A day in the life of a call centre worker

MANY YOUNG workers now work in call centres. These are proliferating, especially in the public sector, where call centres or contact centres are used to cut jobs previously carried out face-to-face. These workplaces are often characterised by low pay, bullying management, poor health and safety provision and a consequently high staff turnover – workplaces crying out for effective trade union organisation.
The civil service union PCS recently produced a Call Centre Charter, as a framework for negotiating decent pay and conditions for call centre workers. The PCS Young Members Newsletter recently published an account of a day in the life of a young contact centre worker working in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The author has kindly allowed us to reprint his article.

MORNING – ARRIVE into work 8.50am and I’m already thinking about 5pm. I switch my computer on and find 25 emails in my ‘in’ box, sent yesterday while I was off. A normal occurrence, the emails are mainly from senior management about correct ways to follow procedures and changes which have to be used from today.

I log in to my phone and hope that the first call is an easy one. While waiting for the first call I try and understand what all the changes mean and how it’s going to affect what I do. When the phone rings, it’s someone who has got all their information ready, so the call flies by.

Then ten seconds after they hang up, it rings again, I have a feeling this will be an awkward one, and it is. It’s a lone parent claim. Her husband left her with the four kids and took all their money. I take my time with this one, working my way through it, making sure we get every bit of information that the processors will need.

Then the hard bit “Kate, I just need to book you an interview with a personal adviser at the jobcentre now, OK, well the first available appointment that they have isn’t until three weeks tomorrow, and will that be a problem for you?”

“Will I get any money before then, because there’s no way I can cope for three weeks with the kids”. “Well, I’m sorry but your claim won’t be sent to processing until after you’ve had the interview, the only option available at the moment is a crisis loan, would you like the phone number for that?

“I’m also going to give you the number for the tax credits hotline, they’ll need to take your husband out of the claim, and get it all updated”. Knowing full well that the tax credits is all paid into her husband’s bank account, and until that’s all been processed, she won’t get any money from that at all.

Eventually I get a break, I chat to a few people about what the changes actually mean. 15 minutes fly by, but by the time I get back up to my desk, it’s been 17 minutes. My team leader asks why I’ve been longer than I should have been and I’m told that I have already had 23 minutes logged into break/comfort break (going to toilet, getting a drink etc), so I only have 19 minutes left for the whole day, including my afternoon break.

Losing my voice

AFTERNOON – HALFWAY through a call my voice starts cracking. I’ve drunk plenty of water, but it’s not helping much, so I put the customer on hold while I drink quite a bit more, and try to get my voice working again. I’m questioned why I’ve put a customer on hold as apparently there’s no need.

At this point my bad mood I had at the start of the day has deepened to something almost suicidal, not the best state of mind to be in when trying to help some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Back to work, I log back in and wait for the next call. It’s gone quiet but I don’t put my headset on until I need to because I usually get infections. In the last year, I’ve had 22 days sick, mainly due to ear infections, and voice loss, so I’m not taking any chances.

If I fall ill again, it’s going to be either work right through my illness, have my team leader moaning because I’m not up to my normal standard, or get further formal action, maybe even dismissal!

The end of the day comes and I jab the log off button, shut my computer down as fast as I can, and half walk, half run to the exit. I think I need a quick pint just to calm me down a bit now, then it’s all over till tomorrow!

Call centre charter: A framework for workers’ rights

THE PCS union says that call centre workers in DWP take calls from new claimants for benefits such as jobseekers allowance, incapacity benefit, income support (‘primary benefits’) and maternity allowance, bereavement benefit, carers allowance and industrial injuries disablement benefit (‘secondary benefits’).

First of all they identify what benefits a customer may be eligible for, and if it is a ‘secondary benefit’ just send out the claim pack. If it’s a ‘primary benefit’, they have to gather all of the information needed for the claim, take any necessary child support or tax credits action, then book an appointment at the customer’s local jobcentre (if appropriate).

This is all important work, with many customers who are very worried and vulnerable. But many call centre managers treat both staff and customers with contempt. The PCS says that, according to the Health and Safety Executive, call centre workers have a right to:

  • work in an environment where all the risks to health and safety are properly controlled.
  • stop working and leave the area if they think they are in danger.
  • inform their employer about health and safety issues/concerns.
  • take a rest break of at least 20 minutes if they work more than six hours at a stretch
  • an annual period of paid leave.

Main demands

The PCS, realising that workers have to fight to obtain such basic requirements and that the union has to build a framework for workers’ rights in these contact centres, has produced its Call Centre Charter, whose main demands are:

  • Call centre workplaces should be pleasant and safe environments – not factory-style production units.
  • Decent pay for all call centre workers.
  • A 35 hour working week.
  • Regular training by professionals available to all staff on a regular basis.
  • No deskilling or other civil service type LEAN management techniques.
  • All health and safety regulations to be strictly enforced and monitored.
  • Through PCS, staff should participate in all decisions affecting their employment.
  • No electronic surveillance without union approval.
  • Time and office space should be given for trade union work.
  • The right to representation and bargaining at all levels.
  • Provide sufficient staffing levels to ensure: There are enough staff to effectively handle customer calls. Staff are trained to deal with the calls. Cover for leave and other absences. Work and family life balance.
  • For equality, no discrimination. All staff should be encouraged to join a trade union. This should all be underpinned by a respect for core labour standards as set out in the International Labour Organisation declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work. These include the right to organise unions, to bargain collectively and freedom from discrimination.

The charter also sets out key principles on issues such as lighting, noise, work-station assessments etc. The union has established a PCS National Call Centre Forum and aims to establish forums in every department.

For more details see: www.pcs.org.uk

DO YOU work in a call centre? What are your working conditions like? Are you organised in a trade union? Send your experiences to The Socialist: [email protected] or PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD.