The Rift Between Airtel Nigeria and Its Call Center Agents

The Sound of Abuja

Airtel is the current name of the estranged Second Mobile operator to launch its Network in Nigeria back in 2002. The Company started out as Econet, became Vee Networks, and then switched to V-Mobile before people could get accustomed to the new name and then settled on being owned and operated by Celtel for a few years. It spent another few years going by the moniker “Zain” and in 2010, morphed into Airtel.

Upon acquiring the totem, Airtel greeted Nigeria with a glowing marquee of price cuts, an event which attracted significant media coverage and was well liked by the people. Behind the scenes however, more straight-faced business measures were being adopted. For one, the Call Centre operations which had previously been handled by 3 mostly local firms: Bezelyn, CCSNL and HR Indexx were slated for outsourcing to two large firms with Indian roots: Spanco and Tech Mahindra. This move was expected by the affected call centre agents to imply the transference of their employment to the new firms–basically a managerial concern. The average work routine wasn’t expected to change much, the agents were assured.

Some ancillary concerns of the call centre agents that had been addressed to varying extents, and which had been languishing in recent times were brought to the fore again. For instance, the call centre agents had always expressed a desire to have “official” phone lines, at least to ease communication with their colleagues. They considered it to be a reasonable perk, considering that they worked for a telecommunications company. Most of the agents also did not have identity cards, and those who did still held cards from when the company was owned by Zain.

Towards the end of the first half of this year, curious events began to unfold. A good number of pregnant women got fired under mysterious circumstances, and practically all call centre agents who had gone on leave did not receive their full allowances and entitlements on pay day. Other agents had their pay delayed and no explanations were forthcoming. With no pay, and no explanations, and a few absent colleagues, the agents responded by “downtooling”. An action described as being present at work, but not being very efficient. This happened on the 9th of Jun 2011, and it attracted some attention because the people who were fired were re-instated, and the Airtel management promised to pay back salaries in full and work towards providing phone lines for the agents and producing identity cards for them.

Calm ensued but was short-lived because a fresh controversy arose concerning the payment of bonuses following a profitable fiscal year for the company. The call centres are organised with the lowest rung being the “agent”, directly behind the “Team Lead”, before the “Assistant Manager”, and all headed by the “Manager”. End of year bonuses were received by everyone except the agents, and feeling short-changed they embarked upon a Strike action on the 18th of July 2011. Call centres were closed as part of the action, and again the Management resumed negotiations, promising to pay ₦21,000 (twenty one thousand Naira) as bonuses to the call centre agents.

Spanco and Tech Mahindra (it is a bit confusing who exactly is in charge) informed the agents that the current salary structure could not be sustained, and the agents would have to accept a 60% pay cut, or a 50% reduction in workforce, as well as changes to their working schedules, raising the working hours to 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, no breaks, 6 days of annual leave and a maximum of 12 days of sick leave per annum. This deal was presented to the agents early September and it appears that no official notice was served, which culminated in 3000 people showing up at work on Friday the 30th of September 2011, surprised to receive notice of termination of their appointment, and receiving 1 part of a multi-part text message informing them that the call centre will be closed at midnight because an agreement could not be reached between the management of Airtel and the call centre outsourcing partners (Bezelyn, CCSNL and HR Indexx). One of such texts read as:

Dear Call Centre Agent, the Management of CCSNL would like to inform you that our contract with Airtel expires today and therefore we would like to inform you t

It is a multi-part text message which was not completely delivered.

Currently, customer care calls emanating from Nigeria are being routed to Ghana following the closure of the two call centres in Lagos and Abuja.

Airtel’s most official sounding response to the entire storm is as follows:

Artel Call Centre Shutdown: The True Position

Contrary to the rumours and outright falsehood being peddled across certain social media platforms, Airtel Nigeria has not sacked any of its employees and does not have any intention to cut staff salaries. Airtel employees remain committed.

Regarding the recent call centre shutdown, the contract of an agency to one of our partners expired yesterday, September 30th. About 40 percent of call centre workers are employees of this agency. Despite the contract expiration, several employees of this agency will be re-absorbed into the system. So, the issue of mass sack, salary cut and poor benefits are outright falsehood.

Airtel is committed to realizing its vision of being the most loved brand in Nigeria and will continue to ensure that the dialogue between its call centre partners and their employees is fruitful and productive.

We also remain passionate in our quest to continue to provide our customers with the best service experience.

This statement is however at odds with the facts as at Midnight of 30 September 2011:

  • The privileged agents who have official lines were removed from the Airtel Staff Closed User Group which allowed colleagues to communicate with each other free of charge.
  • The official lines were stripped of all benefits, and functioned like regular phone lines.
  • Affected staff email accounts were deactivated.