Against all odds, Britain has voted to leave the European Union, astounding observers, policymakers and even the Leave campaigners. 52% of voters voted Leave in defiance of credible warnings of dire economic and geopolitical consequences by experts, economists, international organisations, Britain’s allies, U.S. President Barack Obama and pretty much everyone else. Brexit’s victory was a solid four-point lead over the Remain camp’s 48% of the vote. Few forecasters, not even the bookies, saw this coming. Over the next hours, days and weeks, the political and economic enormity of this decision will become more apparent to voters and the world at large.
In my six years of living in England, I have witnessed with incredulity, the changing political culture in the public sphere which preceded and actually crystallised in this historic referendum. Based on these observations, these are the six implications I can see so far (they are by no means exhaustive):Read More »
I have been invited by the Oxford Forum for International Development to chair a panel at the annual Introduction to International Development Conference. The panel I will be moderating is titled, ‘Keeping Score: Reflecting on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)’.
A proposed scheme by the UK government that would require first-time visitors from certain Asian and African countries to deposit a £3,000 bond to obtain a visitor’s visa to the UK has provoked outrage from these countries, notably Nigeria and India. The pilot scheme to commence in November 2013 would initially cover a select number of “high risk” visitors from countries whose nationales have a higher probability of absconding, and if successful, would be extended over other visa categories. The affected countries feel unfairly targeted and the scheme itself could have profound implications.
Since the announcement by the UK Home Secretary Theresa May, some of the affected countries which include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana have reacted with indignation on the grounds that the proposal is selective. The Nigerian House of Representatives has described the policy as “discriminatory and capable of undermining the spirit of the Commonwealth”. The Confederation of Indian Industry has described the scheme as “highly discriminatory and very unfortunate”.
While tackling illegal immigration and managing legal migration is a key concern for any serious country to ensure adequate access by residents to infrastructure and public services, targeting those who contribute to the economy is not only discriminatory, but is plain disrespectful. This scheme is perceived to be unfairly selective, applying to those countries whose nationales actually contribute to the UK economy, struggling to bounce back in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Over 140,000 Nigerians and 340,000 Indians visit the UK annually contributing significantly to the tourism sector which is Britain’s fifth biggest industry and third largest foreign exchange earner. Nigeria in particular is not only the UK’s second largest trading partner in Africa, but Nigerian shoppers rank among the highest spending tourists in the UK, sometimes outspending their Chinese, Arab and Russian counterparts. Middle-class Nigerians annually flock to the UK, not only for sight-seeing, but mainly to get good bargains especially during the annual summer and winter sales, with the British economy typically witnessing a bump within this period.
This proposed scheme seems to be the latest in the long list of rapidly changing and increasingly hostile immigration policies by the UK. In 2012, the UK closed the Post-Study Work visa which allows non-EU university graduates to work for two years in the UK (and pay taxes). The badly managed brief suspension of London Metropolitan University’s license in 2012, with little thought for the thousands of international students who had already paid thousands of pounds in school fees, and all the wrong signals it sent out to prospective international students, cannot be easily forgotten.
Although David Cameron’s coalition government has insisted that Britain wants to attract the “best and the brightest” to its shores, this seems to be a euphemism for “attracting the richest only”, especially with such steeply expensive conditions for securing a UK visa. There is a growing feeling especially among Commonwealth countries that the familiar bond with the UK is deliberately being severed by such antagonistic policies. One of the reasons why Britain has remained highly competitive as a tourism and shopping destination, despite higher VAT than the USA for instance, and as a higher education hub due to the historical link with former colonies. With this realisation, many have since been looking at more welcoming places to study and with this recent proposal, to spend their hard-earned money.
This proposed visa bond scheme is seen to be in reality, driven by the exigencies of domestic British politics, especially the Conservative Party’s campaign pledge of reducing net migration to the UK “from hundreds of thousands, to tens of thousands”. There is a sense that in a bid to stave off the growing threat posed by the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to the Conservative Party’s core electoral base, and unable to limit EU migration because its hands are tied by EU migration policies, the Coalition government has chosen to target non-EU immigrants.
Such anti-immigration policies have been fuelled xenophobic rhetoric based on the mostly inaccurate assumption that African, Asian or other non-EU immigrants claim state benefits either legally or illegally depriving citizens, of these benefits, and jobs. For instance, a recent study by the British Department for Work and Pensions (PDF) reveals that only 6.4% or 371,000 of the 5.5 million people claiming work-related benefits in the UK are immigrants, and out of this 371,000, only 2% or about 7,500 have done so illegally. The number of non-EU immigrants claiming benefits will be much lower if the figures are disaggregated by EU and non-EU migrants. Obviously, it is incredibly difficult for undocumented illegal immigrants from outside the EU, who end up living on the fringes of society, to secure decent jobs, access the National Health Service (NHS) and other state benefits here because all these require detailed registration and identification.
