Call centre workers are risking their lives on a “dangerous frontline” in the coronavirus crisis.
A new report by Professor Phil Taylor of the University of Strathclyde highlights the risks workers across the sector face. “Without exaggeration,” it says, “the severity of the hazards from Covid-19 and the effects on these workers make for shocking reading.”
In the survey of 2,745 people, workers describe “very hazardous” journeys on public transport, how it’s “impossible” to observe social distancing and managers who hide virus cases.
Almost half of workers strongly agreed that it’s “likely that I will catch Covid-19”.
And more than 90 percent agreed that, “I am worried I will give Covid-19 to family or friends.”
One worker says that “call centres are like petri dishes and it is very easy for something to be passed around, especially during a pandemic”.
The call centre business model brings large numbers of customer services workers brought together under one roof.
Some 73 percent say social distancing when moving around their building was either “hazardous” or “very hazardous”. One worker said social distancing is impossible because “there are just too many people” in the workplace.
This meant that it’s “literally nigh impossible to adhere to social distancing all the time”.
Some 45 percent say bosses have been “ineffective or “very ineffective” at “taking the necessary steps to ensure social distancing”. And when management brings in health and safety measures, workers say they just weren’t up to scratch.
“An empty desk between,” one phone operator described, “but people still have to walk pass you to get to an available desk.
“We do not have designated desks, we hot desk so never fully sure if you are sitting at a cleaned desk.”
Already bad working conditions have exacerbated coronavirus (see right).
Managerial methods, designed to squeeze more out of workers, haven’t been dropped during the crisis.
This includes the “continuation of supervisory practices that involve face-to-face contact”.
The report says, “More than one in three reported that post-Covid-19 they still have physical team meetings in proximity to colleagues.
“A similar proportion, 34.8 percent, have ‘huddles’, the close coming together of teams, or parts of teams, in short, often motivational sessions.
“Finally, the 1-1 meeting between team leaders and call-handler seems to have endured for a large number of agents, 35.5 percent.” Call centre workers doing essential work, such as for emergency service, should be given full protective equipment and social distancing measures at work.
A worker at a clothing company call centre wrote on Twitter that she was described as “a key worker” by her employers.
Workers like this should not be in work, they should be at home on full pay. Taylor warned, “Rapid action will save some lives. Inaction will cause further deaths and serious illness.”
Despite unsafe settings staff feel under pressure to work
Some call centre bosses are trying to hide cases of coronavirus to keep people coming into work. Some people who responded to the survey “referred to at least seven colleagues who had passed away”.
The report adds that “some of the testimony expresses anger at certain managements’ attempts to conceal the truth” from the workforce.
One worker said, “Of my knowledge, there has been 1 confirmed case and 2 suspected cases.
“The confirmed case was a colleague. He required hospital treatment. Managers are aware of this and tried to deny the situation at first.
“When the colleague eventually confirmed it to everyone himself, they then accepted that it had happened but have made several cover stories to try to keep the office open.”
Threats or implied threats from bosses mean workers still come in.
Some 72 percent said they came in because they “were worried about their attendance record”.
In one case described in the report, senior managers told a symptomatic worker to attend despite knowing about their condition.
One of their colleagues said, “They came to work as they were worried about their job due to discipline action.
“They were told then to go home after completing half of the shift.”
They came to work as they were worried about their job due to discipline action.
Alongside the dangers of catching the virus, bosses are still piling pressure onto call centre workers to meet targets.
One worker said, “It is too much work pressure at the moment with the current call queues.
“We are being told to answer calls as quickly as possible but then are being penalised for not providing a better service.”
Resistance is possible. In Queensland, Australia a group of workers walked out of a call centre when they were told that they were exempt from social distancing. Unions must back similar actions.
Virus will spread in dirty offices
Almost 60 percent of workers were “very worried” that heating ventilation and air conditioning would spread coronavirus.
It has been proven that air conditioning—when it isn’t regularly cleaned—can be a way for airborne diseases to spread more easily.
And an additional 30.7 percent were “quite worried” about it.
Another described how “a combination of poor ventilation and hot-desking has always been a source of contributing to the spread of colds and flu”.
“A few years ago the air conditioning was not working,” the worker explained. “They had huge fans circulating the hot air around.
“Unfortunately I caught the flu and was off work for three weeks.”
They added that the air con has “been faulty for years and constantly under repair” and blows “dirty re-used air around the building”.
“Windows don’t open air con blows cold—have been told it takes three days to change remotely,” the worker said.
“Dirt on the ceilings near the vents. Windows are bolted shut so unable to open these for fresh air.”
Professor Taylor’s report says that it “may appear to be an extreme example” but similar complaints are widespread.