In-depth: Safaricom faces recruitment, employee rights crisis despite promising entry to Ethiopia market

Safaricom Ethiopia promoting its services on the streets of Addis Abeba, December 2022 (Photo: Safaricom Ethiopia/Facebook)

By Biruk Alemu @Birukalemu21

Addis Abeba – After years of monopoly by the state owned Ethio telecom, the Ethiopian telecom sector has finally opened up to liberalization with Safaricom Ethiopia becoming the first firm now offering telecom services within the nation. However, amidst this promising venture, the company has faced formidable challenges, particularly in the realms of staff recruitment and administration.

Shortly after it went operational, the firm was met by a social media campaign, particularly in the Oromia region, dubbed “Boycott Safaricom” which urged individuals to refrain from using the company’s products and services, alleging discriminatory practices within the organization’s recruitment scheme and language usage. Simultaneously, Safaricom Ethiopia’s call center staff, employed through Ison Xperience Ethiocol Pvt. Ltd., have consistently raised various issues and submitted numerous complaints in connection with salary and other employment rights issues.

Nine months into the launch of its operation in the country, Safaricom Ethiopia managed to subscribe more than 3 million users as of the end of June, and has been preparing to introduce its flagship mobile banking service, M-Pesa, following approval from the National Bank.

The Company has recently received a $157.4 million equity investment and a $100 million loan from the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) for the ongoing expansion of its network, a landmark funding expected to bolster the company’s competitiveness.

Despite these promising developments, complaints regarding effective staff recruitment and administration persist. Specifically, employees under Ison Xperience’s purview, who are responsible for Safaricom Ethiopia’s call center operations, have voiced multiple concerns regarding their employment rights. They further reveal that individuals who sought to address these concerns were allegedly terminated unjustly.

Safaricom SIM cut into two during the ‘Boycott Safaricom’ campaign in Oromia region (Photo: Abdissa Bancha Jara/Facebook)

Salary disparities constitute one of the primary grievances raised by the employees. An employee, who chose to remain anonymous due to potential repercussions, stated, “Ison Xperience retains half of the salary earmarked for workers by Safaricom Ethiopia.”

The employee went on to claim that Ison Xperience withholds 70% of the salary paid out by Safaricom, distributing a mere 30% to its employees. For clarity, the employee divulged that Safaricom assigns a salary range of 20,000 to 24,000 birr for a telephone operator, while Ison Xperience dispenses a mere 6,500 birr to the same employee.

Following a previous protest, salaries for workers who completed six months of service were increased from 6,500 to 7,800 birr. However, the employee asserts that this pay increase is not commensurate with their workload and the nature of the job, particularly when compared to other organizations in the sector and the current cost of living.

The employee further alleges, “to avoid providing raises for employees who have completed six months of service and qualify for a salary increase, existing employees are being illegally dismissed and replaced with new hires at lower salaries.”

‘If you want the job, stay; if not, leave’

Another call center employee, requesting anonymity, criticized the company’s KPI guidelines, claiming they are not legally enforceable. The employee explained, “If an employee misses a day of work due to illness and provides legitimate medical proof, their performance evaluation for that month is reduced by half.” The employee argues that performance should only be assessed based on the days the employee was present and working, not on days missed for legitimate reasons.

Transportation concerns are another issue that workers have brought forward, particularly among those working night shifts. The second employee, who spoke to Addis Standard, reported inadequate provision of transportation services, which has allegedly led to instances of theft and abuse. Despite repeated appeals to the company for a resolution, the response, he claims, has been dismissive: ‘If you want the job, stay; if not, leave.’

Both employees express dissatisfaction with the company’s alleged neglect of their insurance coverage. They assert that the company has failed to provide life and bodily injury insurance, despite the potential risks associated with constant use of headsets, leaving employees vulnerable.

Further, a general sentiment among the employees points to an alleged bias in the company’s promotion practices. They argue that deserving individuals are often overlooked in favor of those with closer ties to the company’s leadership, irrespective of their performance or dedication. This bias, they claim, extends to such a degree that even outspoken team leaders can find themselves demoted to routine roles such as answering phones, while simultaneously shouldering additional work.

