BT call centres in one-day strike over conditions

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STAFF IN 44 call centres operated by BT will stage a one-day strike today in protest at their working conditions. The industrial action by members of the Communication Workers Union - BT's first national strike in 13 years - is expected to have only a limited effect as agency and non-unionised staff will continue working. Its wider significance is that this is believed to be the first strike at a call centre, the cost- saving phenomenon of the 1990s that has been branded the "white-collar factory".

Unlike BT, many call centre companies do not recognise trades unions, although the Government's legislation to allow limited rights has given unions a new incentive to recruit in call centres. Several complaints among staff who operate BT's bills and repairs lines are common to conditions in call centres generally, although they have a particular grievance over BT's employment of agency workers with poorer pay, pension and redundancy rights.

They allege they are subject to bullying management and suffer stress due to rules, such as a time limit of 285 seconds for dealing with calls. Consistent breaches of time limits can lead to disciplinary action and, ultimately, dismissal.

BT acknowledges the staff concerned are under pressure from a large volume of calls and says it is recruiting more employees to deal with the problem. However, techniques such as call time limits are common throughout call centres, which are widely used in service industries.

The MSF union, which represents skilled and professional people, claimed at a conference in June that staff in call centres were commonly subject to intrusive forms of monitoring. Examples cited were monitoring of all telephone calls, and checks on computer use by counting use of passwords and screen save commands to measure inactivity, plus use of swipe cards to log time-keeping and breaks.