Phone factories - Britain's new boom industry work houses phone factory

Call centres employ more people than coal mines and the white- collar workers must meet production targets or face the sack
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THEY ARE the new white-collar factories. The disembodied voice you hear on the end of the telephone is being monitored every minute of their working day and when they finish with your call, 10 seconds later they are expected to be dealing with someone else.

On the walls of the vast open-plan offices are Orwellian exhortations to maximum effort. Conversations with colleagues are frowned upon.

By some estimates there are now some 200,000 people involved in such "call centres" - easily outstripping the number employed in steel, coal and in vehicle manufacture. In fact, there are now more call-centre staff than coal miners.

The so-called "computer telephonists" are the fastest growing occupational group in Britain today, providing customer services and sales information. There can be few businesses which do not require such facilities and there are few senior managers who cannot see advantages in farming out such activities to call centres.

Further evidence of the boom in call centres came yesterday when Sitel UK, an American-owned company which already operates six centres announced that it was planning to create 10,000 jobs over the next five years.

Sue Fernie, of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, estimates there are now 7,000 such "factories" which employ 1.1 per cent of the British workforce. Academics calculate that the proportion will double to 2.2 per cent by 2001.

There are strong similarities between the "dark satanic mills" of the 19th century and the new production lines of the 21st century - except they are safe, well-lit and there is sometimes a veneer of worker participation.

There is, however, little opportunity to stand and stare. The number of calls waiting is often displayed on a monitor above the "shop floor". Visits to the lavatory are timed.

In most such factories, operators are expected to take a maximum 10-second break between each call. Employees can be routinely dismissed for not meeting their production target without "reasonable" excuse.

In some call centres, turnover in staff can be as high as 30 per cent a year, although the larger companies are beginning to see the advantages of hanging on to experienced staff.

Appropriately, one popular software package used by management in call centres is marketed as "Total Control Made Easy". These white-collar factories often require articulate and adaptable people and some centres attract graduates who are still searching for a permanent career. One such employee - a 26-year-old graduate working at First Direct in Leeds - said he worked a nine-hour shift with half an hour for lunch. "It is noticed if you take 32 minutes rather than 30," he said.

"You are monitored by supervisors all the time and they sit next to you if there is a particular problem. You are given scores from one to five each month and you have a one-to one interview with your supervisor if you fall below target."

He earns a basic pounds 11,800 a year which can reach pounds 13,000 with a bonus, but finds the regime "oppressive". He works non-stop and processes some 100 calls a day. "It's all right as long as you're doing well," he said.

The call companies reject criticism of their treatment of employees. Ann Gunter, head of telephony at NatWest, says staff at the bank's Harrogate call centre are "very very proud of what they do" and apart from the odd niggle "have an awful lot of fun".

Their view is supported by Alastair Hatchett, of research group Incomes Data Services, who says that while the work environment is "very pressured", a lot of younger people enjoy it and "seem to respond to the team-working environment".

Staff at Norwich Union Direct centres recently received pay rises of up to 18 per cent depending on productivity. "Good performers" received 8 per cent while small numbers got the top pay rises and the company's pay bill rose by around 10 per cent.

Employees, especially in areas of high unemployment, clearly appreciate the higher rates of pay they can earn.

Nevertheless, Ms Fernie identifies a problem of "burn out" which is often associated with the need to repeat endlessly the same basic script many times a day. "Eighteen months is usually about as much as a computer telephonist can cope with," she said.

Many centres increasingly rely on bonuses to motivate staff. Twenty-four hour operation also means that staff receive an increasing range of overtime and shift premium payments hitherto unknown in the traditional office.

Many of the big centres are located outside London to take advantage of plentiful relatively skilled staff and lower wages. London Electricity's billing operation, for instance, is now carried out in Sunderland.