Call centre workers are much reviled, but what conditions do they face and what power do they have to resist them? One academic investigated
How can workers protect themselves and resist the worst work practices in the burgeoning gig economy, where jobs can be precarious and the turn-over of workers high? This is the question that Dr Jamie Woodcock sought to explore when, in the rich tradition of sociology covert observation, he took a part-time job in a call centre.
Once he had finished his initial training, he found himself making around three to four hundred phone calls per shift selling insurance. These calls could be stressful, unpleasant and sometimes deeply upsetting.
In his book, Working the phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, Dr Woodcock describes two particularly disturbing occasions where a supervisor stood over him trying to get him to continue to sell insurance to an individual who was on dialysis and to another who had recently lost a child to leukaemia.
Of the latter encounter he writes: "The customer was clearly distraught; however the rules in the call centre state that it is only possible to end a sales call if the customer explicitly requests so. I attempted to achieve this by saying, 'I'm terribly sorry to hear that, would you like to continue with the call?' I was hoping that this would end the encounter; however the nearest supervisor had started listening into my call and was now ordering me to continue to pitch the product."
This kind of control was ever present in the call centre. Supervisors were constantly observing the workers and monitoring their calls. Those calls were recorded and an electronic log was kept of how many calls were made and their duration.
And the pace was relentless. During phone calls, a computer surveillance system displayed three states: ‘Previewing/Dialling’ for the time when the automatic dialling system was ringing through the list of numbers; ‘Connected’ when the worker was talking to someone on the phone; and ‘Wrapping’ which was an opportunity to record the outcome of the phone call and take any relevant notes. This was described as ‘non-productive' time and was not to exceed five seconds.
Tellingly, workers could only work part-time – full-time work in such an environment would inevitably led to burn out. They were paid lower than the living wage and just a little bit more than the minimum wage, with a commission bonus with every sale made. Most of the workers had other jobs, were students or aspiring musicians or actors.
"No one saw themselves as a call centre worker," said Woodcock. "And, despite how grim the work was, the people I worked with were fun and interesting and resisted in various ways."
Some of this resistance took the form of low level misbehaviour. The workers, for example, encouraged supervisors to over-prolong their 'David Brent' style 'buzz' sessions which were supposed to motivate them before a shift started. Or they squeezed a break out for five minutes longer than was stipulated or tampered with a wire on a headset so they couldn't work until a replacement was found.
"In call centres every action is timed and controlled, so misbehaviour is about contesting some of that control back," explained Woodcock. "Why shouldn't you go for a walk half way through a shift to clear your head because you've had a horrible phone call? These are the types of things that could make call centre work better."
At the pub after shifts, Dr Woodcock began to discuss with his co-workers how they could become more organised in contesting some of their working conditions. However, his own efforts to join a trade union made it clear that formal organisation was not going to be the solution. It had taken him weeks to achieve union membership, at which point the Union informed him that the next branch meeting would be in three months – by which time many of the current call centre workers would have moved on.
"Trade unions still operate on a model that is linked to older forms of work. There needs to be a better meeting point between how people resist today and the best traditions of trade unions," said Woodcock.
So, instead of unionisation, he and some colleagues started an informal organisation for staff. Because of the high turnover at the call centre they focussed on trying to speak to new people as they joined.
"Some of the workers who had never been in a union before found that it gave them someone to talk to – to feel like if they were being shouted at by a supervisor they weren't alone,” he explained.
"We only have the work places we have today because people argued for health and safety, not working on weekends, the right to holiday and so on. It's easy to say that you can't resist in a call centre because it's too controlled, it's too precarious.
"But I hope that everyone who shared that experience of trying to organise with me, went on somewhere else and maybe thought, 'That made work easier, why don’t I try that somewhere else?'."
After six months, a burnt-out Dr Woodcock was missing his sales targets and he had begun his own minor resistance – wearing trainers rather than the stipulated 'smart shoes'. He also was warned about making a sarcastic comment in a ‘buzz session’.
Every week he agreed to targets that he knew he wouldn’t meet. At the time the UK government’s policy of austerity had begun to bite and many potential customers were saying that they were suffering pay cuts and feared redundancy. When questioned why he wasn’t meeting his targets, Dr Woodcock told his supervisors that he did not like pressuring people into buying insurance they did not need.
An inevitable meeting with HR came, after which he was no longer employed by the company. Dr Woodcock’s own refusal had come to the fore. His exit was slightly earlier than he had planned but, after six months, he was one of the longest-lasting workers in his training cohort. He said getting fired was, “a strange experience,” but he added wryly, “it does provide a nice punctuation to the end of the book”.