The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Call Centres

See also - Reaction to GEM Article, Letters page

Liam O Ruairc • 2 January 2006

Morten Alme’s article was interesting in so far as the ad-pages in the Sunday Times would not try to take into account the negative experiences of people like him. However, some may validly object that his article is not just personal, but subjective to the point of being misleading. His article could be read as an interminable rant from a dissatisfied employee who may very well have been fired on valid grounds. To make a sustainable critique of GEM, more than subjective experience is required, valid and objective grounds are needed.

Let’s work on the assumption that GEM is no better and no worse than other call centres in Ireland or the Great Britain. Objective data to assess working practices in call centres is becoming increasingly available. (1)

What we can gather of empirical studies and independent research on labour practices of call centres is this.

The organisational structures of call centres are more or less similar. At the top, there is a chief executive officer, assisted by one or two vice presidents. Reporting to vice presidents are managers and team leaders. While managers are given generic assignments, team leaders have specific tasks. Trainers are also more or less on a par with the team leaders. Call centre agents are at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Space management tends to reflect organisational structures:

"The design of the workplace is unique. As per the organisational hierarchy, there are separate floors or wings for top executives, managers and process teams. The entry of the employees are strictly restricted to their work area and the common spaces earmarked for recreation and refreshment. Within the work area of process teams, the space is organised as factory row of clean, bare cubicles, each of which houses a computer, a telephone with designed headsets. The team leaders are usually positioned in a central point, which allows easy supervision."

Work is monitored live with the help of specially designed software, computer networks and closed circuit cameras. Workplace interactions are continuously recorded/taped, which are randomly checked by the team leader. "The degree of surveillance required at work is even comparable with the situations of 19th century prisons or Roman slave ships." Call centres are panoptical in nature.

A call-centre worker is a prime example of a "cyber coolie" with precarious employment, low wages and no professional opportunities.

The workforce in call centres is dual in nature, with the simultaneous existence of core (permanent) and periphery (non-permanent) workers. Managers and team leaders tend to constitute the core workers. Only a small proportion of recruited staff will become permanent employees. “Employers are looking for two kinds of people. People who are completely brain dead, who accept commands and carry them out. And then they want a smaller number of believers who will become managers and trainers.” (2)

The employee status is only titular as agents can be thrown out at any point if the company wants to do so. The duration of employment of the agents also support the argument against the fallacy of the ‘regular’ status. Only a minority of people in the call centre industry hold their position for more than two years, and most of them are not call advisors. High attrition rates in the call centre industry clearly indicate all the employment insecurities associated with short-term employment contracts, low wages and the absence of vertical career paths in the sector. Workers are thrown out on a regular basis, due to the firms’ strive for retaining only the most productive hands and to get rid of long-term commitments towards employees. The chances of vertical mobility are bleak, given the pyramid structure of manpower organisation. "It is accepted among the agents, that their vertical mobility in the job career is more linked to their healthy relation to the management than their performance ratings." Low wages are the norm.

Another of the reasons for the employees leaving is the highly demanding and stressful nature of the work.

The organisation of work in call centres is atypical and flexible in terms of working hours and work patterns. A typical centre will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Companies will thus practise "flexibility" in working patterns where the agents’ work schedules do not have any fixed days off. Flexibility is also practised in the case of shift patterns, where the agents are expected to be flexible in adapting the hours of work if the firm requests them to change.

The odd working hours in call centre negatively impact upon the workers and causes physical stress. Such working times conflict with the natural rythm of the human body. The change inflicted on the routine day and night body responses, with regular work in the nights causes many physical ill effects that also lead to a lot of mental strain. Odd working hours also lead to disturbances in personal and social life.

The rythm of work is imposed by automatic call distribution (ACD) technology (such as Avaya) on which call centres are based. The technology-induced efficiency at work requires the agents to submit to a highly controlled work regime, which is similar to assembly-line manufacturing associated with Fordism or Taylorism. The agents are to meet daily targets, which are stipulated in terms of number of calls/e-mails successfully answered. These quotas are often fixed at a higher level that the agent has to burn out to fulfil it. The performances are rated in terms of quantity and quality of work done. Mistakes will result in warnings. Linking performances with incentives and punitive actions compels agents to stress continuously. A rising number of call centre workers complain of stress, panic attacks, depression, relationship troubles, alcoholism and eating disorders, multiple personality disorders and other psychiatric problems. Apart from headaches and eye strain due to computer work, there are also complaints of back pain, aches and pains in the neck, shoulders, arms or wrists. Such musculoskeletal disorders are generally associated with awkward postures, monotonous and repetitive tasks and inadequate systems of work. Disrupting the brain's built-in day-night clock is throwing hormone levels out of balance, and is likely to cause many fertility related problems among women. Women who are exposed to a large amount of light at night also have a higher risk of breast cancer.

Respondents to empirical call centre studies (3) “reported several symptoms of mental and physical ill health such as nervousness, chronic fatigue, body ache, insomnia, nausea, anxiety, restlessness, irritability and even depression. Some of them pointed out that working in shift even causes psychoneurotic disturbances such as depressions. The respondents also reported frequent occurrence of gastrointestinal problems, with digestive problems such as constipation, peptic ulcer, indigestion, diarrhea, excessive gas formation, abdominal pain and heart burn. It was also noticed that workers do develop poor eating habits, overeating, smoking, excessive drinking of coffee and so on to cope up with the psychological and physical stress.”

