‘Duped’ and left jobless

2008-12-07 00:00

A R37 million fully black-empowered rural call centre in Ixopo, officially opened a month ago by ANC president Jacob Zuma amid great fanfare, faces collapse.

Staff claim that both they and the ANC president, who was invited as a guest by the owners of the Broader Equity Call Centre, were duped into believing that it was a job creation exercise and a boost for the rural economy.

Instead, 100 out of 110 employees have had their hopes dashed and find themselves without work and wages weeks before Christmas.

Trainers and managers said they were headhunted from other companies and left lucrative jobs to join the call centre.

They claim the crisis is due to alleged bad business practices by the shareholders, who include politically well-connected Durban BEE partners Dan Cloete and Ashton Hoorzuk.

Cloete, executive chairman of the Broader Equity Group, was previously the operations manager for the collapsed Remant Alton Bus company in Durban. He left shortly before the struggling bus service was sold back to the eThekwini Municipality.

Hoorzuk, as CEO of Broader Equity, has been in charge of running the daily operations of the Ixopo call centre. According to staff, he is well known in the call centre business and an award-winning call centre operator.

However, they allege Hoorzuk ran the Ixopo operation with little care and cite a litany of criticism against him.

Chief among their complaints is cronyism. They allege he promoted friends from his former neighbourhood in Marianridge — who had little knowledge of call centre operations — into key management positions.

The centre was touted as bringing employment for Ixopo residents, instead, staff say, many of the employees were brought in from Durban and Pietermaritzburg with taxis ferrying workers from Pietermartizburg daily.

According to staff, the problems seemed to start early. During the training phase they were kicked out of venues, such as the Catholic church hall and the library, because the rent was allegedly not paid. They allege that at times they had no toilet paper, tea, coffee or sugar at the centre.

They further allege that they were subject to awkward pay conditions: they made sales and were not paid incentives, were short changed and had money deducted for the transport to Ixopo.

The trimming of employees apparently started weeks ago when call centre agents were dismissed for various reasons. On November 28, the rest of the staff were handed letters informing them of the suspension of their employment.

The letter said: “We regret to advise that our income stream has been severely affected by our various clients not settling their outstanding invoices. As a direct consequence, we are forced to cease operations with immediate effect. We intend to review our position in early January next year.”

On December 1, about 10 staff members were called and given some kind of promise of continued employment.

Staff said the suspension letter confirms their belief that the problems lay with poor management and planning.

In contrast, is an article on the call centre in which Hoorzuk is quoted as saying: “The R37million call centre launched in October was the culmination of three years of extensive development, research and planning. … The centre can service local and international clients as well as offering call centre services for local government. Other clients include Cell C, Metropolitan and the UK-based Voice Group.”

Hoorzuk is adamant that there is no imminent collapse, just a temporary setback due to the current economic climate. He says the credit crunch is affecting call centres countrywide and that many big centres have had to temporarily lay off staff. He dismissed the allegations by staff and claimed that part of the problem was that their productivity was not what was expected.

Finance and Economic Development MEC Zweli Mkhize confirmed that the call centre was a private initiative.

“The alleged closure of this call centre is unfortunate, but government hopes that the investors will resolve the challenges they face and resume their operations.”

He added that his department has not yet heard of any challenges faced by the investors since the launch. Nor has the department been approached to meet with the investors to discuss issues related to the alleged collapse.

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