Friday, July 10, 2009

Unionising call centres

I spent about six years working in call centres, and I just say a bit about what it is like, for those of you who have avoided it. All of the call centres I worked in employed people on a casual, part-time and temporary basis. All of them had their share of bullying, vindictive and harrassing supervisors. Supervisors were empowered to sack one at a moment's notice, and didn't require a particularly good excuse. Actually, they could just stop booking you for shifts if they didn't like you for some reason. Pay was always low, about as close to minimum wage as they could get away with. Lunch or dinner breaks were usually unpaid. Toilet breaks are timed, and more than five minutes away from one's computer might be penalised. And it's miserable. Most call centres are situated in relatively inexpensive office space out in the sticks - bleak looking industrial wastelands with few amenities nearby.

The literature from 'work and psychology' journals characterises call centre work as 'emotional labour', which is accurate. After eight hours on the phone, pretending to listen to and sympathise with members of the public, while at the same time conforming closely to a pre-scripted routine, you will feel drained. Despite the way management tend to treat staff as expendable, it is actually a highly skilled and demanding kind of labour. In my experience, this would come out when experienced staff members were consulted for their suggestions as to how a particular project might work: there was a wealth of accumulated wisdom and experience that management simply wouldn't have access to otherwise. But partly because workers are so lightly hired and fired, the work is also heavily micro-managed by supervisors, who listen in to about 12% of calls on average. Among the various points a worker is likely to be assessed for is fidelity to a script that is quite often stupidly worded and unworkable, written as it usually is by people who spend no time on the 'phones. Since your job is to get people to stay on the phone and either do a survey, or divulge some information, or buy something, the natural temptation is to chuck the script - people hate it when they think you're just reading a script at them. But persistent failure to read the lines out is a disciplinary issue. Lots of people who can't stand this idiocy just walk out mid-shift, and never show their faces again.

It isn't easy to unionise call centres. To get recognition, you need a vote of all employees. But there's a high turnover of staff, and a large number of people who remain formally on the books long after they have ceased to work shifts. On top of that, staff are disproportionately young, and are perhaps not as assertive as they need to be. And most people have other things they're moving on to - they don't see it as a permanent job, and thus may be reluctant to get involved in lengthy battles with management, especially if it's so easy to fire them. That said, however, I am encouraged by this series of articles which suggests that things are changing. It would be an enormously important development if this happened, because the those most exploited in the private sector have tended to be those least able to respond to their situation. It would potentially drive up incomes the lowest paid jobs and improve the bargaining power of an undervalued layer of workers.