sector-specific incentives would help stimulate activities in key sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, trade and transport, boosting economic activities and helping operators achieve economies of scale,” she added.

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