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SA’s call centres get R4bn investments, navigate COVID-19 pain

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Fresh from raking in $250 million (R4 billion) worth of investments during the past financial year, South Africa’s business process outsourcing (BPO) market continues to thrive during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The industry is looking to hire as many as half a million employees in the next 10 years, if market conditions permit.

So says Andy Searle, CEO of non-profit organisation Business Process Enabling South Africa (BPESA), in an e-mail interview with ITWeb.

In a boost to the local BPO sector, US-based tech giant Amazon last month announced it is recruiting in SA to fill 3 000 new virtual job vacancies in customer service this year.

The interview with Searle followed BPESA joining 11 other independent regional organisations serving the BPO sector, also known as the global business services (GBS) sector, to create the Global Technology and Business Services Council.

The council comprises the leading GBS locations servicing over 10 000 organisations, including multi-nationals, indigenous tech companies, SMEs and start-ups.

The founding members are SA, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Egypt, India, Latin America, Latvia, Malaysia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sri Lanka, UK, US and Ukraine.

According to BPESA, the council brings together impressive innovation from countries that have collectively managed the COVID-19 pandemic crisis effectively.

For example, it says, India shifted almost 90% to 95% of its 4.36 million technology workforce to “work-from-home”.

South Africa too successfully managed to migrate significant workers, with over 45% of the workforce working from home during June 2020, while innovative ergonomic solutions were deployed to keep on-site workers safe but productive, says BPESA, adding that in some operations this resulted in a 100% utilisation of the workforce.

Searle notes the industry attracted a quarter of a billion US dollars in new export business to year-end at end-February 2020.

“Last year, we recorded 34% employment growth, generating 15 086 new jobs, 13 102 of which went to youth aged 18 and 35, and 1 353 of which were inclusively hired through the impact sourcing approach. Notwithstanding current market conditions, we can add as many as 500 000 digitally traded service jobs over the next 10 years, depending on market conditions.”

According to Searle, during the COVID-19 lockdown, the BPO industry was arguably the first to respond proactively, even aggressively, to keep the doors open and keep as many of its young people employed as possible.

“The South African government, in support of business, recognised the importance of the sector and immediately granted essential service status to many of our international and domestic companies, enabling them to continue delivering essential services.

“As a whole, the industry collaborated extensively to develop workplace health and safety protocols to stop the spread of the virus in the workplace while ensuring the well-being of workers as the number one priority.”

In addition to workplace safety, he says, the industry very quickly rolled out new operating models, allowing anything between 30% and 100% work from home, with the appropriate blend of on-premises work, only if absolutely necessary.

“Our key focus was on the continuity of essential service delivery to local and international clients to ensure they too could cope with the negative impact of the virus – this was well received and recognised internationally – and the country has presented new options to global players to de-risk their businesses in these times of uncertainty and disruption.”

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