How Call Centres Are Leading the Race to the Bottom

Call centres have become a frontline in the struggle over workplace surveillance, precarious conditions and high-pressure targets. The only way to fight back is to organise them.

Credit: HRAUN / Getty

Covid test and trace staff working for Hays Travel, a private company who were handed the contract for managing the service by the government, were this week revealed to have been instructed to limit comfort breaks for such essentials as eating, drinking, and prayer to ten minutes during a six hour shift, and told that their breaks might go unpaid. Such revelations are both depressing and infuriating, but should come as no surprise to those aware of the conditions in call centres – and indeed of the race to the bottom of employment practices on the part of many employers today.

The instructions to Hays employees compel them to select the option of ‘comfort break’ on their screen before they move away. This speaks to a wider culture of denying autonomy to workers in this type of industry. Stories of employers monitoring their workers through invasive techniques, including asking workers to hand over medical data and demanding biometric data, demonstrate a relationship devoid of trust on the part of the employer, as well as a dynamic in which the call centre worker is treated more like a tool than a human being with the right to both dignity and the ability to take care of their bodies.

The call centre sector, despite being unstimulating and repetitive (perhaps one reason for its staff turnover rate being significantly higher than the average in Britain) demands the highest standards from its workforce. Call standards are closely monitored – indicative of a wider working culture in which one is expected to overstretch themselves at work in order to simply get by, despite the fact that speaking on the phone all day is both mentally and physically draining. Call centre work is numericised to the nth degree—with targets placed on lengths of phone calls, numbers of phone calls, and expectations of the results of phone calls—with no room for error, or, some might argue, humanity.

Added to the untenable pressure is the degree of verbal abuse workers can be subjected to – the emotional impact of which undoubtedly compromises workers’ ability to meet the metrics expected of them. The highly charged nature of test and trace calls are no less likely to lead to verbal abuse of call centre workers than those handling unwanted sales, but the demands fail to allow for any of this. The nature of this work is exemplified by stories such as that of researcher Jamie Woodcock, who worked undercover in a call centre, and recalls going off-script in a conversation selling insurance to a customer whose child had recently died of leukaemia – and then being rebuked by his supervisor for missing an ‘easy sale’.

The monitoring workers in call centres are subjected to has crept into the home as more work has become home-based. Tales of video monitoring have sprung up, ranging in their equipment from an always-on video conference tool—disturbingly named ‘Sneek’—which takes photos of workers every five minutes to an AI webcam security system named ‘Anna’ which reports employees’ breaches of behaviour. Workers pushing back on this invasive tracking, such as one who covered up the video cameras, have sometimes found themselves swiftly sacked. There is a sense of emboldened ownership over the workforce among these companies, which reaches beyond their working hours and claims their entire lives.

This dynamic, which forces workers to prioritise work above all other parts of their lives and selves, is most sinister in the bitter irony that test and trace callers, whose role is to manage and mitigate a global health crisis, are paying with their own personal health. Health in this environment is only important to the extent to which it enables one to work: taking care of your body through screen breaks, or the time it takes to cook and eat a healthy meal is surplus to requirements. The subordination of basic bodily functions to capitalism goes well beyond call centre work: it is embedded in the design of our cities. Workers being denied toilet breaks, for example, is reminiscent of the way in which space is given over to meet the needs of profit-making while public toilets are rarely to be found, as Owen Hatherley recently discussed in the LRB.

A wider trend of declining union density over the past few decades is perhaps unsurprising when such pitiful conditions in workplaces are revealed. Post-pandemic this is slowly starting to change – but the overall picture is mixed. What’s more, the call centre sector has some particular obstacles to workplace resistance. The high turnover of staff in call centres, and individualised nature of work, precludes the chance to communicate, connect, and indeed collectivise with colleagues outside of breaks – and as the story of the test and trace workers shows, breaks are themselves under threat.

But the story of these workers is sadly no exception, as Unite’s survey into health and safety in call centres across the financial sector found, as do many more stories besides. Organising for better conditions is crucial, and we are beginning to see more creative organising in hard-to-reach sectors, as well as some examples of success, in the forms of recent victories for gig economy workers and fast food workers. The horror stories throughout the pandemic can be harnessed by organisers and built upon to encourage workers to collectivise. It’s an uphill struggle, but one of vital importance – it’s a matter of basic health and dignity, after all.