Podium: Are call centres the new sweatshops?

From a speech by a research associate at the University of Newcastle to the Royal Geographical Society
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The Independent Culture
CALL CENTRES are offices dedicated to delivering services to customers over the telephone. Call centres are used across a range of sectors, including financial services, travel and transport, information technology, marketing and retail. Call-centre staff, or "agents", typically spend their working hours seated at their desks in constant contact with customers, making or receiving telephone calls and processing information.

Europe has seen a huge growth in these call centres over the last 10 years. One study has claimed that at the end of 1997 there were as many as 3,560 call centres in the UK alone, employing a total of approximately 163,000 staff. This growth looks likely to continue into the next century.

Call centres have recently captured the attention of the media and the academic community. It has been argued that they are the "new sweatshops", and that they offer us a disturbing vision of the shape work will take in the future.

Women outnumber men in virtually all call centres. At the lowest, they make up 40 per cent of employees; at the highest, 90 per cent. There are some differences between sectors, with males better represented in IT call centres than in others. On the whole the staff employed in call centres tend to be young, aged between 20 and 30.

The research seems to suggest that employers often consider females to be more suitable for call-centre work than males, mainly because they are regarded as having "natural" communication skills and the ability to "smile down the phone". In our research, this was a typical response: "I do think that there are advantages being in this business if you are female, because, in general, females are better at communicating - and it is all about communicating - making people feel a part of the team and making them feel as if they belong."

Call centres employ a range of the latest management techniques. In particular, team working and "empowerment" are widespread. The majority of call centres have flat organisational structures with three layers - agent, supervisor and manager. The relationships between staff and management in the call centres that we studied were on the whole described positively. Most agents are on first-name terms with managers, and some described their centres as "family-like" environments.

The majority of call centres are not unionised, and staff had mixed views on this. Some agents, supervisors and managers were hostile to unions.

Call-centre staff are heavily monitored. Calls are often recorded, and supervisors can listen in to calls when they wish. In addition, copious statistics are collected about agents' performance. However, despite being hostile to this, most agents seem to accept monitoring as a necessary aspect of their work.

In line with other studies, our research found that agents are often frustrated by the repetitive nature of the job. Taking calls all day is deemed to be stressful, tiring and dull: "There's only so many times you can say what your name is and what the product is," one commented. "Sometimes you get 85 calls a day, and you just can't speak when you get out of here. It's terribly boring."

"I really try to think of other things that I do in my free time," said another. I do oriental dancing, belly-dancing, and I think, `what would be a good costume?' I also do meditation and yoga, and I try to switch off completely and think of absolutely nothing. But you do find you have to resort to things to keep yourself sane after a little while of working in a call centre."

As a result of the routine and stressful nature of taking calls all day, many agents complained of "burn-out". Indeed, staff turnover is high in many call centres because of this factor. It was clear that many agents feel that their work is undervalued by wider society. A number of agents said that they have constantly to "convince" people that they have a "proper" job:

However, despite this many women enjoy the atmosphere in call centres, claiming that they have "energy" and "buzz", and are "fast-moving". Furthermore, many call centres have developed an excellent work-related social life, and are considered sociable places with a good "team spirit".

About half of the women interviewed expressed a desire to move up the career ladder. However, agents stressed that promotion is difficult. Furthermore, most of the women with career aspirations did not express a desire to move beyond supervisory level.

There is a danger that call-centre work confirms women's position in servicing and caring roles, and their subordination in society as a whole.