/ 13 December 2019

Emergency call centres can’t cope

Emergency Call Centres Can’t Cope
(John McCann/M&G)



The number of calls to 10111 call centres has almost doubled in the past year, but workers and their union say there is not enough capacity to answer all of them.

According to reports, before her brutal murder, 21-year-old Capricorn TVET College student Precious Ramabulana attempted to call the emergency number but could not get through. One of Ramabulana’s friends who lived in the adjoining room also reportedly tried to call 10111, but she also could not get through.

Ramabulana was raped and stabbed more than 50 times. When police arrived on the scene, about three hours after Ramabulana reportedly first tried to call 10111, she was still alive, but died shortly after.

According to the most recent annual report from the South African Police Service (SAPS), 10111 call centres received just over 23.2-million calls in 2018-19. This is compared to the 12.6-million calls received the previous year.

The Mail & Guardian requested a more detailed breakdown of these numbers and of the number of abandoned calls from the SAPS, but there was no response.

South African Policing Union (Sapu) chief negotiator Barries Barnard told the M&G that there are not nearly enough 10111 workers to cope with this spike in calls.

Barnard said, according to statistics acquired by the union, on a daily basis 1 300 calls are dropped at the Gauteng call centre in Midrand.

“This is simply because the operators cannot keep up with all the calls … It’s not possible to handle the volume of calls. It [the call centre] should be four or five times bigger,” he said.

According to numbers provided by the SAPS in response to a 2017 question by Democratic Alliance MP Archibold Figlan, that year there were 754 workers at the 22 call centres nationwide. The large majority of these workers (247) were based at the Gauteng call centre.

A Gauteng call centre operator, who spoke to the M&G on the condition of anonymity, said: “The number of calls that we get is highly incompatible with the number of personnel in the centre. There are times we are even not able to go on lunch. It’s unacceptable. Let me just put it this way: there are no employees at 10111. There is a massive shortage.”

The worker said they are often expected to answer up to 300 calls during one 12-hour night shift. That’s just less than a call every two minutes.

According to call centre training, these calls should take less than three minutes. But more complex “moving” complaints can last much longer, the worker said.

He added that many workers are left traumatised by calls. “Sometimes a person gets shot while they are on the line and you are still trying to help them.”

The worker said the job is “a very big responsibility … Because these are the very same communities we live in. And most of the problems that they are reporting, we can easily relate to those problems.”

He said he feels “so bad” about not being able to answer every call.

“Or even when you look at that outcome of that complaint, you say to yourself: ‘No. This person should have been assisted better.’ ”

The worker added: “All the successes of the SAPS, they emanate from 10111. But we are mentioned nowhere.”

Fight wages on at 10111 about adequate compensation 

Workers who operate the 10111 emergency line are getting ready to take the South African Police Service (SAPS) to court over its failure to promote their ranks to the same level as police officers.

Call centre workers — who are at the frontline of emergency services for the police — have been fighting for a wage increase for more than two years. Now, after a promise that would see them being paid the same as police officers has seemingly been broken, their union is threatening fresh legal action.

According to the South African Policing Union (Sapu), the majority union among 10111 call centre operators, SAPS has failed to honour an agreement to change these workers’ status from being employed in line with the provisions of the Public Service Act to that of the South African Police Service Act.

The transition was supposed to be implemented in April this year.

In 2017, Sapu-affiliated 10111 workers went on strike. At the time, the union noted that these workers were paid less than other call centre workers appointed in terms of the Public Service Act.

These workers were reportedly earning as little as R7 000 a month after deductions. Sapu demanded an entry-level salary of about R19 000 a month.

The strike was successfully interdicted by SAPS, which argued that it was unprotected on the basis that the issue in dispute was settled by a collective agreement concluded between the SAPS and rival trade union, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru).

To resolve the dispute, SAPS said it would translate the 10111 workers to constables, who are on an equivalent wage level.

Sapu chief negotiator Barries Barnard said there was an “ulterior motive” because the translation would mean that the call centre operators would be declared essential under the Police Act. Workers who render essential services cannot go on strike.

But Sapu eventually signed off on an agreement to translate the workers. The new agreement allowed call centre workers to be upgraded to the salary level as high as that of a warrant officer — two levels higher than a constable — depending on how long they had worked for 10111.

Barnard said that, in August, Sapu was told that the board of commissioners had challenged the national commissioner, saying they had not been consulted and would be withdrawing the agreement.

A letter, seen by the M&G, says: “SAPS management realised that the said agreement has certain unintended consequences which could not have been foreseen at the time of entering into the agreement”.

The letter is addressed to the secretary of the Safety and Security Sectoral Bargaining Council and was signed by deputy national commissioner for human resource management, Bonang Mgwenya, in September.

According to the letter, SAPS embarked on a review of the agreement. “In this regard serious consideration is given to a dispensation whereby the affected employees will be considered for advancement within their current occupational dispensation.”

This effectively amounts to a withdrawal of the translation agreement.

Barnard said: “We have in the meantime declared another dispute, compelling the employer to implement the agreement.”

He told the M&G that the dispute is set down for arbitration in January 2020.

Barnard explained that the arbitration will decide whether the translation agreement is valid. “If it is a valid agreement, then we will simply go to the Labour Court to enforce that agreement.”

One call centre worker, who spoke to the M&G under the condition of anonymity, said he and his colleagues are frustrated with the back-and-forth between SAPS and the union: “You know, first and foremost, we had no choice not to go for this Police Act thing,” he said. “We were put under duress, let me put it like that.”

The worker, who works at the Gauteng 10111 call centre in Midrand, said the translation is not clear because the agreement does not outline how worker experience will be recognised. He said he has worked for SAPS for 13 years.

The worker said they “felt obliged” to go along with the agreement, for fear that they would lose some of their benefits.

“We ended up accepting it. But still, it is not coming,” he said.

The worker added: “My point in highlighting this is to say that they [SAPS] have always had things their way. They have always done things unilaterally. Most of my colleagues have accepted this. But it is a big problem that it is not implemented.”

He said workers feel they have been disregarded “big time”.

“We don’t know what is happening — what will happen. The union keeps telling us that they will take the employer to court. But what are the major things they have done to show us that they are really intending on taking the employers to court?”

The SAPS did not respond to the M&G’s requests for comment. — Sarah Smit