SA’s power crisis puts overseas remote jobs in danger

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 28 Feb 2023

South Africa’s worsening power crisis poses a threat to local employees who work remotely for international companies, or for those who are on the hunt for offshore employment opportunities.

This is according to human resources industry pundits, who say SA’s ongoing blackouts are not only wreaking havoc for local organisations, but have also raised mounting concerns among international firms that have SA-based remote workers.

Escalating load-shedding could push some international companies that employ or are seeking local remote-working employees, to look elsewhere, due to concerns of low productivity levels.

This could see many remote South African workers at risk of losing their jobs with global firms.

As remote working models evolved, the widespread acceptance of work-from-anywhere models saw an increase in local employees looking for employment opportunities overseas, without having to relocate.

The work-from-anywhere model, which has gained popularity worldwide, resulted in an increase in “semigration”, emigration and South African job-seekers becoming more interested in applying for international roles, according to recruiter Tuesday Consulting.

However, SA’s bleak energy prospects are leading to many overseas recruiters weighing their options regarding employing locals, with some expressly inquiring about load-shedding contingency plans during recruitment processes, note recruiters.

Muchi Chingwe, partner at Kumali Recruitment, tells ITWeb: “Although there is no evidence that international companies are no longer hiring locals because of load-shedding, it is very much possible that local remote workers could face losing their jobs in the long-term, if the power situation remains the same.

“Remember, load-shedding was happening during the COVID-19 lockdown; however, it has gotten worse since.”

According to Chingwe, international companies favour local employees to do remote work, especially in the IT, call centre and academic fields, because of affordable wages and the easier to understand local English accent.

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 led to many local firms accelerating their hybrid and remote working policies. The trend had already been happening for a while overseas, where established organisations allow productive employees to work from home to create a home-work balance, he adds.

Marthle du Plessis, Africa Workforce of the Future Platform lead at PwC.
Marthle du Plessis, Africa Workforce of the Future Platform lead at PwC.

As more employees worked from the comfort of their homes, flexible working models led to many businesses rethinking their own models, in light of changing working practices.

The trend saw companies move to hybrid environments and modify their IT systems to support their work-from-home workforce, who relied heavily on HR information system tools, such as video-conferencing software and high-speed internet.

However, as load-shedding escalated over the months, this hampered the trend that experts had predicted would remain permanent in SA’s foreseeable future. Some local companies were later forced to call their workers back to the office.

“Load-shedding has necessitated the need for people to come back into offices, where companies have stable sources of power during core hours. Many people may not be able to afford UPS systems and renewable energy, and coming into the office is a better option,” states Chingwe.

Unreachable renewables

According to PwC, the new world of work led to some local workers looking for employment opportunities offshore amid the ongoing “war for talent”, particularly within the scarce skills industries such as ICT, engineering and finance.

Marthle du Plessis, Africa Workforce of the Future Platform lead at PwC, tells ITWeb the key themes shaping the borderless working trend include purposeful work, reward structures aligned to individual employee preferences, productivity and wellbeing.

“We are seeing a definite increase in these trends, as employees want to be part of a larger global network, but at the same time, they want to still be rooted in the work-from-home modus operandi.

“Although power interruptions are a huge issue, employees are still looking for opportunities where they feel empowered, both at work and at home. For those employees who do not have alternative energy sources, the interrupted power has definitely hindered their ability to look for hybrid employment opportunities offshore,” comments Du Plessis.

The PwC’s Economic Outlook for January 2023 reveals more wealthy organisations are going off-the-grid, leading to employees flocking back to the office, given the rolling blackouts, and this then impacts other hybrid work dimensions.

“It is clear the more fortunate communities have managed to navigate the challenges load-shedding presented in their work and personal lives. However, the impact on the middle- and lower-class employees has been much more severe,” says Dayalan Govender, PwC Africa people and organisation lead.

“The cost of inverters, solar panels, generators are certainly not easily affordable for these levels of the workforce and has thus left them in a state of despair.”

This has also demanded further lifestyle changes for employees to strike a balance around the complexities of working from home, and at the same time dealing with power cuts and load-shedding occurrences and its impact on their individual and family livelihood, continues Govender.

KPMG’s 2022 CEO Outlook South African edition report found the majority of surveyed South African CEOs see their employees returning to the office full-time over the next three years. None view entirely remote work as a permanent fixture, due to multiple factors, including the economic downturn and SA’s power woes.