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KwaZulu-Natal’s BPO sector feels brunt of unrest, looting

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While some contact centres were able to go about their business through work-from-home (WFH) efforts amid the violent unrest and looting that swept through parts of the country, service delivery for some was severely impacted, running as low as 5%.

So says Andy Searle, CEO of Business Process Enabling South Africa (BPESA), commenting on the impact of the riots in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Gauteng last week.

BPESA is the national industry body of the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. It has partnerships with government, through the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC), industry stakeholders and social partner Harambee.

Searle tells ITWeb that like most businesses operating in KZN, the BPO sector was not spared from the unrest, with staff unable to get to offices.

A thriving female-owned contact centre in KZN was among those businesses looted and burned down, he reveals. “She lost her entire operation – an entrepreneur’s worst nightmare.

“Two other globally-branded operations in Riverhorse Valley were ransacked.”

In Gauteng, according to Searle, businesses were mostly impacted during the early stages of last week, with some staff either struggling to find transport or exit certain areas. “This was not widespread and settled down quickly.”

Some of the larger contact centres – those with a national or multi-city footprint – were able to transfer some of the volumes of work to their other sites in unaffected areas, in the wake of the unrest, he adds.

Due to the fact that some already had WFH solutions in place because of COVID-19 business continuity plans, they were able to continue servicing clients both in SA and overseas.

However, for those operators that require staff on site as part of data compliance and to access certain systems, WFH is not possible. This severely impacted service delivery, with capacity at some sites running as low as 5%, he states. “One affected centre has a severe knock-on impact to local South Africans, as it runs the national vaccination hotline.”

Economic greenshoot

While many industries shed jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, SA’s BPO sector managed to create job opportunities during the pandemic. It is also identified as key to boosting the country’s employment prospects.

The country also claimed top spot as the most favoured offshore location for call centres worldwide, based on the 2021 Front Office BPO Omnibus Survey.

In early July, a broad group of organisations, including BPESA, CCI South Africa and CareerBox, announced a partnership to provide call centre support for the National Department of Health’s vaccine registration programme across SA.

As to the impact of the unrest on the BPO sector economy, Searle notes it would be disingenuous to suggest there has been no effect. “Service interruption has a cost, as do any potential lost opportunities. The biggest loss will be reputational damage.

“The sector is a priority sector within the DTIC and within regional governments, and forms an integral part of the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention. South Africa fought hard to establish itself as a stable and reliable destination, where even a global pandemic could not halt service delivery, and a concerted effort is going to be needed to get back on track.”

The positive side to the unfortunate and unexpected outbreak of civil unrest is that the sector, yet again, showed its true Ubuntu spirit and stepped in to support one another, he points out.

“Where possible, business continued. Many clients are and were empathetic and understanding, within reason.

“South Africa and the global business service and BPO sector will continue to promote the high quality and deep capabilities it offers to the international market. The opportunity for young South Africans to gain employment in a dynamic growth industry, which offers a wide range of career opportunities, must not be underestimated.

“International clients, who look to South Africa to ensure superior service for their customers, also benefit from affordable delivery, and make a true and meaningful impact on the lives of marginalised youth and communities by supporting our impact sourcing (also viewed as ethical or social sourcing) mandate, which is a key priority for many countries and global brands who outsource their services to South Africa. This social view isn’t going to change anytime soon and we will need to leverage off of it to maintain the momentum and gains the sector has achieved to-date.”

Restoring operations

To expedite the return to a stable working environment in the affected areas as quickly as possible, the BPO sector is working closely with Business Unity SA, national government, regional governments and social partners, according to the CEO.

“The supply chain has offered support solutions to assist WFH where required. Our female-owned operation is already able to continue servicing her local and international clients thanks to cloud solutions that were in place, and having access to all relevant platforms, industry supplying space and hardware.

“Our short-term objective is to get staff back on site and to ensure their ongoing safety there. This has been a traumatic experience for many citizens, and the talented young people who service local and international customers were not spared. Trauma counselling is being set up to assist in ensuring staff are able to process the past few days and then meaningfully support their customers.

“In the medium-term we, along with all of our operators, will be engaging with current and potential clients.”

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