With their culture of long hours, relentless targets, management bullying and low pay, call centres have become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the world of work.
Tens of thousands of people work in call centres across Britain – dealing with complaints and queries, processing orders for goods or cold calling people to try and sell products or services.
The boring and repetitive nature of the work is compounded by the alienation of workers being arranged in ranks and jammed into cubicles for hours at a time with just a phone and a computer.
For the trade unions, call centres represent a challenge.
Employers are generally hostile to unions and there is little to prevent them sacking anyone who tries to organise.
Workers in the centres are often young, with many in their first jobs after leaving college.
High staff turnover rates mean that many spend only a few months in any one place.
These are not the only problems those attempting to bring in the union face.
Many of Britain’s biggest firms have outsourced part of their call centre operations to private contractors, here or abroad, where pay and conditions are worse – and where the unions will find it more difficult to organise.
But could a brighter day be approaching for those in the industry?
Certainly, that is the view of some call centre workers in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) who spoke to Socialist Worker.
They explained how, despite an atmosphere of heavy intimidation, they were recruiting new union members and facing down threats of reprisals from their bosses.
David – Call centre worker, London
David has worked at a call centre in central London for the past nine months. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the pressures of his job – and explained why getting people to join the union is not as difficult as some might think.
‘Around 400 people work in my call centre. Most are young people who have just finished college and don’t plan to stay for long, but there are some older workers who have been here for quite a while.
My shift starts at 1pm and runs till 9pm. I work five days a week – including weekends, which are compulsory.
I’ve worked on either a Saturday or a Sunday every week for the past nine months, meaning I haven’t had a weekend off for almost a year.
Add to that the way that unsocial hours tend to cut you off from your friends and family and you can see that it’s quite hard to have a normal life.
As soon as you start your shift you have to log into the system and put on your headset.
From that point onwards the computer controls your day and constantly queues up calls for you. It’s unrelenting.
We get two paid 15 minute breaks a day and one 30 minute break that is unpaid. In that time everyone wants to eat, but there are only two microwaves on each floor to be shared among 200 people.
You can imagine what that’s like. Most of us end up eating junk food from takeaways.
Management is obsessed with targets. On the campaign I am working on at the moment we were told to aim for five confirmed sales every hour.
I was really pleased when I met the target because I thought it would keep management off my back.
But when I came into work after a day off I found that they had raised the target to 6.5 sales per hour.
At the end of every sale there is what is known as wrap-up time, which is where you fill in the paperwork for the call.
Managers heavily monitor you through this period, and people who take too long before going back to making calls have been disciplined or sacked.
Team leaders monitor our calls at random, so you never know whether you might be listened to and recorded.
The whole process of work can be very intimidating. This partly depends on the campaign you are working on and what targets you are set.
You can always find a short cut to improve your figures and hit your target. The trouble is that if you get caught, you can get fired.
But if you don’t hit your target you’re going to get fired anyway.
Another pressure put on us is outsourcing. Whenever management sack someone for not meeting their targets they say, “it’s a competitive environment.”
If the figures at our call centre don’t meet the overall target the work will be taken away from us and given to another centre, either here or abroad.
Even when we’ve been really successful, they still threaten us.
In the last few months the CWU has built a really visible presence at my place.
We’re engaged in a battle with management about who controls the notice boards – every day we put up union posters and every day they take them down.
But they can’t stop us leafleting and petitioning outside the building.
Already 200 people have signed the petition demanding that we are paid the London Living Wage of £7.60 an hour and our leaflets which explain workers’ rights have gone down really well.
As we have become more active, we’ve got bolder – and more people come to us with their problems.
As a result the union has trained me to represent people in disciplinary situations.
Last week I saved someone’s job. That feels really good and builds the union’s reputation.
Having once threatened me for my union activity, now its management’s turn to be worried.
Our human resources department is in a right panic about the union – and with good reason.’
Sarah – Call centre worker, south of England
Sarah has worked in a call centre in the south of England for the past ten years and is playing a leading role in a unionisation drive there.
After nine months of intense activity, the CWU believes that it is on the cusp of winning trade union recognition at the firm. Sarah told Socialist Worker that around 50 of the 120 people who work in her office have joined the union.
‘We started building the union here at the end of last summer.
Everyone in the office seemed to know that we needed one, but it took one person to actually come in with some leaflets in order to get the whole thing going.
About six of us joined straight away and we set about trying to convince others. Then, just before Christmas,
I was sacked after taking out a grievance against a manager who verbally bullied me.
Thankfully, the union stepped in and I got my job back. My case became the talk of the building and helped us recruit. We started organising off-site meetings for those considering joining the union.
A local union official helped us by giving out leaflets for it outside our building. The meetings started small but were important.
Normally people keep their worries about work to themselves, but once you have some collective organisation they start to open up and talk about issues.
At a meeting we organised, one of my colleagues explained how, through talking to others, they now had peace of mind after years of putting up with intimidation from management.
After that we started producing a newsletter to highlight certain themes, like bullying and what can be done about it.
From there things took on their own momentum. People at work started saying to each other, ‘Did you see that leaflet?’ and the union got a good profile.
Management were really angry, but what could they do? They wrote to the union saying that there was no need for a union at our workplace!
But of course we need a union. We need the practical protection from unfairness that union organisation can provide.
When I’m trying to recruit the people that I work with to the union I say its about more than that.
I tell them that the call centres of today are like the factories of the Victorian era – they are the bright Satanic mills that have replaced the dark ones of the past.
Those factories were transformed by people who fought for better conditions and the unions were central to those battles.
Today’s unions have to move into workplaces like mine if they are to have a future. We’ve got to learn from the struggles of the past.’