'WE ALL sit in row after row. You have to log in and log out, even for your 15 minute coffee break. It's exactly like clocking in at a factory.' That's the reality of life on the white collar production line, according to a woman worker at Avis UK's call centre in Bracknell in Berkshire.
Over a quarter of a million people now work in giant call centre offices for banks, insurance companies and a host of other firms. 'You don't move all day. You just sit in the same position, hour after hour,' says the Avis worker. It's like being a battery hen. When I come home I feel absolutely exhausted and drained. For every minute for eight hours you have someone talking in your ears. As soon as a customer puts the phone down, another voice comes in your ear. It's relentless. We are closely monitored and our calls recorded at every moment of the day. You never know when the bosses are listening in – so you have to get the script right every time, say exactly the right words in the right place. To get a bonus depends on meeting all the targets they set us. If you make one mistake in what you say to customers, then that's it, you miss your target and you don't get the bonus. If you have to deal with a customer query or complaint then you have to clock out. This is called 'wrap' time. But if you spend too long on a customer then you get into trouble for taking time off – as if you'd been having a sneaky break. You daren't even go to the loo!'
Workers are expected to be flexible. But far from being family friendly as Tony Blair claims, flexibility makes it nearly impossible for people to juggle work and home. 'Some people work shifts that are for 12 or ten hours. There is no choice when you start,' says the Avis worker. 'You have to be flexible, but that means fitting in with the boss, not with your family. Most of the workers here are women and they have such difficulty fitting the work to the rest of their lives. It's a case of juggling everything in the air – childcare, housework, husbands, partners. Lots of women want to go to college to improve themselves. But how can you go if have to work every evening and there's no let up? I'm middle aged and I felt lucky to have got a job. But some of the youngsters only last for six months in the job. They are desperate to get out. I know people who even want to go back to working on a supermarket checkout – anything to get off the phones!'
The average pay in call centres is now just over £11,000 a year, just £160 a week take home. Most workers, especially those with a family, struggle to make ends meet on that, says the Avis worker. 'It's also not a lot of money for the responsibility we have,' she says. 'We're turning over millions of pounds for them, booking hundreds of cars. But we get no commission. I have to laugh when I hear the average wage is something like 20 grand a year. Who gets that much?'
Now Avis has kicked workers in the teeth. It plans to sack all 175 workers at the call centre and relocate to Manchester. 'The news came out of the blue. We were devastated. I felt betrayed having worked so hard,' says the worker. 'They told us that they wanted to go to Manchester because there were more bilingual people there! That's ridiculous. The real reason is because they want to get away with paying lower salaries and with lower costs. There's only two words that count for them – profits and shareholders. We are expendable. They can just throw away our experience and hard work. The redundancy notices are due to go out this December – just before Christmas. What a present! People are not sleeping at all at night because they are so frightened for the future. Many of the women who work here are breadwinners, responsible for paying the mortgage and keeping their whole families afloat. Now they're left with nothing but worry and stress. It makes me so mad. People do their best, work as hard as they can, and this is how we are rewarded. These firms should be harnessing people's talents. Instead they are trampling on them.'
The 24 hour nightmare
'THE 24 hour society' is supposed to offer us more freedom of choice – to shop, eat or pay bills at any time of the day. But the hype masks a grim reality for the workers who are forced to work at all hours of day and night. A third of a million people now work between the hours of 2am and 5am. The figure will double over the next ten years. But working such hours causes dire health problems. It can wreck relationships and ruin every aspect of people's lives.
Professsor Simon Folkard of the International Commission on Occupational Health says, 'Disturbances caused by night work result in fatigue which can in turn lead to chronic fatigue, malaise, anxiety and depression. If it continues for long enough, people can get gastro-intestinal problems and eventually symptoms of cardio vascular disease.' Workers often have no choice. They have to work nights or face losing their jobs. They face the grim combination of old style exploitation and new style flexibility – what some commentators have dubbed 'flexploitation'.
Julie Wood, who works at First Direct's 24 hour call centre, explains how people are forced into taking such jobs. I've worked nights for four years. I started because I used to work evenings and never spent any time with my family. It suited me to work at night while my daughter is asleep and for me to sleep while she's at school. It's got harder for me now as I've recently come back from maternity leave and can only nap during the day when my baby naps. I've reduced my hours but that still means I'm up for almost 24 hours on a Friday, and by Saturday morning I'm pretty exhausted.'
Yet why do we need supermarkets and banking 24 hours a day? The only reason is because so many other workers are now also forced to work crazy, unsociable shift patterns. How many of us would choose to zip round Tesco at four in the morning unless we had just finished a night shift ourselves? Bosses could employ more workers to ease the burden of those in work and to give those on the dole a chance of a job. Instead they make workers do longer, harder hours and then threaten them with the dole if they don't keep up productivity. They have created a vicious circle where more and more workers endanger all aspects of their physical and emotional health just to keep pumping out profits.
Stressed right out
A MASSIVE 91 percent of call centre workers feel they suffer from stress, according to a survey carried out by the Communication Workers Union. Some 36 percent of workers had sought medical attention. 64 percent had been threatened with disciplinary action.