In the UK, 1 million people work in call centres. That's over 4 percent of the working population. In some parts of the UK it's the only big employer in town. Some in the north are, symbolically, built on top of closed coal mines. The call centre is an integral part of our lumbering and lurching post-industrial economy. In a country that doesn't even own its famous cultural products, like Marmite, pretty soon this work could be all we have left.
You will receive, on average, 468 cold calls a year. At cold call centres, entry level workers are paid on average £13,200 a year, work by commission and are under immense pressure from supervisors; monthly staff turnover can exceed 50 percent in some places. Somehow, in an age of internet shopping and comparison sites, these phone calls still work, otherwise companies wouldn't bother. No one likes being cold called, but have you ever considered the condition of the workers who make them? Why do we fail to feel sympathy for the caller when we know they are just trying to make money and get by like the rest of us?
Jamie Woodcock, an LSE academic, went undercover for a year working in cold call centres around the UK to investigate these questions for his new book Working the Phones; Control and Resistance in Call Centres . He told me the internet won't replace the cold call just yet. "Calling exploits and uses people's emotions in a much stronger way than email or instant message," he said. "It takes what's positive about social interaction and warps it into a sales situation." He is careful not to blame the workers, but the system itself.
Jamie sold "bad financial products, a kind of sub-prime insurance" over the phone, working from a pre-written script. At his call centre, workers were expected to make between 300 and 400 calls a day. There is a five-second gap between one call ending and the next beginning, like a telecommunications conveyor belt. This type of work produces something like "an assembly line in the head" – a form of "chain work" rather than "brain work", where you are constantly performing the same cognitive routine for hours on end. Breaks are timed by the second. You have to click "log off" on your workstation and then a big counter appears on your screen. Counting up, once it hits 15 minutes it goes red, like an alarm. You can be fired on the spot; your contract often stipulates that you agree to not involve a trade union to bargain on your behalf and there is constant surveillance of your performance.
Jamie writes of a time he was pressured by his supervisor into making an insurance sale with someone about to go to hospital for kidney dialysis. "The supervisor started to mouth, 'This person is sick! We offer guaranteed acceptance! This is your next sale!'" The customer said his illness was too serious for new insurance, yet Jamie, "under pressure from the supervisor, continued to pitch the product, despite the customer becoming upset". The sale wasn't made, but he was "verbally reprimanded for not being persistent enough to close the deal". There are stories like this from all over the industry, such as charity call centre bosses asking workers to make "ferocious and brutal" calls to pensioners.
Meeting Jamie, he seems like a sound guy; intelligent and compassionate, not a bastard. But he still managed to become "averagely good" at these sales calls. "It's all the little bits about speaking to somebody, that happen in between the script that make the sale," he says. How is someone like Jamie, who says cold call centres demonstrate "how decrepit capitalism has become", able to do this? What happens to you? He says the concepts of "emotional dissonance" and "affective labour" are key.
Affective labour, Jamie says, "is the way in which you use your emotions at work. It's more than just emotional labour. I think of it as an emotional package; the way you influence other people, interact with them, the social and psychological aspects. This makes it very different to other types of work. You use your social abilities in order to make profit. You are not only disciplining your body but also your mind and your emotions and how you interact with the world. It's exhausting, emotionally draining and alienating." Affective labour is "historically associated with female qualities and is therefore usually expected of women". It is no surprise that 80 percent of call centre staff are female and many experience sexism and misogyny from a mostly male management strata.
"Emotional dissonance" is the negative feeling you get when your emotions are in contradiction. You can hate your job passionately, yet when you make a call and "smile down the phone" you have to sound upbeat and positive. Most people in any service sector workplace will have experience of this, but it is the relentless calling at the call centre that makes it so intense for staff there. It is a demand not only to be at work but to genuinely enjoy it.
The maximum Jamie stayed at any one centre for was six months before the mental toll was too much. However, of the training cohort he started with, he was the last one to quit.
I ask if there is any hope in changing the culture at a workplace when no one sticks around long enough to demand it. Jamie found that chatting about making work less terrible actually made work less terrible. "It gave us something to chat about at the breaks. But even though people will leave, and demands such as the right to refuse to pressurise someone into buying will never be met, at least the worker has experienced organising. Hopefully they'll discuss conditions at their next job. The call centre may not be the terrain of struggle, but they will take their experiences elsewhere."
Since the deregulation of finance and telecommunications in the 1980s a cold call monster has been born. Before we part ways I ask Jamie what future call centre work might look like.
"There was an inbound university call centre for students, but it shut down because no one wanted to call them," he says. "They would tweet them or email. But sales calls, that will continue. You can definitely imagine a future where there is a piece of software on a worker's phone and you call from home so you don't have to be in the office. Call centres already call via the internet, so you could easily do that from home. There might well be a horrible cottage industry of a million people working in their living room bothering other people in their living rooms while some supervisor sends some abusive text messages from their house telling you to work harder."
Maybe next time you hang up on the person calling you, just take a moment to wish them luck with their next job.
Working The Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres is out on the 20th November from Pluto Press
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