Clearly, this policy ought to be considerably watered down or completely rescinded. Indeed, the backlash from the individual countries to be affected and the potential economic repercussions have prompted Cameron to embark on damage control by insisting that the policy hasn’t been finalised. If the British government does insist on pushing ahead with this Visa bond scheme, then the affected countries, especially, Nigeria, India and Pakistan which are hotspots for journalists and researchers, are well within their rights to diplomatically reciprocate by similarly demanding steep bonds for visiting Britons. A collective response, under the auspices of the Commonwealth for example, might be more effective in pressuring Britain to water down this discriminatory proposal. Either way, it is Britain that stands to lose more in the medium to long term by this knee-jerk approach to managing immigration.
Friend: “That’s rilli (really) nice, congratulations! Ah, Zainab, you too like book o…”
This is just a sample of one out of numerous chats/conversations on my return to school to pursue a doctorate degree (DPhil) in International Development at Oxford University. I’ve had lots of kind words of support, good will and encouragement; few responses have been very curt and indifferent, while fewer still hinted at a barely concealed disapproval: from the “oh okay” to the “do you really think this is what a girl your age should be doing?” and to the “but when are you getting married? It seems it is not on your agenda”. The love, support and understanding of my family and those that genuinely care is what is most important.
It has been a very eventful year. I can still recall submitting the application for the DPhil in January this year, just three minutes before the deadline expired; then hoping I’d get in but not really sure I’d make it; receiving the admission offer and being ecstatic about it; and just when I had started fretting about where and how to secure funding for this 3-year-plus degree, Oxford offers full funding for the entire duration of the DPhil and I am euphoric, and shortly after, moving to Brussels for an internship which I had secured simultaneously.
My 3 months in Brussels was a lovely experience: working with a very influential organization, the International Crisis Group and all the amazing people there. It was an opportunity to really explore some other parts of Europe – from the elegant and regal Parisian architecture, to the bicycle-lined streets of Amsterdam, its coffee shops and other places not to be mentioned 🙂 ; the lovely Belgian cuisine – the famous Belgian frites, the mussels, waffles and pastries. It was an opportunity to meet lots of interesting people and make lasting friendships.
Moving back to the UK was a bit daunting I must confess, not just the thought of relocating again to a new city, finding a place to live and settling back in; but importantly, the fact that I would be part of a prestigious institution almost a thousand years old, where world leaders spanning 26 British Prime Ministers, the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton and Benhazir Bhutto have graced its halls, and economists such as Adam Smith and Amartya Sen, and famous writers such as Oscar Wilde and J.R.R. Tolkein have poured over its vast collections of books and brooded in the Bodleain Library. The list of influential people in politics, arts, music, film and industry who have walked it’s cobblestone streets is endless.
Oxford University is an institution steeped in centuries old traditions, rituals and rules that sometimes make you grit your teeth, especially as you try to navigate the complex collegiate system found in few universities around the world. For the most part though, one marvels at these traditions as these constitute one of the reasons why Oxford is the great place that it is today; the hundreds of opportunities that are all around jumping at you, begging to be taken; a place that promises limitless possibilities to be who or what you could be. It is incredible. It is overwhelming. It is intimidating, yet it is an amazing opportunity.
In all of the travelling, moving, and relocating – from Birmingham, to Brussels to London and now to Oxford, I am acutely aware of how “lucky” someone of my demographic: black, African, Nigerian (Northern-Muslim in particular) woman is, to have such opportunities to pursue their dream, and to have the constant flow of love and support from those whose opinions matter, coming from an environment with a lowly constructed glass ceiling society has erected for women like myself and which surprisingly, some of us women willingly choose to reinforce. The common perception is that an “over-educated” woman will not easily find a husband to marry because she’d be regarded as too “wise”, too “liberal”, too Westernized, too opinionated, too strong-headed and not easily tamed.
There is also the common perception that an unmarried female who has chosen this sort of career or academic path has clearly placed more importance on her career pursuits than on “settling down” and starting a family, and that her femininity is somehow displaced by these pursuits. It doesn’t matter if some of us have loved reading and writing and were book worms right from our pre-teens, love research and are deeply passionate about what we do; it doesn’t matter if circumstances of life have made us or even forced us to tow this path, it doesn’t matter that maybe there’s a hidden hand of destiny nudging us ahead. All these are inconsequential to this line of thinking, because women like myself are too “exposed”, we’ve chosen our career over a “stable” family life, we’re “losing” our meekness and frailty and are “doomed” to an agonizing lifetime of spinsterhood, loneliness and “feminism” (feminism in this context assumes a different meaning)!
