Call-centre Labour in a Global Economy

Call-centre labour in a global economy is the latest publication in the excellent Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation series, edited by Ursula Huws. It takes up a theme broached in earlier volumes: the emergence of the call centre as a new form of work organisation. In her introductory essay, editor Ursula Huws points out the complex and multifaceted nature of call centre employment. As a form of work, it has many features of Taylorism: routine, highly monitored and scripted procedures undertaken to tight deadlines. However call centre work now covers a wide variety of situations – from routine selling and information provision, to specialised medical and IT expertise, and skilled public sector services (undergoing the process of ‘callcenterisation’). This breadth is creating some significant theoretical and political problems for the left, according to Huws. Where are we to place call-centre workers in technical and social hierarchies? How do occupational identities coalesce in such transient forms of employment? How can we build collective organisation?

interfaceThis book (Merlin Press, 2009) addresses a number of issues confronting those who labour within the “post-industrial sweatshop” – from the particular dynamics of its labour processes to larger issues regarding the process of globalisation and wider social divisions, especially those of gender – in an effort to comprehend the specificities of the call centre phenomenon.

Though strongly associated with processes of globalisation, the call centre is not a globally uniform phenomenon, according to the research presented here. On paper they licence service relocation, via ICT and advanced telecoms links between employer and customer across wide spatial and temporal parameters, offering employers options for outsourcing, cost cutting and avoidance of collective bargaining / unions. The reality uncovered by the Global Call Centre Industry Project, as reported here by Ursula Holtgrewe and her collaborators, is significantly different.

“Transnationalisation” is limited and unevenly distributed – more likely where offshoring is related to English-speaking countries (Ireland, Canada, and India). There are enduring cultural constraints upon this process: many call centres are found in close proximity to the language of the customer base they serve – a trend described as ‘nearshoring’. One case study of a German-speaking call centre, which serves a US electronics TNC, found these operations had to be sited in Germany and Slovakia, rather than emulating the actual offshoring the TNC used for its English-speaking market. One lesson we can draw from this is that globalisation or call centre location is no economic juggernaut sweeping all before it: other determinants count too, opening up space for those trying to fight prospective work relocation or build union power on new sites.

What about the call centre labour process itself? The received wisdom is that call centres operate as a sort of virtual sweatshop. Automated telecom systems dictate the distribution, pace, nature and monitoring of the work, controlling operators’ interactions right down to the level of scripted conversations and measuring the time and quality of each call. Workers from all parts of the global economy record their frustration with, and alienation from, such regimes in this collection. They cite de-skilling and lack of autonomy as major grievances of standardised labour processes.

Associated concerns of insufficient rest, lack of physical movement, overbearing management checks on quality and productivity, work intensification, physical security searches and loss of social interaction with work colleagues all reinforce their claims. Not surprisingly, many of the articles report high levels of stress and sickness amongst call centre staff subjected to such an environment.

The collection also highlights two more novel features of this labour process. One is the issue of ‘emotional labour’, which is closely tied to the question of gender relations within call centres and the wider society. As is well known, most call centres rely on female labour. The role of gender in the active side of call centre labour, i.e. the ‘emotional labour’ and communication skills displayed by operators to build customer relationships is less appreciated. As both Paivi Korvajarvi and Claudia Mazzei Nogueira report, call centre operators have to navigate complicated customer interactions on a daily basis, to attract and retain customers. The role of the voice is crucial here: “language… takes on the nature of an instrument of work”. Call centres specify both the content and the tone of speech, via their monitoring of calls and even in the recruitment process itself. Here the work of the call centre intersects with wider social divisions, as employers and their clients draw upon received gender-traversed notions of product association and styles of speaking when determining employee hiring and daily performance. An additional burden of this emotional labour is the requirement for operators to remain calm and professional when confronted by angry and abusive callers. Such emotional control, though obviously difficult to achieve, is reinforced in the worst cases by sanctions of disciplinary action.

The second aspect is one highlighted by Simone Wolff’s study of the changes wrought at a Brazilian telecoms company undergoing privatisation and organisational restructuring. She picks out the interplay between the standardisation of working practices via the application of advanced ICT systems and an attempt to harness workers’ knowledge and creativity for the profitable development of the new company. Through new ‘participative management’ techniques, call centre operators are encouraged to contribute suggested improvements to their scripted conversations – only for these to then be standardised, incorporated into new software packages, and then function as additional constraints upon their daily performance.

Wolff describes all this as a form of ‘flexible automation’ and ‘informatisation’ of labour processes, where information acts as both raw material and final product. It is a new form of labour exploitation: the ‘involvement’ of the workers is limited, and forced rather than freely given.

