Call centres to strike over BT `oppression'

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The Independent Online
STAFF AT British Telecom's hi-tech call centres have voted to walk out in protest at the company's "19th-century" management style, their union announced yesterday.

The campaign of disruption, to start on November 22 and involving a series of one-day stoppages, is the first national industrial action at BT for 13 years, and the first nationwide walkout since businesses first started switching customer services to call centres a decade ago.

Employees at 37 sites dealing with domestic bills and telephone maintenance accuse BT of "intimidating and oppressing" staff. Britain's biggest private- sector employer is accused by staff of watching their every move, imposing over-ambitious targets and timing their visits to the lavatory.

Management practices meant that employees were unable to deal "professionally and effectively" with customers, the Communication Workers Union believes.

Jeannie Drake, deputy general secretary of the union, said BT must translate its "glowing public image" into positive action and treat employees with respect.

Referring to a call to employees from the group managing director, Bill Cockburn, to "work smarter, not longer, and have more fun", Ms Drake said: "It grates with people who are systematically pressurised and ignored."

Union members are angry about the excessive and long-term use of agency workers, a management style "borrowed from the last century", insufficient staffing, which leads to "stress and excessive pressure" and an instruction that prevents them speaking to customers for longer than four minutes and 40 seconds.

A BT spokeswoman pointed out that while there was an 80 per cent majority in favour of action, only 1,500 had voted to walk out, from a total 8,500 workforce at the centres.

But she added that the company was disappointed with the ballot result. Management had already taken action to address employees' concerns and would seek further talks with the union.

n Union leaders representing 28,000 Ford car workers are considering an inflation-breaching pay offer worth almost 11 per cent over three years. Management is understood to have also offered a 90-minute reduction in the 39-hour working week.