Interestingly, out of about 20 new DPhils that started in my department this year, about 65% or so of us are women – and these are not some old, wrinkled, sad, tired, dishevelled and miserable women – these are beautiful, young women mostly in mid to late 20s (about three of my fellow DPhils could easily pass for supermodels).
Choosing to have a career (whether academic or otherwise) doesn’t take away one’s femininity, doesn’t mean you’ve sworn-off relationships and marriage, doesn’t mean you’ve resigned yourself to a life of perpetual spinsterhood and is not an automatic one way ticket to hell. It is all about taking an opportunity to do what it is you love doing, to explore and exploit your God-given abilities, to be useful to society and make good use of your time and contribute your own quota to the betterment of yourself at the very least, and the people around you. This doesn’t deprive women like myself of our ability to smile, to laugh, to be warm and caring, to love and to be loved, to start a family and to be there for them, to gossip with friends or to cook.
On another note, certain situations over the past few months have truly restored my faith in humanity and the intrinsic good within most human beings. I have found myself, several times, in relatively distressing situations and I was and still am amazed at how complete strangers go out of their way to help one in need, whether by helping to push one’s trolley loaded with several suitcases just in time to catch a train booked in advance or just someone giving a helping hand when you need it the most. There are still good, kind-hearted and generous people left in this world, and this is probably why the world still hasn’t imploded on itself with all the evil and wickedness that abound elsewhere daily.
As I resume school in earnest, only time will tell in the next three years or so as I continue my academic and career pursuits, whether I will acquire more masculine attributes and perhaps, grow a beard, or whether life will just go on as usual. Until then, I can’t wait to plunge into my research fully, with relish.
For the first time in my life, I am ashamed of being Hausa-Fulani or rather, at our behaviour. Usually I am one who is extremely proud of my identity: I love the Hausa language, how it flows easily and I relish the slightest opportunity to speak it in the midst of friends and acquaintances of other ethnicities and nationalities; I love the beautiful and colourful cultural attire; I am excessively proud of my richly historical lineage which I can trace back several generations amongst numerous other things, and with all these, I never hesitate to take on, word for word, those whose favourite past time it is to bash “my people”. However, recently, the picture, below had the singular function of nearly reversing this proud, nationalistic, fervour to the point of making me wonder whether some of our more belligerent brothers in other parts of the country who call “Northerners” and “Hausa-Fulanis” “lazy parasites” might actually have a point somewhere.
The picture is a huge sign by popular departmental store Debenhams, here in the United Kingdom (UK), during the annual popular summer sales season, in 2011. Such big, glaring colourful signs are very common of stores in these climes during such sale seasons. On the advert sign, right below the pinkish-fuchsia coloured inscription that says “up to 25% off”, there are inscriptions in three different languages: Mandarin (Chinese), Arabic and Hausa, pretty much saying the same thing. In Hausa, “Sayarwa mai bada ma’ana” loosely means “worth while sales”. Other sales adverts in Hausa have messages such as: “Maraba” which means “welcome”; “Rangwamen 25%” meaning “25% off”; “Farashi ya da daraja” or “great value prices” and “Na gode don sayayyarka a Debenhams” which means “Thank you for shopping at Debenhams“. At face value, it is tempting to think that this is not so bad, and the fact that Hausa appears alongside Chinese and Arabic is some great achievement.
Well, I think not, for reasons which I shall explain below.
First of all, there is something preposterously ironic about any Nigerian language, and Hausa in particular, being included in such adverts in an industrialized country, meant to attract consumer goods shoppers from a developing country grappling with widespread poverty — Walter Rodney must be turning in his grave. Debenhams is one of the most popular departmental stores in the UK, renowned for its high quality, luxury and designer goods: everything from children’s wear, adults’ wear, bags, shoes and other accessories, kitchen ware, bed linen, curtains etc are pricey, top-notch quality stuff. This is in the mould of other high end stores selling luxury goods such as Harrods, Selfridges, John Lewis, House of Fraser, Marks and Spencer etc. The reason why, right after English, inscriptions of sales adverts in these stores are in Arabic, Mandarin and Hausa in a European country, and not in French, German, Dutch or Spanish, is because nationales of these countries are the biggest spenders in such stores.
