Call centres: the new factories

It is important for unions to organise call centre workers and help them defend their rights.

I left the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) in July last year after working there for 22 years. I was given a redundancy package.

My job had not been abolished, but a clause in the ATO enterprise agreement says: “An employee whose services can no longer be effectively used in their current job because of changes in technology or work methods or changes in the nature, extent of organisation of the ATO [can be given a package].” This is popularly called the “not coping with change” clause.

Why, after 22 years with the ATO, during which I had experienced many changes in technology and worked in several different sections, was I considered unable to cope with change?

My final job with the ATO was working in the call centre, to which I had been shifted after my previous section was disbanded. I was not the only person who was “unable to cope” with this shift. Many workers transferred into the call centre had already taken a redundancy package. Most were long-term ATO employees with decades of service.

What is it about the call centre that causes people with decades of experience in the ATO to become “unable to cope”?

Work in the call centre is stressful for a number of reasons. The most obvious is simply the increased time on phones. Most people find phone work very tiring.

But there are other reasons to do with the way the call centre is run:

Micromanagement: All our work was rostered, and what we were doing was continuously monitored at all times. We had to indicate what we were doing at any given time by pressing buttons on the phone. If the code we put into the phone was different to what was specified in the roster, a manager would come around and demand an explanation.

This excessive monitoring and overly detailed control over workers’ management of our time was widely felt to be irritating and humiliating. Several of my workmates commented that they felt they were being treated like children.

Inadequate training: We used several very complex computer systems, but were never properly trained in how to navigate these systems and find the information we were looking for. We went from classroom presentations to trying to use the systems with clients on the phone, without an intermediate stage of practicing navigation in a relaxed environment.

Inadequate computer systems: Some of the computer systems were poorly designed making it hard to find the information we were looking for. In addition, some of the systems crashed frequently.

“Jack of all trades”: The ATO call centre deals with many different kinds of questions. We were pressured to learn a lot of different “skill sets”, so we would be able to answer many different kinds of queries. The result was that, as some of my workmates said, the worker is a “Jack of all trades and master of none”.

Management said that was not a problem because the worker should be able to find the answer in scripting. But it was not always easy to find the answer.

I suggested that workers should be able to learn new skill sets when they feel ready, rather than on instructions from above, but this proposal was ignored.

I knew from conversations with my workmates that many other people had similar feelings to me about the call centre environment. As a workplace delegate for the Community and Public Sector Union, I requested that the union conduct a survey of workers. This took place in the Moonee Ponds call centre, with meetings to discuss the results.

In the survey 37.2% of workers said their work was “highly stressful”, while another 46.5% said it was “somewhat stressful”. Only 16.3% said it was not stressful.

The reasons for the stress included those outlined above, but people added comments on a range of other issues.

One such issue was the pressure on people to work late.

The ATO call centre is advertised as open until 6pm, but workers on a late roster are told to stay logged onto the phone until 6.15pm to deal with calls remaining in the queue. But some long and complex calls may not be finalised until after 7pm. Staying that late is inconvenient for many workers, particularly those with young children and those reliant on public transport.

Until a few years ago, overtime pay was applicable from 6pm onwards. But then this was put back to 6.15pm.

Having reduced the financial incentive for people to voluntarily work a late roster, management tried to pressure people to do so by creating the misleading impression that it was compulsory to work a certain number of late shifts.
Under the enterprise agreement compulsory rostering is supposed to occur only if attempts to fill the roster voluntarily are unsuccessful, but management tried to short-circuit this process.

The union informed people of the correct process, but many people felt intimidated into complying with management pressures.

The ATO call centre is not unique in being a stressful environment. Call centres generally have a reputation for oppressive conditions.

Karl Marx, writing about the factories that were expanding in the 19th century, said in the Communist Manifesto: “Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine.”

Call centres are similar to factories in the way that workers are under the command of a “hierarchy of officers and sergeants” (managers and team leaders), and are “enslaved by the machine” (automated monitoring of what the worker is doing every minute of the working day).

In the case of the ATO, the employer is “the bourgeois state” rather than a private employer. But call centre management practices are much the same.

This includes the use of precarious forms of employment. Some workers in the ATO call centre are employed on short-term contracts. Outsourcing is also used.

Call centre workers in the ATO are paid higher wages than workers in most privately owned call centres. To save money, people phoning the ATO with certain kinds of queries may be automatically redirected to private call centres.

In recent decades the number of call centre workers has grown rapidly. It is important for unions to organise call centre workers and help them defend their rights. This includes not just pay (important though that is) but also working conditions, including oppressive management practices.