Despite the palm trees, working in a call centre can be far from paradise

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The Independent Online
BRIGHT murals of exotic locations cover the walls. The ceilings are painted an exotic Mediterranean blue, and a running stream wanders through the middle. There is the holiday sound of children on beaches and a smell like coconut oil fills the air. Is this a leisure centre, perhaps, or a swimming pool?

Neither. This is a warehouse, on the dingy outskirts of Falkirk, where hundreds of Thomas Cook employees take millions of calls a year from members of the public booking their flights and holidays.

Telephone sales are one of the biggest boom areas of employment in Britain today, with more than 5,000 call centres now operating across the country. In the past month alone, another 7,000 jobs have been created, and among the firms who are recruiting are British Airways (3,000), Midland Bank in Edinburgh (900), Barclaycard in Sunderland (2,000); Next in Rotherham (1,750); Prudential in Derby (1,500) and BT in Dundee (800).

The majority of call centres are based in out-of-town depots, where rows of call handlers - or "customer service agents" - sport telephone headsets and are seated all day (and sometimes, night) at computer screens, selling anything from household products to insurance. Already, the existing 5,000 call centres scattered throughout the UK employ 1 per cent of the working population - a figure set to more than double by the year 2000, according to industry estimates.

But while it might look good for the employment statistics, employment experts are increasingly concerned about the impact on staff of carrying out such repetitious work in a goal- obsessed work environment where health and safety could be at risk.

Among them is Professor David Metcalf of the London School of Economics, who warns of parallels between 19th-century factories and their 20th- century telephone-based equivalent, where workers toil under the beady eye of an omnipresent central computer system that can not only pick up or dial calls for them, but tells them what to say and monitors their performance.

With many employees reporting injuries and stress-related illnesses, firms using call centres are now having to take measures to improve their working environments and remotivate staff. Freemans, the catalogue company, for example, has introduced a staff gym at its Sheffield call centre, along with stress-relieving fish tanks. The lottery organisers, Camelot, which has call centres in Aintree and Watford, has launched a "Chill Out" campaign to bring shiatsu massage, reflexology and other "alternative" relaxation techniques to workers at their desks.

Many of the call centres are in densely populated areas where unemployment is high and land and labour cheap. Advances in telephone technology enable customer calls to be quickly rerouted to centres anywhere in the UK, or even abroad - at busy times, some British companies now use operators based in the United States.

Bill Mieran, the chairman of the Telecom Users Association, believes that, despite the large number of jobs being created, staffing levels are inadequate from the caller's point of view. "With the industry's rapid growth, getting hold of properly trained staff can be difficult," he explained. "Call-answering systems are designed with more lines than people available. If an operator answers quickly, waiting time is minimal. However, there are growing numbers of complaints about the length of time callers are kept waiting, especially when people realise they are charged from the time the machine picks up the call rather than from when they make human contact."

According to Income Data Services, a third of call handlers leave their jobs each year, fed up with the pressures of the work and the low pay - they earn an average of pounds 10,000 a year.

Repetition is the worst aspect of the job, according to the banking union Bifu and the Call Centre College, a newly opened telesales training organisation for the unemployed. Bifu deals with dozens of complaints about health problems such as repetitive strain injury, while Sima Patel, the managing director of Call Centre College, has warned that some call centres' advanced computer systems leave operators little to do other than recite the same script hundreds of times a day, which can lead to stress-related problems.

"The rush to recruit a lot of people over a short period of time has been a problem," she said. "There has been an over-emphasis on technology as customers demand faster service."

"I still see many call centres I wouldn't work in," said John Morris, the head of Thomas Cook's call centre operations. "Many still involve rows of people in low-ceiling environments reciting the same words day in, day out. I was adamant when we set up new centres that this would not be our approach."

"The challenge was to create an un-factory-like atmosphere," said Vicky Large, a designer at Thomas Cook's architects, BDG McColl. Unlike the usual serried ranks of operators, the Falkirk teams sit in groups. The most striking innovation is the "sensorama", a passageway through which all call handlers pass daily to the accompaniment of bright sunny yellow lighting.

The move to improve conditions comes 10 years after the first UK call centres were opened by Direct Line and First Direct, and just as the industry is finally preparing its first code of conduct and best practice guidelines. It won't come too soon for the staff; in the US, where call centres are already big business (even Harvard now offers a call centre MBA), a new challenger has risen: the "contact centre" - where operators juggle not only telephone but fax, e-mail and internet transactions as well.