All these findings point towards the desirability of undertaking a detailed epidemiological study on call centre work.

Call centres represent a major change in the way in which many office-based jobs are structured and undertaken and have enabled the emergence of a 'productively docile worker'. This in at least two ways.

First, work is portrayed as "fun". There is a constant attempt at camouflaging work as "fun" through the hanging of colourful balloons, team competition of floral arrangements, organising get together parties, introducing ping-pong tables, designing 'recreations activities' etc. The purpose of camouflaging work as fun is "to ensure that the creativity and productivity of the workers are effectively tapped to strike the ‘right’ balance between work and fun, thereby creating a ‘productively docile’ workforce. All these, indicate a marked shift in the HR paradigm vis-a-vis that of personnel management in conventional-manufacturing/service sectors."

Secondly, the principles of work organisation are based on individualisation and the absence of collective interest or action. Workers are moulded to act as individuals who report to and are monitored by another individual. Even in project-based teamwork, this is the core principle that binds the work relations. It is widely internalised among the call centre agents that salary is a personal matter, which should not be shared with peers in the workplace. Call centres in their code of conducts sometimes highlight that discussing salary and related matters with fellow-workers would invite warnings and disciplinary action.

The worker is not part of any collective: "Completely individuated, the worker negotiates with the employer at the individual level without resorting to any collective bargaining measures. This has tempted many to call the work place 'very cordial'. This, on the contrary, may be far from truth. The invididuated worker is an isolated element, working on contract, shifting from firm to firm, and requiring learning the latest skills before it gets obsolete."

There is no sense of collective action or trade unionism:

"The labour relation landscape is marked by complete absence of institutions of collective representation. The industry presents at the moment a union free scenario. Individual representation and individual bargaining seems to be the prevalent alternative to collective representation. This leads to strong voice insecurity in the employment patterns. Social dialogue institutions are completely absent from this industry."

My personal experience of GEM in 2002 was consistent with: (a) an atmosphere of constant surveillance, (b) precarious work contract, low wage, no professional opportunities, (c) ‘flexibility’ of work days and shift patterns, (d) incentive and punitive action related performance, (e) negative physical and mental consequences of this witnessed on many co-workers, (f) work camouflaged as ‘fun’, (g) everything individualised and absence of collective interest or action. I have yet to be presented with evidence that things have since changed or that call centre work is desirable under its present form.

(1) Sociology of work studies of call centres dealing specifically with the UK and Ireland are at an early stage. The most detailed quantitative and qualitative studies so far available have been carried out in India. One could object that the situation in India is radically different. But the generic characteristics of the call centre industry are the same. Studies used here include:

Remesh, B. P. Labour in Business Process Outsourcing: A Case Study of Call Centre Agents, NLI Research Studies Series No.51, (Noida: V.V. Giri National Labour Institute 2004)

Uday Kumar Varma & S.K. Sasikumar, Information and Communication Technology and Decent work, Research Report prepared under the auspices of ILO/JILPT Networking of National Institutes of Labour Studies in the Asia Pacific region (Noida: V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, 2004)

Babu P Ramesh, Cyber Coolies in BPO: Insecurities and Vulnerabilities of Non-Standard Work, Economics and Political Weekly (Vol 39, No 5), January 31-February 6 2004

Jaya Prakash Pradhan & Vinoj Abraham, Social and Cultural Impact of Outsourcing: Emerging Issues from Indian Call Centres, Harvard Asia Quarterly: A Journal of Current Affairs affiliated with the Harvard Asia Centre, Summer 2005

(2) Amelia Gentleman, Painful truth of the call centre cyber coolies, The Observer, 30 October 2005

(3) Babu P Ramesh’s paper is based on the findings of a field study of 277 customer care agents from six call centres.





Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

5 February 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Murder in the Street
Anthony McIntyre

The Murder of Brian Stewart
Marie Duffy

Eamonn McCann

President Reinventing Our History
David Adams

End Coalition with US
Michael McKevitt

"Do Not Become Recruiting-Sergeant for PSNI", Reiss is Advised
Sean Mc Manus

An Endless Circle
Mick Hall

The American Dream – Camp Sister Spirit Mississippi
Sean Mc Aughey

Call Centres
Liam O Ruairc

Reaction to GEM Article
Pascal Stil

More Spies May be Lurking in Sinn Féin's Cupboard
Anthony McIntyre

30 January 2006

One Year On
Anthony McIntyre

SF's Support 'Lay With the People Involved in Robert's Murder'
K Quinn

Our Fenian Dead
Brendan Hughes

Murky Maghaberry
Anthony McIntyre

Rebutting a Defamatory Article
Declan Carroll

Getting the Facts Right
Statement from McKevitt & Sands Family

"Close Enough for Government Work"
Chris Fogarty

Boxing Shadows
Dr John Coulter

When is Enough, Enough?
Mick Hall

Serving the Agenda of Two Masters
Anthony McIntyre

St Pat's Day
Niall Corey

The Letters page has been updated.



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices