Call centres: 'the new workhouses'


By Nick Everett

"I have been threatened with being bashed, with being shot, and I have had customers scream so loud that it hurt my ear. I have had a customer in a public phone box smash the hand set into the payphone, causing my ear to ring."

These are some of the experiences of one "customer service officer" while working at Perth's Centrelink call centre.

The conditions of employment in the "call centre industry" are such that a recent study described call centres as "the new work-houses". Not since Victorian times have employees endured such draconian monitoring of performance, lack of autonomy and constant stress.

"We are allowed an 'idle time' of 2% — that works out to eight minutes a day to get a drink and go to the toilet. You're not allowed to make personal calls — only in break times", explains a Qantas sales agent at Camberwell in Melbourne.

Public sector call centres are no less stringent in the allocation of "personal time". Brisbane's Centrelink call centre employees are given 11 minutes a day, while their counterparts at Wendouree in Ballarat are granted only four minutes.

Call centres are the world's fastest growing industry. They are in the front line of service jobs that blur the demarcation between office and factory.

In Australia, call centres employ more than 250,000 people in over 4000 centres. In Britain, more people are employed in call centres than in the coal, steel and car-making industries combined.

The number of call centres is growing at the rate of 30-40% worldwide in the finance, airlines, communications, tourism and other service industries as technology shifts the point of contact from the shop-front or office counter to the telephone. At the same time, the mechanisms available to the employer to increase the level of exploitation of employees is enhanced.

Key to this increase in exploitation is "automatic call distribution", which pushes the new calls to the next available operator, with only a few seconds break from the previous call. A "quality call" is one deemed to meet the callers' needs (so they do not immediately ring back again) in the minimum amount of time. This is achieved through a system of performance monitoring.

Supervisors monitor productivity in real time on screens that show the number of calls in the queue, the average and longest wait times, and how many employees are on calls. Workers are judged daily against statistics to see if they have met performance benchmarks. A selection of calls are listened in to to assess work performance.

"It's the fear of supervisors listening that creates the pressure", an employee from Ansett's call centre in Melbourne said, "and the knowledge that if they don't like what they hear they will be talking to you — maybe in half an hour, maybe tomorrow or maybe next month in your performance review."

This technique, known as "blind monitoring", is also in vogue with public sector managers. In both Telstra and Centrelink, the federal government's service delivery agency, workers are being told that blind monitoring is necessary because it is an industry standard.

Centrelink management also claims the technique is supported by its employees, despite evidence to the contrary from a Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) survey of its membership. It revealed 85% opposed blind monitoring.

Last year, Qantas was threatened with legal action after managers taped conversations between sales staff and customers without their knowledge — a breach of telecommunications legislation — and counselled a worker for making a private call during company time.

In an NRMA call centre this year, a monitored private phone conversation between an employee and her boyfriend was used as evidence to charge her with being an accessory to a crime.

To overcome such legal obstacles, Qantas intends to introduce a multimillion dollar system that will digitally capture every word its sales staff utter on the telephone and every key stroke they enter on their computer.

The system is staunchly opposed by the Australian Services Union. Management has attempted to sell the merits of the system by flying in a team of consultants from Fort Worth, Texas, to meet with union officials.

The harnessing of information technology to create "white-collar factories" allows employers to regulate the pace of work just as closely as on a production line.

At the turn of the century, Frederick Taylor pioneered "scientific management". Described by Lenin in 1917 as "the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation", this system involved timing workers with stopwatches and reducing jobs to simple repetitive tasks.

As Stephen Long, in the June 27 Australian Financial Review, explained: "Banks and airlines have 'Taylorised' interactions between telephone sales staff and customers, breaking down human conversation into standardised segments to be processed almost as routinely as a widget in a factory or a burger at McDonald's."

Coinciding with the introduction of the latest call centre technology is the arrival of "self-managed teams". Workers are told that they will gain more skill and autonomy as authority is devolved to the shop floor. The reality is the shifting of supervision up the hierarchy to managers who can monitor workers remotely by computer.

Costs can be saved by removing a middle layer of management and enticing workers to rotate the role of "team leader" amongst themselves. Usually, this role will involve no additional pay (in many of Telstra's outsourced operations the team leader is the only position on the shop floor filled by a permanent employee).

With staff turnover rates in urban call centres at 30-40% each year, a number of government agencies have opted to establish new call centres in regional areas, where staff turnover rates, due to high unemployment, are much lower — around 3%. Centrelink has established its most recent call centres in Launceston, Bendigo, Bunbury and Coffs Harbour.

Centrelink intends to establish a national pay processing centre in Burnie. This centre will "create" 15 new jobs, while eliminating 170 existing pay processing jobs. On July 30, federal treasurer Peter Costello announced the "creation" of 40 new jobs in Burnie, with the establishment an Australian Taxation Office call centre.

These two projects, and the recent establishment of a Telstra call centre, are part of a package expected to inject $3 million into the local economy to compensate Burnie for the planned closure of Amcor's pulp mill in the town.

The announcements are a poor attempt to conceal the federal government's record of job destruction in the public sector — 62,500 federal public sector jobs were lost in the first two years of the Howard government. Fifteen regional tax offices have been closed and the entire CES network has been shut down. While there are now more than 2000 operators in Centrelink call centres, a government imposed "efficiency dividend" will result in 1300 jobs disappearing this financial year and 2200 next year.

"The current debacle in Centrelink, caused by the combined impact of a faulty computer system and the introduction of the highly unpopular Job Network and Youth Allowance, demonstrates the need for public sector workers to fight back", Jim McIlroy, a CPSU delegate at the Brisbane Centrelink call centre, told Green Left Weekly. "The herding of employees into call centres and the continuing reduction in public sector jobs makes more relevant than ever the need to build fighting unions, amongst both public and private sector employees."

CPSU members in Centrelink workplaces around the country have voted to adopt a log of claims for a new enterprise bargaining agreement. The log seeks to improve conditions, in call centres, which have fallen behind those in the rest of the network. Their demands include increased reading time and training for call centre employees, as well as bans on blind monitoring and the use of statistical information for probation or discipline purposes.

The workplace meetings coincided with the start of industrial action by Telstra workers, in response to stalled negotiations on an enterprise agreement.

"It is vital that union members in Centrelink and Telstra support each other in these campaigns", McIlroy said. "The extent of outsourcing in Telstra and the threat of complete privatisation are a warning to Centrelink members of the lengths to which the federal government is determined to go to cut costs at the expense of jobs and working conditions.

"In the end, only a concerted industrial campaign by members of the CPSU across the public sector, backed up by a campaign by the wider community, can bring a halt to the privatisation and corporatisation", he said.

[Nick Everett is a CPSU delegate at Brisbane's Centrelink call centre.]

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