Veronica Gwaze

Three local employment agencies — Domestic Solutions, Housekeeping Specialists and Home Cleaning — recently vanished from the face of the Earth after having run-ins with irate clients who had lost their properties to domestic helpers they had recruited.

Two of the companies, Domestic Solutions and Housekeeping Specialists, had offices in Harare, while the third company was based in Bulawayo.

While enlisting the services of either a maid or gardener, or both, used to be effortlessly routine, it has now become increasingly risky. Daring criminals seeking to avoid the traditional and risky smash-and-grab robberies are now disguising themselves as domestic helpers in order to worm their way into households.

After doing their homework, they eventually pounce.

“I rue the day I ever decided to hire a maid. It cost me my property and a huge sum of money,” said Hatfield-based Mai Petronella.

“She told me her name was Lucia Matenga and did not have any form of identification since both her parents died when she was young. The lady told me a touching story that prompted me to assist by offering her employment as a maid.

“She worked for me for close to four months and never took off-days as she claimed not to have caring relatives to visit. I began to trust her as my child. One day we travelled as a family, leaving her in charge of the house. And that was when disaster struck. She left the house empty.”

Such stories have driven most people into the arms of employment agencies, which ostensibly offer the services of helpers that have a traceable track record.

But this is not always the case.

A Harare-based entrepreneur, who opened his employment agency some time ago, recently closed the business after growing weary of complaints from clients and being investigated by the police.

“I have in the past received complaints from my clients who would have been robbed by maids that I supplied. I have since stopped the business as the situation was getting out of hand,” said the businessman on condition of anonymity.

“I was always treated like a criminal by both the police and my clients . . . I discovered that most of the people that came to us were indeed criminals. Personal details like addresses and next of kin I got from most job-seekers would often prove to be fake after verification.”

Relaxed

The Zimbabwe Republic Police says the public should not trust anyone when employing domestic workers as several people have been losing valuable property to daring tricksters. It is believed that most employment agencies that are being used as a conduit into people’s homes by criminals are unlicensed, which makes it difficult to keep track of their activities.

“Most of the agencies operate unlicensed, thus the public needs to first check if they are registered with the Ministry of Labour or not before engaging them,” said police spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi.

“We urge potential employers to engage the ZRP whenever they intend to hire domestic help so that we conduct background checks.”

The public, he added, had a duty to report suspicious or dubious agencies.

Apparently, employment agencies are capitalising on legislative loopholes that do not provide sufficient regulatory framework.

Currently, the sector does not fall under any specific regulating authority.

Its activities are only “guided” by the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare.

“They are supposed to register their operations and fall under our ministry as this involves labour,” said Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Prof Paul Mavima.

In the United Kingdom (UK), recruitment agencies are expected to comply with their government’s Employment Agencies Act 1973 and the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003. Without the necessary regulatory guardrails, criminal elements have been registering shelf companies that purport to be bona fide recruitment agencies for domestic workers.

Other agencies even dare to operate while unregistered since there are no routine checks to flush them out.

Some people have since stopped enlisting the services of employment agencies to recruit helpers.

A director with Gweru-based Find Maids Zimbabwe, Richard, confirmed that some of the businesses in the trade are being run by criminals.

Those seeking the services of domestic helpers, he said, should stick to the time-honoured method of relying on thorough background checks.

“Before anything else, we request potential employees to first be cleared by the police before we conduct our own background checks . . .

“Well, sometimes we get reports that some agencies commit criminal activities through hired helpers and we have, in some instances, helped employers get justice.”

Another agent, Mrs Munjerenjere of Mushandi Maids, said even if clients are given background checks, they still have to conduct their own to ensure that the information is fool-proof. 

“The agency is operating under an unfriendly economic environment, thus at times we are unable to conduct background checks. The helpers come from different communities and it is difficult and costly for us to check every person. The employer must take initiative for their personal security,” she said.

Convenient

Criminals are increasingly relying on bogus employment agencies to parachute themselves into people’s homes as some households are investing in security systems to prevent break-ins and robberies.

These systems, which are designed to keep out danger, range from private security personnel, alarm systems and security dogs.

While not entirely shielding households, these security measures have upped the stakes for criminals.

Some criminals are investing time and effort by posing as desperate orphans and school drop-outs and tricking potential victims into hiring them as domestic helpers.

In between their duties, they will be surveying to establish where valuables are kept or how the alarm systems can be disarmed.

They will subsequently use the intelligence gathered to conveniently help themselves to the household property or cash when the victims least expect it, or pass on the information to their co-conspirators who will then use it to their advantage.

There are instances where they deliberately disarm security systems to allow their colleagues to unlawfully enter the premises.

For people like Bulawayo-based Terrence, who fell to the same trick, losing their valuable property is one thing they often struggle to easily get over.

“A guy approached us seeking employment as a gardener. Coincidentally, we had spent some time searching for one. My wife
and I decided to hire his services. But that
was soon to prove to be a costly blunder,” he said.

“A month or so after employing him, our house was robbed. What surprised us was the fact that the robbers knew exactly where to locate our valuables.

“We reported the matter to the police but we could not tie the crime to him. We have since fired him but the property and money is yet to the recovered.”

Arrests

The tricksters do not always get away with it.

Two years ago, a 22-year-old maid, Betty Munzvenga from Mutoko, was arrested for stealing US$20 500, 4 000 pula, 320 Zambian kwacha, 1 300 yuan, clothes and kitchen utensils from her Harare employer.

In another case, three housemaids – Anna Manjoro, Memory Seremani and Plaxedes Fraizer — connived to steal property worth US$10 000 from their Belvedere employer.

According to the victim, they all approached her on separate occasions and pretended to be strangers, yet they knew each other prior to meeting at the workplace.

Last month, a Harare maid only identified as Vimbai stole a two-year-old child, electronics and clothes from her employer.