In recent times with the economic downturn in Europe and the rise of emerging powers such as the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and increasingly South Africa – there is an influx of foreigners with lots of new money to spend, coming to Western capitals, especially the UK to shop. In fact if you go to such stores and malls, the foreigners – the Chinese especially, the Arabs (Qataris, Kuwaitis, Saudis, UAE nationales), Indians, Brazilians, Russians – shopping (not window shopping but actually spending cold hard cash and swiping their debit/credit cards) far outnumber their English or Europeans counterparts, such that you might begin to wonder if you are actually in Europe and in the UK and not in some part of Asia or the Middle East. A report earlier this year, stated that Chinese tourists and shoppers with their huge spending prowess rescued the British retail industry during the Christmas sales season in 2011.
As at last year, Nigerian shoppers were increasingly rivalling and outspending their Chinese, Arab and Russian counterparts. According to a February 2012 report by the London Evening Standard, “in February last year, sales to Nigerians were up 50% in London shops… while overall in 2011, Selfridges says… that Nigerians have been among its top 10 overseas shoppers for the past five years”. The report continues: “on their (Nigerians’) shopping lists (are): suits and formalwear… jewellery, cosmetics and children’s wear; labels include Paul Smith, Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Rolex while Vertu phones (exclusive luxury mobile phones retailing from £1,750 to over £5,500) are a popular purchase.” What is more disturbing is that the average transaction per Nigerian shopper pegged at £1,648 (N420,000) is higher that of the Chinese at £1,310; the United Arab Emirates nationales’ £1,267 and the Brazilians and Russians, both at £988. Only the average spending power of the Saudis (£1,974) and Kuwaitis (£1,780) surpass that of Nigerians.
Now the absurd and utterly ridiculous contradiction here is that with the exception of Nigerians, all these big spenders come from emerging market countries which have some of the world’s fastest economic growth rates, which have lifted record numbers of their citizens out of poverty and which rank high in human development indices. Nigeria comparatively sticks out like a sore and sickly thumb in this elite league of shoppers, ranking low in almost all development indices while our shopping prowess surpasses even that of China – the world’s second largest economy, a manufacturing and exporting colossus billed to surpass the US, by as early as 2016, according to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook. In terms of poverty reduction, according to the World Bank, China lifted about 400 million of people out of absolute poverty in the past few decades, its GDP per capita increased five times since 1981 and the number of extremely poor people fell from 64% to 17%. Brazil has similarly lifted over 40 million people out of poverty in a little over a decade with average household income since 2003 rising by 1.8% per annum and an estimated 33 million people since 2003 have risen to the ranks of the “new middle classes” or above, according to the Financial Times. Did I mention that according to Forbes, Brazil creates 19 new millionaires every day!? It is the same story with the other countries listed here with booming economies, growing middle classes, declining poverty rates and therefore, the huge spending of their citizens is probably justified and well-deserved.
Can we honestly say the same about Nigeria where poverty has on the contrary, according to a Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report, been on the increase from 54.4% (68.7 million people) in 2004 to 69% (112.47 million people) in 2010? According to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) based on indicators such as income, education/literacy and life expectancy, parts of China (Hong Kong no. 13) and the UAE (no. 30) rank in the Very High Human Development category; Saudi Arabia (56), Kuwait (63), Russia (66) and Brazil (84) are in the High Human Development category while Nigeria comparatively ranks a distant 156 in the Low Human Development category, below countries like Kenya and Cameroon, yet our spending prowess surpasses most of the emerging powers listed above.
Secondly and most importantly, my main source of indignation here is that of all the over 250 Nigerian languages that could have been used by Debenhams, it is Hausa language that the store preferred, why? A report by Tom Harper in another issue of the London Evening Standard provides that answer thus: “foreign language signs mainly target rich, short-stay tourists from overseas.” The report quoting Marcus Appleton, a senior Store Manager at Oxford Street, one of the most popular shopping districts in the world says: “We’ve selected the most used signage terms in our stores and translated them accordingly”. Thus, it means the biggest Nigerian spenders are none other than the Hausas! Its gets more interesting and disturbing when you consider that there is a higher proportion of Yorubas (from southern Nigeria) in the UK than there are Hausas. I do not have statistics to work with here, but almost every other Nigerian you come across in the UK is Yoruba: either as a naturalized British citizen, an overseas resident, an asylum seeker, migrant worker, student etc. Of course there are Hausas, Igbos and many other ethnic groups of Nigerian origin in all of these categories, but Hausas are certainly NOT in the majority. In fact there’s a common perception (admittedly more fiction than fact) that in almost every Yoruba household in Nigeria, at least one person is obliged to leave for the UK in pursuit of better education, work or other opportunities, and of course the positive results in the Yoruba society are there for all to see.