The second employee expressed his concerns about the company’s perceived apathy towards their employees’ issues. He stated “there seems to be a prevailing assumption that ‘cheap labor is readily available and can easily replace any discontented worker.’ This mentality discourages open dialogue and resolution of employee concerns.”

Several employees within the organization attest to having sought answers to their queries, both individually and collectively, on multiple occasions. Regrettably, their efforts have been met with discouragement. Instead of receiving constructive responses, they have been issued verbal and written warnings against voicing their issues and complaints collectively. More disturbingly, they allege that employees who have been vocal in championing workers’ rights have either  been terminated or forced to resign.

These concerns, among others, led to the formation of a Ison Xperience Ethiocol Pvt. Ltd. Workers’ Union on 08 May 2015 EC. Cheramlak Tamru, who was elected as the union chairman, became a pivotal advocate for workers’ rights. His commitment to addressing employees’ grievances reportedly led to his dismissal, current Union leaders informed Addis Standard.

In a conversation with the former chairman of the company’s workers’ union, Cheramlak Tamru, Addis Standard has learned that a lawsuit against the company has been filed in response to his dismissal, and the case is currently under adjudication in the Kolfe Karanyo division of the Federal Court of First Instance. The case being under judicial consideration, the viewpoint of the complainant has not been incorporated in this report to respect legal norms.

However, according to a letter penned by the Transport & Communication Industry Worker’s Unions Federation  on May 14, 2015 EC, and addressed to the Labor Enterprise and Industrial Development Office of the Lidata District Administration, it was revealed that Ison Xperience had unlawfully and unjustifiably dismissed the chairman of the workers’ union. The Federation also stated that this action was a breach of Article 14 Subsection 1(a) of employment Proclamation No. 1156/2011.

In response to this situation, the Ledata district Office for Labor Enterprise and Industrial Development attempted to mediate a dialogue between the two parties. However, the company’s refusal to reinstate the dismissed employee resulted in the case being referred to the Board of Employer and Employee Affairs on May 25, 2015 EC, as conveyed in a subsequent communication.

Workers employed by Ison Xperience and assigned to Safaricom Ethiopia’s call center, have submitted a series of formal requests regarding their rights to Safaricom Ethiopia, the Addis Ababa City Employment and Enterprise Industry Development Office, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Regrettably, these requests have been met with inadequate responses, according to our informants.

Anuwar Soussa, former Safaricom Ethiopia CEO met with the ‘Boycott Safaricom’ campaign leaders seeking to address the grievances in the Oromia region (Photo: Abdissa Bancha/Facebook)

Meanwhile, in the Oromia region, Safaricom Ethiopia had faced a social media campaign urging people to boycott its products and services due to employment and language usage issues. Senior leaders from the company engaged in dialogue with the campaign coordinators, promising swift resolution. However, as the issues persist, there has been a resurgence in the campaign.

Abdisa Bancha, an IT specialist who was among the representatives in talks with Safaricom Ethiopia’s senior leadership, has alleged to Addis Standard that Safaricom Ethiopia’s recruitment process is marred by mal-practices, with qualified individuals being overlooked on the basis of ethnicity and religion. Abdissa further voiced concerns over the company’s equal opportunity status, noting that jobs, such as network installation and sales roles, are often secured through personal connections.

Another concern raised by Abdisa  pertains to language. He shared that the company does not use the Afaan Oromo language in its Oromia region operations, a problem that remains unresolved despite discussions with the company’s leadership including the former CEO Anuwar Soussa. 

Abdissa mentioned that this problem has also reached the company’s head office in Kenya, and expressed hope that the newly appointed manager will reform the system, making it more responsive to employee complaints and encouraging services to be offered in regional languages. He cautioned that failing to address these concerns may present challenges, particularly in the Oromia region.

Safaricom Ethiopia and Ison Xperience 

Ison Xperience, a global customer experience management company, entered the Ethiopian market last year as Ison Xperience Ethiocol Pvt. Ltd. reportedly generating some 600 job opportunities.

Workers who were recruited, trained and employed by Ison Xperience and working for Safaricom Ethiopia’s call center relayed their experiences to Addis Standard saying even though they carry out their work for Safaricom, their employment contracts and agreements were signed with Ison Xperience .

