India’s WNS taps into incentives and SA accent to open local call centres

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Cape Town - From an office park in Cape Town, Gershwin Osman fields a call from a woman in the UK town of Worcester and helps update her utility account.

Osman is one of about 2 500 people employed in South Africa by WNS Holdings, a Mumbai-based back-office services provider lured by government incentives, tumbling communications costs and a pool of workers whose diction and accent suit the UK market.

In 2010, online retailer set up a call centre in Cape Town to service British, American and German clients.

“Most customers think I’m in Britain and that I’m actually British,” said Osman, 23, who handles 20 to 35 calls a day and fine-tunes his accent by listening to the commentary of English Premiership soccer games.

India and the Philippines dominate the global market for back-office services outsourcing, an industry Boston-based HfS Research expects to grow 5.1 percent to $304 billion (R3 trillion) this year.

However, the industry in South Africa has grown 30 percent to 35 percent over each of the past five years.

Local call centres employ about 210 000 staff, with 9 percent of those working for offshore companies.

WNS, which has operations in 10 other countries, including the US, UK, China, the Philippines, India and Poland, entered South Africa in June last year after acquiring Cape Town-based Fusion Outsourcing Services.

South Africa was the ideal location for servicing the UK market because of the accents, cultural affinity, similar time zone and operational costs that were as much as 50 percent lower than the UK, chief executive Keshav Murugesh said.

“When we look at the location, we look at the talent, the seriousness of the government to work with us to build the business and the overall geopolitical situation,” Murugesh said. “We are looking to branch out in South Africa. The English premium voice quality works extremely well.”

While 2011 census figures show English is the mother tongue of less than 5 million South Africans – ranking it fourth behind Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans – about half the people in the former British colony know the language.

The state offers grants of as much as R88 000 for each new call centre post created and sustained for three years. The incentives, introduced in 2007, have helped attract more than R1.6 billion of direct investment and created at least 10 500 jobs in a country where one in four people is unemployed, according to the government.

New undersea telecoms cables spurred investment as data costs fell 85 percent between 2003 and 2009.

The government plans to extend the incentive programme next year, but the ANC’s labour union allies have reservations about call centres.

“We certainly don’t want to be party to destroying jobs elsewhere, but until we have a completely different kind of economy, inevitably we will find this trend to chase the lowest possible wages,” Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said. “If companies think this the best place to open up such centres, it clearly indicates they think it will be cheap.”

About 35 percent of South Africans aged 15 to 34, a group that accounts for more than two-thirds of call-centre staff, are unemployed, data show.

The industry gave “young people an opportunity, exposure, and that’s why it’s worth promoting,” Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said last month. “I don’t think we think of this as a lifetime career opportunity.”

Perceptions of call centres as sweatshops were outdated, said Patrick Gordon, the head of marketing for Business Process Enabling SA Western Cape.

“A lot of the work is relatively entry level, but you can work your way up,” he said. “Maybe in the past, it was a sweatshop, but a lot of these new arrivals are bringing international best practice.”

Only 15 percent of WNS staff in the country were hired from school, while the balance had work experience or a further qualification, Johann Kunz, the company’s national managing director, said. – Bloomberg

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