Apparently, even with the large numbers of Yorubas in the UK, these high end stores did not use Yoruba instructions but instead opted for Hausa because according to the report cited above: “when deciding which language would appear (on the signs)… stores like Debenhams looked at the highest number of foreign shoppers who claimed their tax back with the store.” So while we have fewer Hausas who come here to study, live, work and engage in productive ventures relative to other Nigerians from other parts of the country, we however surpass everyone including the BRIC countries in extravagant spending on luxury consumer goods. This ordinarily shouldn’t be cause for alarm if we were in the same league with these BRIC countries or at the very least if the development indices in the northern part of Nigeria were the same with that of our southern brethren, but most of us are not showing-off hard-earned wealth.
Now this is precisely the source of my infuriation and grave concern. The northern parts of the country especially the North-West and North-East, where Hausa is predominantly spoken have the highest incidence of poverty compared to other parts of the country as this table shows:
The state with the highest percentage of people living in absolute poverty is Sokoto at 81.2% and the top ranking states (all above 70%) in terms of absolute poverty are in the North East: Adamawa (74.2%), Bauchi (73%), Gombe (74.2%), Yobe (73.8%) and in the North West: Jigawa (74.1%), Katsina (74.5%), Kebbi (72.0%), and Zamfara (70.8%). Only one state in the North-Central Plateau (74.1%) and in the South-South Ebonyi (73.6%) fall within this unenviable exclusive league of poverty. This map below shows the regional distribution more graphically:
We have low literacy rates, high infant and maternal mortality, collapsing healthcare facilities, an army of almajirai roaming the streets, decaying infrastructure in most parts of the north, yet our appetites for luxury goods only seem to expand in correlation with the swelling poverty, underdevelopment, and inequality. Like I stated earlier this year, such consumerist attitude is not backed by any economic prowess on our own part and gradually a needlessly competitive, consumerism culture is replacing the drive for creativity, productivity and entrepreneurship. We have a huge number of Hausa tourists with fat wallets and expensive tastes for the good life, which we buy in record numbers clutching Louis Vuitton bags, wearing Gucci shoes, strapping Rolex, DKNY or the ever popular Guess wristwatches, attired in the colourful Vlisco Hollandaise from Liverpool street, Babanrigas made of the shiniest and starchiest shaddas or suited up in Armani suits and Ralph Lauren polo shirts, with expensive accessories to match, heading back to our impoverished society where we skip the gutters, and the huge mounds of dirt that litter our pot-hole ridden roads into high walled compounds. We see nothing wrong in turning our noses at the beggars that are only but a “nuisance”, the hungry destitute children who roam the streets in their thousands, who go to bed hungry, and if they are lucky to survive the clutches of malaria, tuberculosis, the ritualists’ and traffickers’ den to reach their teens and twenties, the most they can get out of life is to become recharge card sellers, hawkers or maniacal ‘yan achabas (motorcycle drivers) drugged, disillusioned and filled with road rage.
We seem to be blind, oblivious or just nauseatingly nonchalant to how unsustainable this absurd contradiction really is and how the likelihood of it imploding and collapsing on us is ever so imminent. Being mainly adherents of the Islamic faith, we claim to be pious Muslims but there is nothing inherently pious, Islamic or noble in this extravagant, consumerist and unproductive behaviour of wasting wealth while poverty lingers and literally grows in our backyards. By so doing, we are tainting the noble image of Islam which is perhaps compounding our problems because this is not what Allah (SWT) nor the Prophet Muhammad SAW ordained.
We have forgotten that in the first place, wealth bestowed upon the rich is a trust from Allah as this Qur’anic verse indicates:
“Believe in Allah and His Messenger (SAW), and spend of that whereof He has made you (temporary) trustess” Qur’an 57: Al-Hadid verse 7
…and that Allah has enjoined us empower the poor, the needy and the vulnerable:
“They (the wealthy) ask you (O Muhammad (SAW)} what they should spend. Say: “Whatever you spend of good MUST be for parents and kindred and orphans and Al-Masakin (the needy) and the wayfarer, and whatever you do of good deeds, truly, Allah knows it well.” Qur’an 2: Al-Baqarah verse 215
...and Islam admonishes against unnecessary extravagance and wasteful spending:
“And give to the kinsman his due, the miskin (needy) and to the wayfarer. But spend not wastefully (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift.” Qur’an 17: Al-Isra’ verse 2
“Verily, He (Allah) likes not Al-Musrifun (those who waste by extravagance)” Qur’an 6: Al-An’am verse 141
‘On the strength of Al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah(RA): the Prophet(saw) said: “Allah has hated for you: …..to waste the wealth (by extravagance with lack of wisdom and thinking)…”’ Sahih Al-Bukhari, 3/2408.
