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TUCís campaign on call centre working

20 February 2001 - There were almost 400 calls to a TUC hotline in the first week of its campaign on call centre working. 397 call handlers contacted the TUC in 6 days, complaining about issues such as:

* Bullying
* Being set impossible sales targets
* Not getting their wages on time
* Hostility towards union representation

Although calls came from all over the UK, almost a third were from people working in South Wales (15% of all calls) and Scottish (14%) call centres. Just 30% of the calls were from men - indicating that this is a female-dominated industry. And 68% of callers were non-union members.

Specific complaints included:

* Being made to go into work to report in sick rather than make a simple phone call
* Being required to put their hands up when they wanted to go to the toilet
* Then having the length of time they were there monitored
* Being allowed just three seconds break between calls
* Being restricted to no more than 3 days leave in one go - making it impossible to book a proper holiday

According to TUC General Secretary, John Monks: 'Many call centres already treat their staff with respect and others are making a real effort to clean up their act. But these figures show there are still too many centres using bullying tactics to pressurise and intimidate employees. According to reports on our hotline - some call centres seem to be openly flouting the law.'

The TUC cite a number of particularly bizarre instances:

- One call-handler was disciplined for being idle - after leaving a 6 second gap between calls.
- Refusal to allow Christmas decorations in one office because (bosses claimed) it was a health and safety hazard. But the mice in the office were not, the staff were told.
- A claim that one call centre manager took disposable nappies into work and said that staff using the toilet the most would be told to wear one.
- The same call centre was said to have a íshameí board to monitor staff progress. Anyone on the board for 3 weeks would be dismissed.

Source of calls:

North West
South East
Yorkshire & Humberside
East Anglia
West Midlands
South West
North East
Greater London
East Midlands
South Wales
North Wales
Northern Ireland
% of calls to hotline
% call centre employment

The facts about call centres

Call centres currently employ more than 400,000 people - more than coal, steel and vehicle manufacturing industries put together. It is predicted that there will be more than 665,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the call centre industry by 2008. But staff turnover is a significant problem, with turnover rates of 20-30% a year - although the TUC claims that these are 'public' figures. In reality, they say that turnover may be double the admitted figures.

Low pay is typical, according to the TUC report on call centres, Itís your call with average earnings of less than £8,000 per annum. In general salaries amount to only 60% of average earnings in a specific region. But standards and pay are being driven up by concentration in some areas such as Glasgow and South Wales where it is possible to earn in excess of £20,000 as employers compete with each other to keep staff.

About 44% of call centres are unionised - mainly in the public sectors, privatised utilities and finance, which also tend to pay better.

As well as the incidents detailed by recent callers to the TUC hotline, the report also highlights:

* Being listened to on the phone when discussing union business
* Having pay withheld while serving probationary periods
* Being expected to pay for their own headsets
* Suffering Ďacoustic shockí which can result in short term memory loss and an inability to bear loud noises.

Case studies

The report includes a number of illustrative cases. These are a few:

Jayne (not her real name), a student employed by a call centre in South Wales for 3 months. Anonymity is required because she (and her colleagues) signed a contract which stipulated that she could not speak to the media about her working conditions.

When she started work, Jayne signed up to a Ďtraining loyalty bondí and told to go through one monthís training - but she would be paid for only two weeks. The other 2 weeksí pay is held until she completes a 3 month probationary period which started when her training finished.

She considers that her pay isnít bad - £4.50 an hour - but Jayne has been required to buy her own headset.

Another case highlights Anthony Samaroo. He had been working for BT for 4 years when he suffered two acoustic shocks in his left ear. He felt these like a high pitched sound from a fax machine - but ten times worse:

'The shocks made me feel dizzy and disoriented and now, eighteen months later, Iím still suffering from tinnitus. I find it difficult to concentrate on conversations with several people at a time. I canít go to the theatre or to concerts any more and even squeaky brakes on a bus can leave me with terrible migraine-like pains.'

He now wears cotton wool in his ears most of the time, which can cause ear infections. Nevertheless, the London BT centre where he works will not recognise his problem.

'Iíve taken myself off any duties involving a headset. BT arenít happy about it, but I canít work any other way. Iím frustrated they wonít take responsibility for whatís happened. Just because you canít see the effects of acoustic shock, doesnít mean itís not real.'

Good practice

The report is not all bad. Some call centres are trying to be models of best practice. And some employers operate ethical policies and use good employee relations to achieve deals with new clients. They can offer flexible working patterns, incuding term-time working.They may also get rid of targets such as call-handling times and offer training and personal development to staff.

BT has agreed a 'blueprint' for best practice including such features, agreed with the Communication Workers Union.

TUC General Secretary John Monks concludes: 'As the positive stories in our report show, many call centres donít deserve the sweatshop image theyíre tainted with. The good call centres we highlight prove the industry can offer good working conditions and still be profitable.

'But there are still too many call centres exploiting their staff. Thatís why weíre running this campaign - to make sure call handlers know their rights and to raise the status of call centres by encouraging shoddy employers to improve their standards.'


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