A former temporary employee with an educational charity reports on her time in the customer services call centre.
One summer in the last few years, I worked for a customer services call centre for a large education charity in Manchester. I applied for the job because I was new to the city, and I was scooped up quickly as one of the hundreds of seasonal workers funnelled into the organisation during their busy summer months.
Before I started, I spoke to a friend who had worked there in the past, and she said that the job was essentially sleepwalking. We were given a week of training on the systems and the basic information we would be asked by customers, and after that it was made as easy and standardised as possible by the army of managers patrolling the aisles. The temps came from all walks of life – we were far more diverse in age, gender and race than the permanent staff or managers. There were students filling time over summer, recent mothers re-entering the workforce, migrants who were only allowed to work for a couple of months per year, people with health problems that had kept them out of permanent work. We were brought together into rooms that held up to eighty or so people in well-ordered rows, trained in batches like buns in the oven at Greggs. Our differences were largely nullified by the regimentation of the work. The admin was processualised and de-skilled, the calls scripted, and the turnover of workers high.
All the temps were started on a rolling contract that lasted only a couple of weeks, so the management could easily drop any staff who weren’t being awarded ‘5 stars’ in the end-of-call customer surveys. One colleague pestered me continually through the second week to ask why he hadn’t heard back about his contract extension, until eventually he just got the hint – systematised silence felt like a particularly insidious way of sacking people who didn’t make the grade. My contract was extended multiple times, but the prospect of having to return to unemployment was always just around the corner, and in total I was there only a few months. Rare permanent contracts were dangled like prizes to encourage us to work harder, but most people didn’t go for them – either we were moving on soon anyway, or we didn’t enjoy the work enough to compete for it.
Speaking to people on the phones could either be the best or the worst part of my day depending how furious they were. I got satisfaction from breaking character and genuinely trying to help people, but my lack of training and power meant I couldn’t resolve everyone’s issues. Once, I had an angry teacher threatening legal action against the organisation and I had to remind him that I was a temp worker with no power to fix his problem (which, of course, I shouldn’t have said). Meanwhile, my managers, also presumably feeling like cogs in a much larger machine, shook their heads when I asked if I could pass his complaint on to them.
Sometimes customers’ rudeness would ruin my day, and once I’d taken one angry call, it was hard to motivate myself to pick up the phone for the next. The ‘wrap-up’ function on the dialler, which anyone who has worked in a call centre will know well, was a way of delaying for a minute or two while you wrote notes for the call before. Unfortunately, computers were measuring out the time we spent dallying, making retrospective surveillance disturbingly omnipresent. I often got told off for lateness after being two or three minutes late back from lunch, because the little clock on my dialler software would alert the manager that I was still offline. On one occasion, I saw a manager approach two young women – pre-existing friends – who had taken a five-minute toilet break at the same time. He sat with them and asked them, humiliatingly, whether they had actually been to the toilet or had been outside to chat, which felt deeply intrusive. Small acts of discipline and surveillance form the backbone of these call centres, since the processes have been made into such drudgery that micromanagement is used as the main way to keep workers on-task.
While I worked there, I amused myself on my breaks by reading Working the Phones by Jamie Woodcock, a critique of call centre work. In the book, I learned that over a million UK workers are employed in call centres. This seemed entirely plausible as I stared down the ranks of my peers at work that summer. My call centre wasn’t so numerical and ‘target-driven’, and as such it was less dystopian, but the granular surveillance, expectation of self-maintained emotional labour and total insecurity of the job were similar to the experiences Woodcock reports on.
I understand from permanent staff at the charity that the casualisation of their workforce had only happened in recent years. Until the mid-2010s, the charity had used a much larger pool of permanent staff and moved them around as needed. Now, they saved money by employing temps on worse pay and conditions during the busiest parts of the year and dropping them at quiet times. As a result, any organisational streamlining had broken down – other than passing a call through to the department your manager indicated, none of us really knew how the organisation functioned or which departments were the best for which queries, which led to large numbers of petty mistakes and inaccuracies in our service. Customers had noted this and were often unhappy, but I suppose that only mattered if their ire lost the organisation more money than the casualisation of our labour had gained. Though a ‘charity’, the organisation functioned more like a business, and, of course, paid its management private sector-sized salaries.
Unlike many call centres, mine was organised by a union, Unison. However, from what I could gather, the temp workers had largely been sold down the river. We weren’t covered by the structured payscales, sick leave or many other basic rights that workers had won over the decades, and the union more administered than fought for its workers’ rights at this stage. I once approached a rep to ask if wage docking was allowed after our manager took pay from one of my colleagues, and I was basically told that they would need to be a member to get help. Who joins the union at their temp job they have been working at for less than a month, and who is in it long enough to be covered by the arbitrary time limits after which members can get support? Unison never advertised to temps, and it seemed fundamentally structured to ignore the temps tactically while it defended the last scraps of the permanent workers’ gains.
I’m pleased that other workers have had more luck organising call centres, but from my experience, organising was made almost impossible by the disinterest of the pre-existing union and the high turnover of staff. It would be helpful for the bigger unions to take note of the growth of this under-unionised segment of labour. I’m sure reliance on casual staff with less to lose can be just as much a weakness for employers as a strength.