On a final note, I hope that upon reading this, if you are a Northerner, and you are Hausa-Fulani that you are sufficiently embarrassed, rightfully ashamed, absolutely disgusted and hopefully angry at what we are doing to ourselves. This is not a case of simply blaming bad leadership or blaming our politicians alone, it is our collective burden and responsibility. We are in dire need of massive attitudinal change from a society which has evolved, nay mutated, into a monstrous one, perverting a rich historical, cultural and religious heritage into one which has little regard for the most vulnerable in the society: the poor, the needy, the youth and women. We need to revive our noble values and ideals, the concept of being our brothers keepers, we need to set our priorities right, imbibe same in the youth and younger generation and ultimately salvage a society on the brink of moral, spiritual and socio-economic collapse. The first step is for you, for us all, to feel angry and ashamed, and then we can start discussing the way forward!
I noticed some people seem to have misunderstood the whole idea or reason behind the “shame/embarrassment”. I feel ashamed of being Hausa Fulani as I stated, only because of this situation, where we have glaring and increasing poverty vis-a-vis spending prowess that tops global charts. I have no “regrets” whatsoever of my identity, lineage, culture etc. Let me give an example, imagine you are somewhere with a bunch of foreigners and another Nigerian gets arrested for something despicable, what would you feel at that moment? Well that’s the feeling (if only briefly) I am referring to.
Secondly, this is not some self-righteous write-up by someone claiming to be on a higher moral pedestal. Notice the use of “we”, “us” as opposed to “they” and “them”, meaning that I do not at all exonerate myself here. Most people love spending money, shopping and the good things in life, this writer inclusive (and in my spare time, I love going to the mall), what is not normal is our record shopping tendencies vis-a-vis the overwhelming poverty, its just wrong.
Thirdly, so long as you’re not poor (struggling to find food to eat), then I hope you feel guilty (even if its a little pinch) because of the facts presented here. As I stated, it is OUR collective problem, burden and responsibility, unlike situations where we’d normally heap all the blame on “bad leadership” and “politicians” . And more than anything, we are in dire need of attitudinal change.
Wednesday 19th October was unlike most days. Apart from my excitement in anticipation of my long-awaited trip to Paris the next day, I was woken up in the morning by a phone call and an email simultaneously from two firms in Birmingham, namely Primus UK and S5 Marketing, inviting me for a job interview the next day. I got a job by Friday 21st with Primus UK Ltd and by Monday 24th, I had quit the job because it turned out I fell victim to an elaborate recruitment scam in the UK, otherwise known as Cobra Pyramid Scam or Marketing Pyramid Scheme.
Such scams have apparently been going on for a number of years, especially in the wake of the global recession. They post deceptive jobs on recruitment websites with misleading job specifications, to lure and exploit their victims before the victims wise up and quit.
When I applied for the two jobs on Tuesday 18th October through a recruitment website, the job specifications were for the roles of a “Customer Service Representative” and “Customer Service Advisor” respectively and there was absolutely no mention of sales or door-to-door marketing. Both sounded pretty much like standard customer care roles with a bit of office administration and secretarial duties.
When I got the call for an interview the next day, I was so excited, being an international student, and knowing how difficult it is to land a job anywhere in these hard times. I should have known something was up because it typically takes a couple of days to a few weeks between submitting one’s CV for any job and being actually called for an interview. Ironically, I did not even bother to look up the two firms on Google, when I typically spend most of time on the Internet daily.
When I got to the venue of the interview, I started becoming uneasy by the office and its location. It was dirty and didn’t look very professional. There was no plaque, no sign or anything to indicate the name of the firm in the building. It was located on the second floor of a building sandwiched between two tacky fast-food joints. Everything about the environment looked very dodgy. The so-called HR staff were ladies who wore tight and tacky clothes: mostly leggings with tight and short t-shirts/tops and very high, unprofessional, cheap, colourful, summer-type high heels in autumn! Some of these ladies actually looked like they had been picked-up from a dark alley!
Another thing that set-off the alarm bells in my head was that the office was used by 8 other similar marketing firms including Praetorian Marketing, S5 Marketing (the second firm that sent me an email that morning inviting me for an interview), Oracle Advertising and others whose names I cannot recall.
The office was like a market place! There were hordes of applicants dressed in formal attire like myself, sitting, waiting for interviews for the numerous firms. I found it very strange that several firms were operating from the same office, using the same “HR” staff. Though warning bells were going-off in my head, the fact that I saw many applicants like myself, formally dressed, looking very educated, many with at least one degree, convinced me that: “surely, this couldn’t and wouldn’t be bogus, right?” Wrong!
