An ex-manager in the customer care department at MultiChoice, who asked to speak on condition of anonymity, exclusively reveals how the media giant’s managers allegedly “bullied and unjustifiably force-retrenched” support staff to make way for a cheaper call centre service provider already accused of paying its workers “slavery wages”.
“We created a hostile working environment for the staff by giving them [an] unreasonable workload, frustrating and emotionally abusing them to the point [that they] no longer wished to work for the company. We were given instructions to dig [up dirt and then] dismiss staff … Our primary focus was to get rid of staff. It’s easier to fire them than to pay them. I acknowledge my role in this, from a moral perspective. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was basically fighting to save my job,” says the former manager.
The company instructed managers to get rid of staff. “The tactics used to get rid of people are disturbing. There was no justification [for] why MultiChoice had to retrench its staff.”
Spokesperson for the Information Communication Technology Union Thabang Mothelo says: “MultiChoice had to engineer and psychologically play with the minds of workers so that when it [retrenched people and opened] the voluntary severance package, workers were gatvol [had enough of it] and opted to leave the company. They intended to reduce their staff whether by hook or crook.”
MultiChoice wanted to restructure its business model. It claimed that an increase in customers’ use of self-services and digital platforms when resolving DStv-related issues meant the need for customer care practitioners had been reduced.
But a document seen by New Frame shows the number of customers utilising self-service and digital platforms is still relatively low – certainly not enough to justify retrenching large numbers of customer care staff.
Difficult working conditions
Previously the job of customer experience coaches was to assure quality. These were the people who checked that call agents gave clients effective service. But after their job title changed, the problems began.
Clementine Kwane, 37, a former customer experience coach, was retrenched in late January. “We picked up that [the job title ‘customer experience coach’] did not exist anywhere in the world. This led us to experience difficulties when our salaries had to be adjusted because it could not be benchmarked, and the managers could not even come with our key performance indicators. There was a time where we were sitting for about 10 months without doing anything. We were told to come to the office and we will be told what to do, only to find we’ve come for nothing,” she recalls.
In April 2015, MultiChoice launched a new system, Clarity, which failed to automatically downgrade or upgrade clients’ packages. Management told the coaches to manually fix the clients’ packages and they’d be given an overtime rate of R100 per hour for 15 accounts. Two years later, between March 2017 and November 2017 – which is during the time the ex-manager says they were told to start digging for information to dismiss workers – the coaches were accused of claiming fraudulent overtime.
Half of Kwane’s team was suspended, which meant those left behind had to pick up the workload. The suspended staff were told to choose either to resign immediately, resign and service one-month’s notice or risk getting fired after a disciplinary inquiry.
The staff won the case at the disciplinary hearing after proving they had acted on a senior’s request, which was well documented. They were reinstated in January 2018, three months after being suspended.
In the second week of September 2018, MultiChoice informed the staff of its intention to restructure its business model to be in line with Future Fit, a new strategy introducing so called “omniagents” (people who are multi-skilled). Kwane says they were summoned to a town hall meeting in Randburg where the company presented the new strategy.
“Immediately after we signed the register, we were told to take an envelope. There was no Q and A session. We saw that it’s retrenchment letters,” Kwane says. “We then received communication via email that we [would be given] a smallanyana training on how to draft a CV.” She says only a few people were rehired to work with a lower salary despite doing the same amount of work or even more.
There was a discrepancy in salaries: People doing the same job were earning at different rates, because some were more experienced than others. When the change of employment strategy came into play, the people earning at a higher rate were told that their salaries would not be adjusted until those who were earning less, had had increases.
The company’s response
New Frame sent 15 specific questions to MultiChoice about the new outsourced call centre service provider, the allegations of bullying and creating a hostile environment for staff, why it retrenched staff despite a document showing a high number of people calling in, whether they retrenched to maximise profit and more. A number of these questions were not answered.
Joe Heshu, who is in charge of MultiChoice’s corporate affairs, responded, saying: “MultiChoice South Africa is satisfied that the retrenchment numbers will be considerably lower than anticipated, given the high take-up of voluntary retrenchment packages, natural attrition and redeployment to new positions.
“The strategic realignment also required a new profile of multi-skilled sales and service representatives in MultiChoice South Africa’s business to enhance and optimise customer engagement. As such, the company created more than 800 new specialised positions in its customer care unit for which impacted employees had to apply.
“Through the CCMA-facilitated [the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] consultation sessions, it was agreed that the assessment criteria for these positions would be revised and the company will invest in a robust training and performance management programme over the next six months to ensure that as many of the impacted employees can be placed in these new positions.”
‘To them we are just a number’
Njabulo Ngubane, 33, lives at Emdeni South, Soweto. In October last year, she took maternity leave. Two weeks later, her human resource manager phoned her to notify her that the voluntary severance package was available, and she needed to apply for it within 10 days. Ngubane told them she was unable to deal with work-related issues while on maternity leave. The period lapsed.
She was subsequently asked to send her CV via email, which she did. Soon afterwards, she was called again to be interviewed for a vacant post in the newly proposed structure. But she couldn’t physically come to the office as requested since she was recovering from having given birth by C-section. “Are you supposed to treat me like this?” she asked the official at the employment relations department who asked her to come into the office. “Yes,” the official allegedly replied, “that’s how things are done.”
“I said I am sorry I won’t do that. You will just fire me when I come back to work,” Ngubane says. They opted to interview her telephonically. Her child was about two weeks old at the time. The interview did not go well. “At some stage I would ask them to hold on the phone for a moment or to call again after a few minutes, my baby was crying and I needed to look after her,” Ngubane says. The following day they called her to tell her she was unsuccessful. “To them, we are just a number.”
They said they’d let her know of other available posts, but they never did. She was retrenched in January. MultiChoice denies retrenching people then.
Award-winning employee no more
Lindiwe Zwane, 37, was also a customer experience coach. In April 2018, she went on maternity leave, which finished in August of that year. In September, she was admitted to Sunninghill hospital for several weeks after an emergency procedure. While she was on sick leave, the company wanted to give her retrenchment papers. They were eventually delivered immediately after she got out of hospital on 22 November 2018.
“I was expected to apply while they knew that I could not log on to the system as I was on sick leave, and by then the positions were already closed,” she says. “It’s painful, like really painful. Healthwise I am not alright. It’s even hard to admit. My daughter was covered on my medical aid but the way they removed us is difficult. I am surviving with the unemployment insurance fund, which will stop after 12 months. I do not know what I will do afterwards.”
She lives with her daughter in Palm Springs, about 45km away from Johannesburg. On top of her television stand, there is a glassy long-service award, which she obtained from MultiChoice in 2015. “This award right now means nothing. The award pains me a lot. I had been hiding it for some time because this was the first company I had spent so much time and had dedicated my life to it,” she says.
She relies on DStv channels “to escape from my own reality. It’s the only thing that I rely on even though they kicked us out. Gym is quite far right now since I am no longer working.”
Things have been tough on Zwane since she’s been unemployed. “There’s a family that was dependent on me, since I am unemployed, you can imagine. Here we speak about eight to 10 siblings and the younger ones, some of whom, their parents died, and they’re orphans.”
Now all Zwane can do is fight to make sure her baby has what she needs.