Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/10993
DWP call centres strike to defend services and conditions
As unemployment figures jumped again, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants in the PCS union were taking strike action to provide a decent service to claimants. The overwhelming majority of the 3,500 workers who have been transferred from benefit processing to call centres (CCDs) came out on strike on 20-21 January against worsening working conditions and a poor service to the public.
Dave Reid, Socialist Party Wales
CCDs were effectively closed as workers in Newport, Bristol, Chorlton, Glasgow, Makerfield, Norwich and Sheffield struck for two days.
Call centre workers have had enough of a bullying management that disciplines trained professional benefit staff who try to provide a decent service to the public and refuses any flexibility in working conditions. With face-to-face benefit advice ended, staff are instructed to fob off claimants and deal with complex benefit cases in under five minutes over the phone. Workers are required to send the caller to another part of the system no matter how inappropriate or awkward this is to the caller. For many callers this is not just inconvenient - it is their lifeline. As well as stressing both the workers and the public this system causes problems to other parts of the DWP.
DWP management claim "customers will get a better service" but their real attitude to the public can be seen by their response during a strike at one DWP call centre where workers reported that managers ordered non-union members who were working to mimic an answerphone message, including the impersonation of a beep, and the following day pretend that the answerphones were broken. This mickey-mouse operation by management contrasts with the professional approach of DWP staff who are trying to provide a decent service to benefit claimants and pensioners.
Workers from the Newport Passport Office, who are themselves fighting its closure and the threat to 300 jobs, supported the Newport picket line.
Katrine Williams, PCS DWP group vice president, who was on strike in Newport, explained: "The quality of service is really important, given the drive from the previous government and pushed forward by the coalition government, to limit people's access to public services. More and more is being done remotely by phone and the internet rather than face to face."
But the strike has shown the determination of workers to fight for decent conditions and the right to provide a professional service to the public.
Report from Makerfield
At the Makerfield site near Wigan in Lancashire, almost all the 800-strong workforce were on strike and mounted two pickets. Strikers expressed enormous frustration that, instead of helping people with their benefits, national management are turning them into a call centre.
Targets for time spent on the phone actually helping people, no time allowed for work off the phones, fixed lists of answers, "call backs" to return calls in three hours instead of being able to help people there and then... and to make matters worse, the changes include the danger of job losses.
Around 80 AA-grade staff as well as workers for the Capita company face unemployment through the employers' proposals. The national PCS union has rightly demanded assurances and guarantees over future employment for both these sections. Pickets were clear that whether now or down the line, jobs will need defending.
This highly skilled and trained workforce is being shackled by a management who couldn't care less about people who need benefits, and expects those phoning to act like robots instead of real people with problems which can be assisted.
I spoke to Joanne:
"We're on strike because of the obsession with targets, they're not interested in providing the service. They're bothered about hitting ministers' targets, but not about delivering the service to the people who need it.
"The press today are all saying it's about working conditions, but we want to make the point that we want to provide the service to people who need our help, and what management are doing is preventing us providing the service as well as we are capable of doing it.
"Local management are saying it's not about jobs, but a lot of part-time workers will be affected by the changes to working hours. They don't work part-time by choice, they do that because they have kids. Management say they won't pay for childcare, but a lot of people can't cope with changed hours because the after-school clubs and so on often aren't open at the new times people are expected to work.
"A lot of people from the private sector who work here, and the lowest-paid grades, the AAs, are at risk of losing their jobs in the future.
"Lots of our members take pride in the service, lots of them have many years' experience, and management are stopping them from doing that. In effect, we're just becoming very expensive answering machines!"
Contact centre strike in Sheffield
Outside Hartshead Square a PCS placard read: "Contact centres = the new dark satanic mills!" Strikers described why. Linda called the two office floors of Sheffield DWP contact centre "the chicken run" - 500 staff but only 400 seats. Another picket says it's "like a prison cell". Adam says: "I hate it, just hate it. "Yesterday I was three minutes late back from lunch and got the tap on the shoulder."
Jill, PCS assistant branch secretary, said that the Real Time Officers (that monitor staff's work and time) would be happy if the staff had catheters and drips so they never had to leave the phones.
"As it is you have to log off to go to the toilet."
Lauren explained that most of the Sheffield contact centre staff were transferred from benefit processing. Many have years, some decades, of experience in benefit delivery.
Now they are glorified call centre workers, forced to read from a script, timed on every call, unable to give claimants the benefit of their knowledge and experience. A new manager has been brought in to enforce these industrial conditions. He is attacking the union to force them through.
Five PCS reps have been de-recognised and had facility time withdrawn. They face disciplinary hearings for attending a BEC (union branch executive committee).
Adam says: "This is the biggest picket we've had for years, it just shows how angry everyone is."
Bristol strike more solid than before
PCS members in Bristol were amongst those to come out on strike on 20 and 21 January, against plans to transfer benefit processing offices over to call centres.
Despite the freezing weather the pickets were in an upbeat mood and reported that the strike was even more solid than previous ones, with more people out on the picket lines.
This was attributed to better union organisation in the workplace and a hardening mood amongst members who are getting increasingly fed up with their bosses.
Workers described how the management culture of targets and monitoring was sapping morale and damaging the service to benefit claimants. I spoke to one worker who took phone calls for crisis loans, applied for by some of the most vulnerable in society, in desperate need of money to pay for food, gas and electricity.
He regularly gets calls from people who have previously been cut off five or six times and so have been unable to get access to an urgently needed service because of management obsession with target call times.
Often it takes longer than they allow to properly deal with a caller but staff face disciplinaries for taking the time to provide a decent service. Workers fear that this situation will only get worse under the new plans and also expect even greater monitoring and harrassment from managers.
This was in evidence on the picket line as managers were deployed all morning to watch pickets, at times outnumbering them two to one! This was supposedly to stop the pickets intimidating people but in reality was an (unsuccessful) attempt at intimidation from management themselves.
Workers weren't pleased about having to strike again but were determined to fight the attacks on them and the service they provide. They were also proud to be part of a union that is standing up for its members and fighting back against the cuts.