One employee disclosed that all the computers and servers utilized by Ison Xperience bear the Safaricom logo. This individual also shared that they were initially led to believe that they were being hired as Safaricom employees. However, after the recruitment of many employees, it was communicated that they were in fact employees of Ison Xperience, not Safaricom.

When Addis Standard sought clarification regarding the nature of the working relationship between Ison Xperience and Safaricom Ethiopia,  Eyuel  Worku, Ison Xperience’s Head of Human Resources Management, responded saying, “Safaricom is our client, and we are not required to disclose the specifics of our relationship with them.”

Although Eyuel declined to confirm or deny if they are providing call center services to Safaricom, Addis Standard has learned that Safaricom Ethiopia’s call center is effectively outsourced to Ison Xperience, and the firm has recruited, trained, and hired its own employees to staff these operations.

Response to Employee Complaints

In response to the allegations made by employees, Eyuel Worku, the Head of Human Resources Management at Ison Xperience, has categorically denied the complaints lodged against the company. With regard to salary-related complaints, Eyuel stated that Ison Xperience compensates its employees in line with standard practices, just like any other organization. He further clarified that fluctuations in salary should not be perceived as an issue exclusive to their institution. Eyuel emphasized that Ison Xperience adheres to its own internal pay scale when determining employee remuneration.

A representative of the company who conveyed further clarification to Addis Standard on the allegations that Ison Xperience acts as an employment agency and deducts more than 70 percent of wages allocated to the workers by Safaricom, said as a profit-oriented entity, Ison Xperience employs workers in accordance with its own pay scale and that upon recruitment, workers are informed of this pay structure and subsequently agree to these terms.

The representative stated that employees are directly hired by Ison Xperience, not Safaricom. Thus, he argued, there is none whatsoever salary that Safaricom allocates to employees of Ison Xperience. He added that an employee who is dissatisfied with the company’s pay structure retains the right to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Discussing the company’s approach to performance evaluation, Eyuel, the head of Human Resources Management, clarified that in instances where an employee is absent due to illness and provides a valid medical certificate, no salary deductions would be imposed. However, the employee’s work performance evaluation would be affected, due to the nature of their roles requiring physical presence at work. An employee absent due to uncontrollable factors and despite presenting valid evidence for their absence, he elaborated, cannot be treated in the same manner as an employee who has maintained perfect attendance when it comes to performance evaluation.

Addressing the topic of transportation, Eyuel dismissed the employees’ complaints, asserting that there are no shifts left unsupported by transportation. He affirmed that they provide suitable transportation services to workers in alignment with company policy. Nevertheless, he conceded that, like any system, transportation is a process subject to improvement and occasional minor hitches.

With regard to the allegations of unfair career advancement, Eyuel stated that 10 percent of the company’s supervisors are employees who have been internally promoted to the roles, a practice that the company takes pride in. He further clarified that promotions are accorded to employees who meet the organization’s set standards. However, he revealed that there may have been instances where employees were not promoted failing to meet these criteria.

On the topic of employee dismissals, Eyuel asserted that the company strictly adheres to the regulations outlined in the Labor and Employment Affairs Proclamation. He dismissed the accusations of arbitrary dismissals and undue pressure on employees to resign as “unfounded rumors and hearsay.”

When asked about the termination of Ato Cheramlak Tamru, the former union chairman, Eyuel declined to comment, stating, “This is an internal company matter and not of external concern.” However, he assured that no workers had been unlawfully dismissed from the company.

Concerning employee complaints about life and disability insurance benefits, Eyuel affirmed that Ison Experience is in full compliance with the law and company policies, with a majority of employees availing these services.

Addressing the complaint about the inadequacy of the company’s response to employee grievances,  Eyuel strongly refuted the claim that employees are dismissively told to either stay or leave at their discretion. He inferred that he is acquainted with the individual who put forth this complaint, suggesting that it could be an isolated sentiment. He firmly repudiated any allegation suggesting the company condones demeaning its employees.

Safaricom Ethiopia did not immediately respond to Addis Stadnard’s questions with regard to its work relations with Ison Xperience and the persistent complaints it has been facing since the launch of its Ethiopia operations. AS

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