Hanging on the telephone

Call centres have been called 'the new sweatshops'. But what do their workers think of them? asks Bill Saunders
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Everyone on the outside agrees that call centres must be dreadful places to work. The Centre of Economic Policy (CEP) at the London School of Economics titled a survey into call centre pay "The New Sweatshops", and Dark Satanic Mills is another well-worn sobriquet. So it is perhaps surprising that, in this rapidly growing employment sector, the evidence is beginning to emerge of a largely happy and satisfied workforce.

You really have to be a hermit, or bankrupt, not to have had contact with call-centre culture. CEP researcher Sue Fernie admits to being a frequent user. "More than once I have called mail-order firms at midnight to order the children's clothes."

We are all at it. And, like it or not, the call centre is the typical workplace in New Britain. "There are at least 30 times as many computer telephonists as coal miners in Britain today," Ms Fernie reports. "More people work in this sector than in coal, steel and vehicle production put together."

Typically, call centres are rising, almost literally, out of the ashes of the old industries. Few are located in London or the South East. The whole point of a call centre is that a telephone call can be fielded from anywhere. Apple Computers' technical support centre in Slough also covers Apple's South African customers - same product, same language, same time zone, so why not? The old industrial wastelands in the West of Scotland, and the North East and North West of England are popular locations. Land is cheap, labour is available and, for good measure, surveys show that the public like regional accents and find a Scottish brogue more friendly than a Cockney whine. While double-glazing sales personnel, cold-calling and reading from their zonk sheets, count as call-centre workers, most computer telephonists are more phoned against than phoning and image matters.

While the call centres are filling the old industrial spaces, they are not employing the old industrial workers. The majority of call centre workers are women in their twenties.

At this point, it's customary to get out the violins as we imagine these poor girls clattering through the streets of the darkened mill town to be herded into booths by their cruel overseers. In reality, it's not like that at all.

On the face of it, life in a call centre sounds appalling. Calls are fed through automatically and the workers are constantly monitored. Sue Fernie came across a software package for call centres called "Total Control Made Easy".

John Robertson, co-author of a report on call centres for the independent research company, Incomes Data Services Ltd, takes a measured view. His research challenged many preconceptions, such as the one that this is insecure, contract labour. Permanent contracts are far more common than outsiders had imagined, he discovered, and although the sector is popular with students and mothers in search of flexible employment, they are more likely to be drafted in to cover rush periods. The majority of call centre workers are full-timers.

In other ways, though, he remains critical. He acknowledges that the working environments are constantly improving but adds, "you cannot get away from the fact that it is high pressure work". And he does let slip a comparison with factory farms.

Ms Fernie makes a more dramatic comparison with the panopticon, the nightmare, circular prison imagined by the 19th-century social reformer, Jeremy Bentham. Yet, although her primary interest in call centres is their pay structures, in the course of her research she was impressed by the amount of positive feedback she received from those at the sharp end.

Someone who is in a position to know how things really are is Monica Coffy, a senior supervisor at ETS in Norwich. Although the ETS centre has only been open since September, she has worked in call centres for seven years. She is also very up to date with current research and is surprised by some of the things she reads - for example, Ms Fernie's observation of "burn-out" among staff after 18 months. In Ms Coffy's experience, people tend to stay in jobs for far longer than that. (John Robertson, incidentally, suggests that high turnover is partly due to the concentration of call centres in certain areas - they poach each others' staff.)

Ms Coffy also disagrees with the suggestion that the working environment of call centres used to be hellish but has got better. There have been improvements - she describes her new surroundings as "light and airy", there are two recreation rooms for breaks and an atrium for picnic lunches - but she insists other centres she has worked in were good for their time. And, despite their reputation as deeply controlling, she insists that call centres do not suffer from an "Oi, what do you think you're doing there" culture.

As for the work, Ms Coffy describes it as "interesting and varied" - exciting even. "There is a buzz about the place when everybody is talking on the phones."

Aggression from the public is par for the course, and part of her work as a super- visor involves handling the more abusive customers. But she describes her job as "customer care" and, despite the computers, says that it's a people job. She deals with airline customers and the satisfaction lies, she says, in helping people with special requirements, such as wheelchair access or special meals.

Nobody is thrown to the lions straight away at ETS. There is a four-week induction period including three weeks off-line training and a week working with the help of a supervisor. Research by the recruitment consultancy, Office Angels, has shown that 70 per cent of call centres have on-going training throughout employment. The same percentage offer performance-related bonuses.

Management in call centres is, according to Office Angels, largely democratic. It found that in most call centres, managers work side by side with staff in rush periods.

And Mr Robertson found one call centre with an unusual incentive scheme: the "worker of the week" gets the use of the chairman's Rolls-Royce for the weekend. How many people in supposedly swanky jobs get a perk like that?

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