Trouble at the 21st century mills

'What really seems to have got the goat of BT workers is a directive insisting that calls last no longer than 285 seconds'
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The Independent Culture
THEY WERE dubbed "the new mills of 21st-century Britain" and likened to the panopticon - the circular prison-factory envisaged by the 19th-century social reformer Jeremy Bentham. Yesterday, for the first time in their 13-year existence, call centres were subjected to active criticism by their employees, in the form of a one-day strike by British Telecom call-centre workers across the country.

BT's call centres will not have been brought to a halt by this action, because one of the complaints of the workers, who are represented by the Communications Workers Union, is that too much of the workforce is made up by agency and casual staff, who did not join the strike. Other complaints include "intolerable working conditions", in which workers are bullied and subjected to high levels of stress.

But while poor training, low wages, demanding targets, long hours without a break, constant monitoring even when visiting the lavatory and exhortations to work harder flashed up on giant screens are all undesirable conditions cited by the union as typical of call centres, what really appears to have got the goat of the BT workers is a directive insisting that calls last no longer than 285 seconds.

It's oddly touching - and no doubt strategically sensible - that the main complaint of these workers is that the strictures of management are interfering with their ability to interact with us, the public. Workers say that even when lonely elderly people come on the phone and are desperate to chat, they are urged to complete the call within the allotted time. Call-centre operators want to talk to the public in a meaningful and personal way, but management says they must harden their hearts against whingers looking for a free conversation.

British Telecom's management says far more than that, though. Bosses have labelled the actions of their ingrate workers to be "the last straw", and cite their own nobility in having provided jobs in "politically sensitive" areas, such as Scotland and Northern Ireland. They gloss over the fact that these locations were attractive not because of any desire to help the victims of economic and political history, but because they had cheap rents, workers willing to work for poor pay and conditions, and even government grants to entice investment.

Those grants, it now appears, were not a tremendously solid long-term inducement. In response to this strike British Telecom will, it says, be looking to slash its call-centre operator workforce by three-quarters, replacing workers with voice-recognition technology and Internet access.

Such cant is disingenuous. BT bosses are well rehearsed in the advantages of such a move, since they have long been keeping a sharp eye on the cost benefits of such technology. Already in California, one call centre is run without any operators at all. The fact is, some operators will keep their jobs in the long term only if they offer a cheaper and lower-maintenance alternative to machines. The strike is being manipulated to the advantage of British Telecom. They will bring in voice-recognition technology as soon as possible anyway. Now they can blame the workers for their decision, and sack them with impunity without brewing up a political storm.

Not that this is a likely prospect. Few new call centres open in Britain without Labour endorsement. In Peter Mandelson's first speech as secretary for Northern Ireland, he praised the opening of a call centre that provided 650 jobs. Donald Dewar recently welcomed yet another call centre in Scotland, with its provision of 1,000 jobs.

The New Labour/new call centre alliance is interesting for many reasons. While British Telecom is not a company that exploits its staff particularly badly, the fact is that a British Telecom call-centre worker who is a parent and breadwinner working a 35-hour week for his, or more probably her, pounds 5.50 an hour, will qualify for family credit if she is paying out the requisite amount in child care.

I find it somewhat mind-boggling that a company that was, until recently, publicly owned, and last year made a pounds 4.3bn profit, at the rate of pounds 98 per second, can be seen as a heroic provider of jobs, even when the Government's own modest threshold confirms that this is not a wage on which it is possible to bring up a family.

While British Telecom's chief executive, Sir Peter Bonfield, recently accepted a pay rise bringing him to a salary of pounds 2.5m, the total wage bill for BT's massive call-centre operation is a modest pounds 170m, subsidised, we must assume, by the taxpayer. No wonder we are denied a decent health service, when we are subsidising the payrolls of cash-rich multinationals.

Again, British Telecom is far from being the worst offender. Its pay and conditions are a beacon of good practice in an industry offering an average salary of pounds 10,300. Again, this is a wage that will attract government subsidy in many cases, and it suggests that the Government will pay any price, and subject people to any working conditions, to reduce unemployment.

Although we are all told that pay demands will overheat the economy and spark inflation, John Phillpot, of the Employment Policy Institute, says the trend last year was for employers, rather than firing disgruntled workers who complained, to respond by maintaining staff under better conditions, or even expand their workforce.

The only possible conclusion is that employers have been exploiting workers just because they can get away with it. Certainly there is nothing in British Telecom's annual reports to suggest that it needs to push call- centre workers as hard as it does.

All this is not just a matter of workers' rights. It is a question of the kind of society that we wish to engineer. The call-centre industry is hailed as the fastest-growing job-creation sector in Britain. We boast domination of 39 per cent of the European market for call-centre services, with our closest competitor, Germany, limping in in second place with 15 per cent. There are estimated to be 390,000 call-centre employees in Britain at the moment, and it is predicted that by 2004 that figure will have reached 860,000.

So why are we leading the field here? The answer, woefully, seems to be that workers' rights are more tightly protected on the Continent, so that the wholesale abuse some British workers have proved willing to put up with is just not allowed. For good reason, as call centres foster the kind of health problems that cost the country more in sick leave than anything else.

Such health risks have included high levels of ear damage, back-ache, stress, and what the European Commission dubbed "repetitive brain strain", all of which help to account for the industry's high staff turnover. And, of course, since these jobs are low paid and offer poor conditions, they attract most heavily that ever-more-exploitable sector, the working mother.

In Scotland, home to 40 per cent of Britain's call centres, this kind of social engineering has meant that more than half the workforce is now female, with many women employees also the sole breadwinner of their families.

Again, this sits badly with Labour's declared support of family values and children's rights. The development of the call-centre sector, heartily endorsed by government, is one more example of "joined-up thinking" being as prevalent, among Labour's ranks, as joined-up writing is among the babies on the Sure-Start programme, supported by their low-paid single mums.