MORE than 100 call centre workers are fearing redundancy as bosses prepare to move jobs to South Africa, we can reveal.
Call centre firm Webhelp has told 168 staff fielding calls for holiday giant Thomas Cook that their jobs are at risk as unions condemn plans to outsource work to South Africa where staff earn just £2.40 an hour.
Webhelp is offering workers voluntary redundancy and aims to retain 48 of the 168 Falkirk jobs under threat.
The company, which sponsors Falkirk football club, secured the Thomas Cook contract last year when Webhelp boss David Turner, who is in charge of UK and South African operations, pledged a “long-term commitment” to the town.
The layoffs come despite the company being awarded a £1.5m Scottish Government grant, announced by then First Minister Alex Salmond, in 2013 although bosses say they only needed £500,000.
At the time, the company said the money would help create 400 jobs in Scotland and Mr Salmond described them as a “key partner in developing our strategy to tackle youth unemployment”.
The plans to outsource Scots jobs to South Africa can be revealed weeks after tech firm Kaiam shut its Livingston factory on Christmas Eve, four years after receiving a grant of £850,000 from Scottish Enterprise.
Neil Findlay MSP, who has called for a parliamentary inquiry into Scottish Enterprise grants, said: “Here we have yet more evidence of a company being handed substantial Scottish Government grants then leaving more than 100 workers out of a job.
“This is exactly the type of case the Scottish Parliament’s Economy Committee should be looking into.”
Trade union the Transport and Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), which represents workers in the travel industry, including staff at Webhelp’s Falkirk site, confirmed that work is to be “relocated overseas” and staff have been told they can apply for voluntary redundancy.
Webhelp spokesman Mark Scott said: “Given that we are still in consultation we are unable to confirm numbers, however we are very hopeful that through understanding personal preferences and exploring the many other job opportunities in Webhelp, the number of compulsory redundancies can be minimised through 2019.”
Manuel Cortes, of the TSSA, said local MSP and transport minister Michael Matheson must now fight for the jobs or demand the firm repays the business grant.
Mr Cortes said: “Our union has engaged fully with Webhelp throughout the consultation process over Thomas Cook jobs but the only thing the company is interested in is making bigger profits.”
In October last year Webhelp’s chief commercial officer in South Africa, Brandon Aitken, said the company will bring at least two new UK brands into South Africa in 2019, where operating costs are 60% lower than the UK.
A source at Webhelp in Scotland, who asked not to be named, said: “They have told staff working on the Thomas Cook contract in Falkirk that the jobs are going to South Africa at the end of April. There’s a consultation process and they are making people redundant.”
Mr Matheson said: “I have made it clear to the management that I have serious concerns about the approach they have taken and the impact of their plans on the workforce.
“I have also raised the matter with the relevant Scottish Government ministers and have been assured that Scottish Enterprise is working with Webhelp to minimise the fallout of the restructuring.”
Business Minister Jamie Hepburn said he has spoken with Mr Turner and offered “my ongoing support throughout the consultation period”.
Scottish Enterprise said funding is awarded “where companies meet eligibility criteria and is paid in instalments only when companies meet relevant milestones”.
They added: “In instances where conditions of grant funding are not met we always seek to recover the funds.”
Webhelp spokesman Mark Scott said the £1.5m grant was for job creation between 2012 and 2016 and has “no link to the Thomas Cook contract.”
“We accessed approximately a third of the funds made available and met all required criteria associated with the grant to create jobs which remain in our Webhelp business in Scotland today,” he added. “We remain a significant employer in Scotland, with almost 3,000 staff, and are committed to local growth.”
Thomas Cook declined to comment.
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