HSE will investigate call-centre conditions

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The Independent Online
AN INQUIRY was announced yesterday into working conditions at Britain's 1,300 call centres as union leaders called a second 24-hour national strike at BT's sites.

While talks began to avert the stoppage on 10 December, part of a rolling programme at 44 BT sites over the alleged "big brother" attitude of management, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) launched an investigation into how the centres operate.

The HSE estimated yesterday that the sector now employs more people than the coal, steel and vehicle production industries combined.

The inquiry follows research which unearthed deep concern over haphazard shift systems, constant scrutiny of performance, high staff turnover and a management insistence that staff spend "extended, intense periods working with both a telephone and a computer".

Among the symptoms shown by staff are stress, voice loss and musculo- skeletal disorders such as back problems and pains in joints and muscles.

The HSE calculates that between 1 and 1.7 per cent of the United Kingdom workforce is employed in call centres, this could rise to more than 2 per cent in the next few years.

Health and safety experts are to look at centres in different industries and of varying size. The researchers will measure potential physical and mental health risks to staff and explore measures to minimise the dangers.

The inquiry emerged as independent research by Incomes Data Services (IDS) shows that while some call centres may be worthy of the "satanic mills" label given to them by their critics, others are run by "model employers".

Alastair Hatchett of IDS points out that some companies ensure a very high standard of employee care in order to conserve scarce skills. At the Thomas Cook centre dealing with foreign travel, staff have use of a sauna, jacuzzi, swimming pool and restaurant. Mr Hatchett points out that employees with knowledge of languages such as Mandarin and Urdu have to be kept happy in order to retain their services.

The IDS survey found that average staff turnover at call centres was 18 per cent a year, but there were enormous variations ranging from 1 per cent to 80 per cent.

The most commonly identified cause of staff turnover was the intensity of the job, although competition for employees from other companies was also significant. Starting annual salaries for "customer service advisers", which form a significant number of call centre employees, were bunched in the range pounds 9,300 to pounds 11,650. Supervisors' salaries were more varied, reflecting differences in skills, knowledge and responsibility, but most were between pounds 14,600 and pounds 19,000 a year.

Contrary to some impressions, most staff were in full-time permanent jobs, and union recognition was widespread.