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From The Socialist newspaper, 28 October 2009

Call centres - public services on the cheap

Campaigning for workers' rights

THE PROLIFERATION of call centres within the civil service and related bodies is rooted in the government's pro-market 'reform and modernisation' programme of cuts in investment, jobs and conditions and office closures and privatisation.
As John McInally, national vice-president of the PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union - pc) explains, this is not "efficiency" as they claim but an ill-conceived strategy to deliver public services on the cheap.

CALL CENTRES replicate the factory style conditions that led to the rise of 'new unionism' in the 19th century. This saw the entry of a broad mass of unskilled and low paid workers onto the industrial and political fronts, shaping the struggle to develop campaigning unions - capable of defending and advancing the interests of the most exploited sections of the working class.

Working conditions for many PCS call centre members are poor. Aggressive management techniques and excessive workloads to meet unrealistic 'targets' undermine delivery of essential services. Health and safety concerns are common, including inadequate lighting, background noise, hearing problems, badly designed workstations and lack of choice in headset equipment.

Call centres employ a far higher proportion of young and women workers than in the rest of the civil service; part-time and unsocial hours are common. There is a clear agenda to reduce pay levels too, partly through deskilling.

Call centre workers are treated as units of production whose working activities are micro-managed and regulated by the demands of computer programmes rather than proper planning. In some centres workers need permission to go to the toilet, starting and leaving times and breaks are circumscribed to the minute. Why? Because the computer says so.

Common sense flexibility that would allow a worker to leave five minutes early to, for example, pick up a child on a one-off basis is not allowed. In the Jobcentre Plus (JCP) Contact Centre Directorate permission for such a request has to be cleared at national level.

Management strategy

Slick private sector consultants with a vested interest in shaping public services for privatisation have the ear of ministers and senior civil servants and have persuaded them it is possible to deliver services like welfare benefits and taxation almost exclusively through call centres and electronic media.

While there is a role for such methods they can never be a substitute for the face-to-face contact that real people with real, complex problems need and demand.

Deskilling is an inevitable and deliberate consequence of management's strategy. It is absurd to expect that the complex needs of real people can be addressed by a poorly paid, harassed and inadequately trained worker operating from a limited 'script' of "yes and no" options.

Call centres may be very good for ordering books or paying bills but will never be, in themselves, an adequate method of delivering public services. They can only ever be really effective as part of an integrated system based upon face-to-face contact with clients and services delivered from offices located in the communities they are meant to serve.

The failure to properly deal with enquiries can be catastrophic as many people who need these services are amongst the most vulnerable in society.

Clearly none of this is the fault of the staff themselves, these workers move heaven and earth to provide a good service but are not given the training and flexibility to do so. The boring, repetitive work that the 'script' method demands, deskills experienced staff while failing to nurture knowledge and experience levels in the less experienced.

De-skilling

Call centres have higher than normal turnover rates. This is partly due to the robotic nature of the work, which makes it boring, but given the relentless pressure to meet targets, it is also stressful. Sickness levels are higher than in other areas of the civil service and management do little or nothing to pro-actively address the root causes of the problem.

The recent announcement of the transfer of over 5,000 staff from benefit process centres into the JCP call centre directorate starkly highlights the issue of service quality. Highly experienced staff, with decades of experience, will be expected to mothball their skills to concentrate on achieving call rate targets.

The failure to adequately answer enquiries simply produces more calls and so the cycle of pressure builds. All this so that some smug New Labour minister can stand up in parliament and say that targets are being met.

Reducing the cost of delivering services to the lowest possible level is the tantalising promise upon which the use of call centres and electronic technology, including internet and email, is being driven.

It is also part of the 'race to the bottom' in which working people have to suffer cuts in jobs, pay, conditions and services so that big business can maximise profits. This strategy is specifically aimed at establishing the type of discrete business units with a non-unionised, compliant and regimented workforce that can be more easily privatised.

PCS HAS recognised that as well as presenting real challenges, the spread of call centres also provided tremendous opportunities for workers to become organised. While management treat call centre workers as isolated production units only fit to be tied to their desks and cut off from any human contact with their fellow workers, these factory style conditions bring together large groups of workers under one roof. This offers the union real potential to organise.

In some workplaces the efforts of even one individual PCS activist can result in many workers being recruited to the union and taking an active part in supporting the fight for better conditions. The specific weight in terms of potential industrial power is disproportionately larger in call centres than in many other workplaces and can provide a solid base to launch strong campaigns capable of securing significant gains.

Where the union is strong conditions can be protected and advanced. Recently, in the HMRC (taxation and tax credits) the very threat of industrial action secured improvements in working conditions. As a result of attempted enforced transfers, workers in JCP are embarking on a campaign to secure an agreement that can protect conditions and services.

Protection of services is at the very core of PCS's campaign work on call centres. The delivery of good quality services is inextricably linked with job satisfaction and pride. It is equally rooted in the public service ethos and the belief our work is socially responsible, necessary and useful. This is simply not understood by New Labour and the other main establishment political parties who are ideologically united around a pro-market consensus based on cutting and privatising services while denigrating the vital role played in society by public sector workers.

PCS's work around call centres is firmly based on the need to link organising and campaigning work with the bargaining agenda. As a matter of practicality, as well as principle, the national executive committee (NEC) made sure workers and activists themselves had a direct say in the development of the union's call centre policy and strategy.

Call centre forums drew together the experiences of call centre workers and the problems they face while focusing on building a coordinated response. A major priority was ensuring call centre advisory committees were established in departmental groups to raise the profile of this area of work and to influence policy-making, campaigning and organising initiatives.

The publication of the PCS Call Centre Charter was a real landmark for call centre workers. The Charter is a guide to action intended to strengthen the influence of the union in the workplace. It sets out the principles around which the union must campaign and organise in order to achieve its bargaining aims. These aims include:

To secure the union's bargaining aims across the civil service, PCS conference agreed that a national framework agreement on call centre working practices is required. PCS will shortly be presenting this proposed framework to the employer and will campaign until call centre workers have the rights they deserve.

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In The Socialist 28 October 2009:

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