Wolff’s study is one of many in this collection examining the process of ‘callcenterisation’, the transformation of labour processes and organisations along call centre lines, especially in relation to the commercialisation of public services. As noted in the last issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation (WOLG), commercialisation does not just involve a change of ownership. What follows is a wide-ranging restructuring and ‘modernisation’ of these services – involving new production techniques, work intensification, a geographical shift to centralised delivery (substituting remote call centres for publicly accessible offices), electronic forms of work distribution and operational subdivisions between in-house and outsourced units.

In ‘Working at the Interface’ two contrasting experiences of changes made in public service provision are counterposed. Norene Pupo and Andrea Noack’s account of the centralisation of Canadian federal public services foregrounds the negative consequences for its workforce of shifting to call centre models of delivery. Standardised, excessively monitored work left employees unable to fulfil expectations of providing a comprehensive service to callers who may have complex and multiple enquires, and lacking time to keep up with changing legislation and procedures.

In contrast Pia Branning and co. find the same process when applied to the Danish tax administration system led in different directions. At first the workforce complained of the familiar deskilling and loss of autonomy; a subsequent set of positive responses by management coupled with a gradual but fundamental shift in workers’ professional identity improved the working environment. Branning and co argue here that the public servant mentality of rule following and comprehensive knowledge was gradually displaced by a new ‘problem solving’ mentality, balancing individualised caller service with time deadline and efficiency demands, learning how to handle the ‘anatomy of a call’: “professionalism had come to encompass form as well as content” (p127).

The authors caution however that these workers still confront a rigid working regime, whatever satisfactions they can glean from such new approaches to their duties. Elsewhere in the collection, ‘professionalism’ as an ideology resurfaces as the ‘cultural solution’ that workers adopt to cope with the harsh regime of the call centre.

And so, what prospects are there for collective resistance in the ‘post-industrial sweatshop’? There is only one article in the collection dealing with this issue head on, but other contributors recognise the challenges confronting union organisation here: flexible working patterns, temporary contracts, outsourcing, and subdivided operations. Ursula Huws argues there are additional subjective barriers relating to the absence of strong occupational identities in this transient form of employment, removing the traditional bedrock of union organisation. Despite all this, Enda Brophy’s research into the Canadian telecoms call centre Aliant uncovers a key act of collective organisation and resistance culminating in a strike by workers in 2004.

This dispute pitted new trends of corporate convergence and organisational restructuring within the telecoms industry against a novel union response of ‘convergent unionism’, each side merging hitherto distinct sectors and workforces to bolster their powers. Aliant had from its beginnings ( in a merger of four provincial public telecom organisations undergoing privatisation) used a combination of outsourcing, geographical transfer of work and the imposition of call centre discipline within labour processes to threaten union power. The success of the Canadian CEP convergent union (uniting communications, energy and paper workers) in organising Aliant’s New Brunswick call centre was a key moment of reversal, one the 2004 strike evidently confirmed.

The strike itself had outsourcing at its heart, and was one of a wave of disputes affecting the whole Canadian telecoms sector at the time. Although the CEP has some success in disrupting Aliant’s operations, the union could not sustain its attack and eventually agreed to a settlement offering only temporary protection for its workforce. Post-strike, Aliant resumed its outsourcing, work centralisation and job reduction programmes – and then underwent a further corporate reorganisation (merging with Bell Canada) wherein further outsourcing occurred. The remaining unionised part of Aliant were now left in a state of slow decline, victims of a concerted employer ’war of attrition’ the CEP could not easily counter.

Brophy suggests this episode indicates a key flaw in the CEP’s application of the strategy of convergent unionism. Whilst the employer was using outsourcing to non-union firms and ‘callcenterisation’ to strike at the heart of workers’ power, the CEP were relying on traditional firm-level collective bargaining (albeit beefed up by the convergence undertaken to create more powerful bargaining units). Its weakness in the rest of the non unionised call centre sector of the New Brunswick economy – along with that of other unions – left it unable to effectively respond to Aliant’s manoeuvring. A more imaginative solution, according to Brophy, lies in adopting new organising strategies that use geographical or industry-wide approaches – along the lines of the ‘workers centre’ movement or ‘social movement unionism’ – to create new forms of workers power. A large challenge – but none the less necessary.

Again, as in the last issue of WOLG, we are left with the clear message of the need for new organising if today’s workforce is to make significant advances against the neo-liberal corporate order. In the case of the call centre, as this collection makes abundantly clear, there is a plentiful supply of political raw material (in the shape of angry, stressed and alienated workforces around the globe) for organisers to work with.

Richy Leitch is a member of the New Unionism Network. Read other articles by Richy.