The interview essentially entailed the manager vaguely explaining a four-tier process of progression to becoming a manager within 9 to 12 months instead of the normal 5 years plus in other firms. Of course that sounded incredibly ridiculous and unbelievable and I knew there had to be a catch somewhere. But I didn’t care much. I was looking for part time work before my graduation and some UK work experience which will be very valuable when I go back home eventually. I definitely did not envision myself working in that environment for more than 3 months.
I also found it strange that what was meant to be an interview (that is, the potential employer asking questions and myself, the applicant responding) turned out to be me sitting in front of the manager, in his untidy office, listening to him talk about progression to managerial position in 9 months, in such a fast manner, as though he had memorized those lines. I suspect he repeated the same line to the 20 or so people that were interviewed in an assembly line fashion.
After the “interview” I was told that I would be contacted that same day, between 5.30 pm to 7.00 pm, to be notified if I had made it through to the second stage and that if I did, I would be expected to attend an assessment which would last an entire day, from 12.30 pm to 8.30 pm. I eventually received the call around 6.30 pm that I was “successful” and was expected to attend the assessment day the very next day. I was scheduled to travel to Paris for a vacation the very next day, a trip I had saved for and planned for months! However, the prospects of having a good job made me cancel my trip at the last minute, thereby losing a substantial amount of money.
At the assessment day, I kept feeling very uneasy as it became more evident that the only thing to be done in that job role is intensive door-to-door sales. All of a sudden, the initial fancy-pansy “Customer Service Representative” role dissolved and transformed into “Independent Sales Advisor”. It became increasingly apparent that they expected us to spend the whole day outside, essentially harassing and pestering people not just for a one-off donation to “charity” like British Red Cross and Care 2 Give or the other big name charities and blue-chip companies they kept mentioning, but for people to actually commit themselves to a minimum of £6 (about N1500) per month by signing up for a direct debit agreement which would debit this amount of money from their accounts continuously for about 12 months or so in these hard times!
What was even more worrying and unbelievable was that we, the applicants, were made to sign some disclaimers stating that we were not employees of Primus and that we are not entitled to any pay or benefits or claims. So if I get hit by a car for instance while running around from house to house pestering and extorting money from people, there’s nothing the firm can or will do.
The employee is also made to dress in formal attireand work from around 10.00 am till 8.30 pm (you actually report back to the office by 8.30 pm and fully close for the day between 9.00 to 10.00pm) Mondays to Saturdays! In addition, the pay is entirely based on commission if you meet a minimum target for the day/week (about £13 per day I think) otherwise, you get nothing.
The office is the dirtiest and most unkempt I have seen in the UK by far. In fact, in one corner of the Manager’s office, coffee or some other beverage had been spilled on the carpet. The so-called managers of the various firms operating from that office are the shadiest looking bunch of men (and two women) in black, in suits, I have ever come across. We were told several times that Primus UK was founded in Canada, then it expanded to the US, then UK and other parts of Europe with presently over 100 offices in the UK. The information on the website, after I checked did not seem to tally with what I was told and the whole site itself looks pretty dodgy!
Needless to say, I quit on Monday 24th October 2011, my “first day at work”. I did a lot of thinking and came to the conclusion that my dignity is worth more than going around houses, begging and extorting money from people in these hard economic times, getting cold stares, disapproving looks and possibly insults for nothing! With the disclaimer I was made to sign and all, it means I couldn’t even use the experience in my CV or get a reference from the firm in the future, that is, if I had for any crazy reason decided to take up the job. So what was the point!? This is pure deception and exploitation. It is absolutely astonishing that such a Ponzi scheme of sorts is going on in the UK!
I only realized that it was a scam after I had quit, on Tuesday 25th October. After silently licking my wounds and feeling like crap at home all day, I decided to look up the company online and lo and behold did I make a discovery! I came across different websites, blogs and Facebook pages where people like myself had fallen victim to these Cobra scams. A blog by Lecari from Essex details the author’s experience (in 2009!) and over 160 comments follow suit with different people from all over the UK sharing similar experiences. A Facebook group titled “Name and Shame Recruitment & Job Scams” has over 1,200 members who recount their experiences with such Pyramid-Cobra scams, pretty much similar to what I had gone through or much worse.
The scam here is that the job titles and job specification posted on various internet job sites as “Customer Service Representative”, “Customer Service Advisor”, “Executive Assistant”, “Sales Executive”, “Events Assistant” and so on are worlds apart from the actual job role of an Independent Sales Advisor or simply put door-to-door sales person. Because of the disclaimer stating you are not an employee of the firm, and that the firm is not your employer, one is essentially self-employed and as a non-permanent resident, it is actually illegal because you cannot be self employed with a student visa. Consequently, as I got to know from a friend’s friend in Plymouth who was also a victim, you might not get your commission after a while because the firm could easily say, they just realized you have the inappropriate visa to take up that kind of self-employment (as an Independent Sales Advisor) and therefore they cannot break the law by remitting your earned commission. You end up getting fired after a couple of weeks of being over-worked for nothing! The fact that you are misled into thinking it is an office role with pay at the end of the month when it is actually a performance and commission based role is deceptive.
