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Call centres - the new assembly lines  more options
Author:   Sid Shniad (by way of Michael Eisenscher <>)
Date: 1999/01/15
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ICFTU OnLine...

Call centres - the new assembly lines

        By Luc Demaret with Pat Quinn and Samuel Grumiau

By the year 2000 hundreds of thousands of workers worldwide will be 
employed by telephone call centres.  It is becoming the new version of 
the assembly line, and trade unions need to pay attention.

Brussels, September 7 1998 (ICFTU OnLine):  Raphael, a 24-year-old 
qualified translator, spends his day on the telephone.  Every morning at 
7 o'clock, he dons his headphones, sits in front of a microphone and 
gets ready to reply to inquiries from the clients of the express courier 
firm that hired him three months ago.  

Most of the callers have no idea that he is speaking from Dublin. 
Clients in Paris, Brussels, Bonn or Amsterdam dial the "green" number 
that automatically connects them to the "call centre" based in one of 
the poorest districts of the Irish capital.

Thanks to his computer, Raphael can quickly arrange for a parcel to be 
collected in Geneva, track down a stray package in Bangkok, or inform 
his correspondent of the prices charged by a carrier in New York or the 
time to allow for a deliver from Bujumbura.  He spends an average of one 
to two minutes per client.  In eight hours he will have dealt with about 
200 telephone calls.

Communications factories

Continually under stress, closely supervised to the extent that the 
supervisor often listens in to his calls, insulted by angry clients, 
Raphael is one of a new generation of workers whose numbers are 
multiplying thanks both to technological innovation and the falling cost 
of telecommunications.  A new generations whose working conditions bear 
a suspicious resemblance to the assembly lines of the early industrial 
era.  Some are already comparing these "teleadvisers" to the skilled 
labourers and describe the call centres as "communications factories".

Their numbers are set to increase over the next few years.  While 
Ireland is home to many of the European call centres -  and is stepping 
up the incentives to attract US companies - the United Kingdom is still 
by far the leader of this field in Europe.

According to a report* prepared by the International federation of 
commercial, professional and technical employees (FIET) more than half 
the 6,000 call centres in Europe are based in Great Britain.  The 
birthplace of the industrial revolution has 38 per cent of the world 
market, according to other sources.

Paul Cresswell, director general of Sitel UK predicts that "in five 
years from now call centres in the United Kingdom will have more 
employees than all of heavy industry put together - mines, iron and 
steel, the car industry...".  Sitel is a US telecommunications company 
which runs 40 per cent of Britain's call centres, an industry which has 
somewhere between 160,000 and 200,000 employees in the country.  By 2000 
this figure will have risen to about a quarter of a million according to 
the Datamonitor agency. 

The call centres were pioneered by the financial sector, although others 
were quick to emulate.  While banks and insurance companies have for some 
time offered their clients the possibility of obtaining information or 
carrying out transactions from their home and outside working hours, today 
it's not just your banking that can be done by telephone.  Travel, 
clothing, furniture, household equipment, after-sales services, computer 
support etc. are all covered by the growing number of enterprises that 
offer a free telephone service for the consumer, often accessible seven 
days a week and 24 hours a day.  The Oréal beauty products call centre in 
France gets more than 3,500 calls a day, including Saturdays.  The 30 
"teleadvisers", whose number is to grow to 300, act as long-distance 
beauticians at the end of a phone line.  

If you telephone a call centre, it will probably be a woman that 
answers.  In most centres, three quarters of telephonists are women and 
many are under 30.  Based in industrialised regions where unemployment 
is particularly high, the call centres are a godsend for thousands of 
workers back on the job market.  The employers' main incentives are the 
low wages, economies of scale and the simplicity of installation.  The 
Dublin-based call centres of the express courier giants such as Federal 
Express and UPS provide a service for clients in Germany, Switzerland, 
the Netherlands and France.  The "German" section of UPS in Dublin 
employs no less than 150 telephone operators for much lower salaries 
than those paid across the Rhine.  The same applies to the United States 
where "toll free calls" are directed to the Caribbean.

