Bright new future or simply slave labour?

Employers and unions are at odds over call centres, writes Kate Hilpern
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Call centre work is now the fastest growing job market in the UK. BT claims there will be some 17,900 centres by the end of this year alone. No wonder that the call centre has become an institution in its own right and a symbol of millennial Britain.

So what does the future hold for these employees? Will, as some forecasts suggest, the growth of the internet and home shopping via televisions reduce the need for call centres? Even if the centres survive, will they ever rid themselves of their "sweatshop image"? Only this week, thousands of BT call centre staff went on strike to protest about working conditions, complaining of "oppressive" 19th-century-style managers, insufficient staffing, stress and excessive pressure, tight deadlines which prohibit calls being handled in a professional manner, and an excessive use of agency staff.

Richard Marshall, an independent consultant, claims market movements indicate that call centres are set to become even more prevalent. "Most of today's businesses that offer a service have established centres to deal with customers. The public increasingly expects to call a central number when buying clothes or booking a holiday."

Technology will simply add to the rise of "teleculture", he says. "People will increasingly use websites or their television screens, and as soon as they need advice or have a question, they'll want to be linked to a human being in a call centre."

Indeed, plans were recently unveiled by the Halifax to create a new call centre in Belfast, and Dixons has announced a pounds 30m plan to create 1,200 jobs at a call centre in Sheffield.

"Another reason that call centres are set to expand is because we're becoming a 24-hour society," adds Michael Willmott of the Future Foundation. "Even now, people do things like attempt to get information about properties to buy, join gyms and buy furniture in the middle of the night."

According to a new study by the Industrial Relations Services (IRS), Personnel Issues in Call Centres Today, the result is that faced with intensifying labour-market competition, most call centres are being forced to discard their factory-rate wages. "Two-thirds of employers surveyed said their salaries were influenced by objective market analyses of pay for similar jobs in the locality," claims Philip Pearson, author of the study. "In areas such as Leeds and Bradford, with 30 telebusinesses employing around 16,000 staff, undercutting is out of the question."

Ann-Marie Stagg, chairwoman of the Call Centre Managers' Association, adds that despite the crisis at BT's call centres, many centres are improving working conditions. This, she says, is because the problems of recruitment and retention in the sector are serious. In a survey of 150 call centres published in September, Incomes Data Services found that this was sometimes as high as 80 per cent, meaning that eight out of 10 employees were being replaced each year. "More training courses are therefore being set up and the Open University also has a course in call centre management," explains Ms Stagg.

Thomas Cook's call centre, in a huge warehouse outside Falkirk, is in a class of its own. Aware of the dangers of the high attrition rates of call centres, no effort has been spared in getting the troops in the "right mindset", according to spokesperson Heather Gaston.

"Employees enter the centre through a brightly lit `sensorama' passageway that echoes the sound of children playing on the beach and elephants trumpeting in the jungle," she says. "A smell of coconut oil filters down from the ceiling. Once inside, fake palm trees are dotted around the floor and murals hang from the walls. The ceiling is blue and the desks purple."

Janette Menday, editor of the industry magazine Call Centre Focus, professes that many of the latest call centres provide better working conditions than your average secretarial offices. "They focus on their staff having fun; there are good opportunities for career progression; and there is detailed attention given to plants, lighting and ergonomic furniture," she says.

Nevertheless, she admits that some call centres are lagging behind. The Communications Workers' Union (CWU), agrees, claiming that while most call centre employers have improved rates of pay, many have become even more target-obsessed, operating 24 hours a day, 364 days a year. "At BT call centres, we have seen a deterioration in the working environment," explains Keith Griffiths. "Staff are under more pressure than ever, with the latest rules giving them 285 seconds per call - during which time they are told to provide a world-class service, irrespective of how complex the caller's problem is. If staff fail in this task, they are subject to disciplinary measures and may even be dismissed. This is just one example of increasingly intimidating and bullying management practices."

"Some call centres still log visits to the toilet," says Sandy Boyle, deputy general secretary of the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU). "And a big emphasis is put on teamwork to make sure nobody starts complaining."

Latest research by IRS reveals that in public sector call centres, which is a key growth area as the health service pilots a national network of 18 health advice call centres, conditions are also getting worse.

Contrary to popular opinion, concludes Mr Pearson, call centres are nowhere near being homogeneous in their treatment of staff. There are clear signs of improvement in pay across the board, but in terms of conditions, some centres are becoming model employers while others are becoming even more like telephone battery farms than their current stereotype.

Mike Robinson, regional officer of the trade union MSF, points out that for some of the problems associated with call centres there may never be solutions. "Dealing with customer queries over the telephone can be extremely stressful," he says. "Work is conducted on an intense one- to-one basis, and staff are isolated for long periods of time." Since this is the very nature of call centres, it is possible that no amount of wages and ideal working conditions can change this.

Personnel issues in call centres today, 1999, is published by IRS, price pounds 79.50 (tel: 0171-354 6742).