Furthermore, working from 11 am (actually it is from about 10am because over the weekend, I was told to report before 10.30 am to meet with the Director who “luckily” for everyone, happened to be in town) till 8.30 pm or so based on commission is highly exploitative and bordering on illegal because you end up receiving less than minimum wage and being overworked as it is virtually impossible to meet those difficult targets.
In addition, it seems these firms which are spread across major cities in the UK – from London, Birmingham and Manchester, to Glasgow, New Castle and Essex amongst others – as I found out from the testimonies of fellow victims like myself, pretty much do the same thing as I described above. Also, these companies get access to one’s CV, your personal information and data and could end up using it for God-knows-what, given that being deceptive and dishonest is their trademark. Generally speaking, it is pretty obvious that these firms are taking advantage of the recession, the growing unemployment rates and people’s desperation for jobs to perpetrate their nefarious activities.
What Have the Authorities Done?
If this recruitment Ponzi scheme of sorts has been going on for as long as I have suspected, since 2008 or thereabout, then it behoves that people must have been filing complaints with the authorities and in this case the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). So far it seems only one complaint has been officially documented and addressed against one of such firms called: AC Generations Limited. And this was the action taken by the ASA:
“The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told AC Generations to ensure that their ads stated when positions were door to door or field sales and when earnings were based on commission only”.
Clearly, this warning or recommendation is certainly not being adhered to by such firms. I also found out that there are numerous such shady firms, or they could possibly be the same ones using different names as they seem to change their names every year or so, probably after people have filed enough complaints, they fold-up and open under a new name. In one of the Facebook groups titled Marketing Jobs Scams, someone who worked for the BBC said they were doing some research for a BBC Scotland investigation looking at these marketing companies and how they operate. I am not sure yet if the research has led to a programme or an exposé on the situation.
I feel this is absolutely unbelievable, the fact that it is happening in the UK is utterly incredible and mind-boggling. I never thought I would witness something like this here. I guess scams afterall, especially with the recession and so many people increasingly thrown into the labour market are not the exclusive preserve of certain countries like Nigeria.
Below is a list compiled of such companies and firms by several people on blogs, message boards and some of the Facebook groups, notably the “Marketing Job Scams” group I came across on this issue. I hope it will spare others the agony of wasting their time, energy and resources:
3 Galaxy Marketing
A1 Marketing Company
B.A.M.C.O Global Direct
B1 Client Services Ltd
Bandeira Marketing Ltd
Bohemiam Marketing Ltd
Bradford marketing manchester
Celica Marketing Ltd
Chilli Corporation Ltd
Co & Co Marketing
Code Marketing Ltd
Cooper Advertising Ltd
Coulson Corporation Ltd
Creation Marketing Ltd
CSC Marketing Ltd
D Commerce Organisation Ltd
EA Worldwide Acquisitions Ltd
Eclectic Marketing Ltd
Endeva Advertising Ltd
ETM Marketing Ltd
Excelsior Marketing Solutions Ltd
Fastlane Enterprises Ltd
Financial Training Academy
Fosters Marketing Ltd
Fourways Marketing Ltd
G Force Marketing Ltd
Heaton Marketing Ltd
Heyes Client Services Ltd
Innovation Marketing Ltd
JACC Marketing Ltd
Karma Marketing Solutions Ltd
KMH Organisation Ltd
KMS Promotions Ltd
Krishna Worldwide Ltd
Kudos Promotions Ltd
Life Style Advertising
Live Marketing Direct
London Green Marketing
London Marketing Services Ltd
Magnum Marketing Ltd
Manchester Interactive Marketing
Maximum Dynamic Ltd
Monster Marketing Direct
Montana Marketing Ltd
Mosco Marketing Ltd
MRD Corporation Ltd
MSG Elite Marketing Ltd
Navitas Organisation Ltd
One Way Marketing
Oracle Advertising Ltd
P&D Marketing Ltd
Paragon Events Direct Ltd
Paramount Force Promotions Ltd
Pinnacle Promotions Ltd
PME Marketing (Prospects Marketing Enterprise)
Primus UK Ltd
Pro Sales Direct
Progressive Global Training Ltd
Red Five Soloutions (Southampton, Plymouth and London)