In Great Britain call centres have enabled enterprises to "transfer 
staff away from the most expensive regions such as London or south-east 
England" observes Alastair Hatchett of Incomes Data Services, a British 
agency that specialises in studying the service and employment market. 
Callers making telephone inquiries from London will probably hear a 
Scottish accent at the other end of the line, as British Telecom (BT) 
has chosen to base its service in Glasgow.  Barclaycall,  Barclay Bank's 
tele-banking service, recently announced the opening of a new call 
centre in north-west England where it plans to employ some 2,000 people.

Working conditions

Call centres have changed the pattern of white-collar working so much 
that the highly respected London School of Economics decided to study the 
subject.  Its researchers have already commented on the 
"industrialisation" of a job where the working conditions resemble those 
of a blue collar more than a white collar worker: productivity bonuses, 
round-the-clock shiftwork, overtime, etc.

A telephonist at a UPS call centre can earn about 1200 dollars net per 
month.  But it is possible to add to that another 100 dollar monthly 
bonus for each language used other than English or whatever their 
mother-tongue is that they are working with.  There are also bonuses 
based on turnover and on courtesy to clients.... "So the bonuses become 
a bit of a lottery" one teleadviser told us.  "You never know in advance 
who is calling or whether it will be lucrative."  As for their level of 
courtesy, it is left to the supervisor to judge, by listening in during 
the day to his staff's calls.  

Everything is aimed at speeding up the pace: incoming calls must be 
responded to within fifteen seconds, the conversation must be kept as 
short as possible and, to add to the stress, each operator has a console 
in front of them with flashing lights which indicate calls that are 
waiting. "The possibilities for monitoring the behaviour and measuring 
output in call centres are amazing to behold.  The 'tyranny of the 
assembly line' is but a Sunday-school picnic compared with the control 
that management can exercise in computer technology" comments Sue Fernie 
of the London School of Economics.  

The new communications production line poses many challenges for the 
trade unions.  In some industries the call centres are an obvious threat 
to jobs, as the New Zealand financial workers' unions have found.  In 
replying to a FIET questionnaire, they summarised the situation as 
follows: "clients are encouraged to use the telephone rather than go to 
their bank and their call will not go to their branch.  Many banks have 
closed down branches and cut jobs."

On the other hand, FIET admits, the growing use of call centres in other 
sectors is a source of new jobs.  Jobs which can regenerate regions that 
have been brought to their knees by mass unemployment.

Trade unions therefore need to develop a strategy that aims both at 
protecting existing jobs where they are under threat, and at organising 
workers in the new call centres.

It does not appear to be an impossible mission.  The call centres are 
the modern version of mass production, usually fertile ground for the 
trade unions.  Centres often employ several hundred operators in vast 
premises reminiscent of assembly lines.  Furthermore, many enterprises 
that decide to set up call centres already have a unionised workforce, 
covered by collective agreements that could extend to their telephone 

Occupational health problems

The sometimes deplorable working conditions in the call centres should 
also encourage employees to turn to the unions.  The first signs of 
occupational health problems are beginning to emerge.  The FIET's 
British affiliate in the banking sector, BIFU, has drawn attention to 
the increased risk of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) to which telephone 
operators are exposed because of their constant use of the computer. The 
union has also detected another problem: more and more telephone 
operators in the call centres are losing their voices.  The worse 
affected are the part-time employees notes BIFU "who may work up to five 
hours without a break".  Coughs, irritated throats and respiratory 
problems are the first symptoms of an infection which could become an 
"occupational" disease if nothing is done.

The trade unions aren't always given red-carpet treatment, however. 
Barclaycall  is fiercely opposed to a trade union presence in its new 
English site and in Germany the telebanking arms of Citycorps and 
Commerzbank  are excluded from the collective agreement covering the 
banking sector.  Some employers play on the rapid turnover of staff, 
linked to the stress of the job and the lack of career prospects to 
discourage unionisation.  Yet unions seem determined to rise to the 
challenge and seize this rare opportunity to organise a new sector.

*Teleworking and trade union strategy, FIET, Geneva 1997.

Contact: ICFTU-Press at: ++32-2 224.02.12 (Brussels). For more 
information, visit our website at: (

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