Call centres - the new sweatshops?

Submitted by martin on 28 November, 2006 - 2:40

It's the lower end of the call-centre industry I'm working in, here in Brisbane. It's in the lower half of the industry – outbound, rather than the comparatively aristocratic inbound call-centres – and it's a small, low-tech operation within that lower half.

We don't have headsets and we don't have automatic dialling (systems which dial the next number on your list as soon as you end the previous call). It's just a room with benches, seats, and 22 phones. There are some skimpy bench-top screens, but it's pretty noisy.

Some of the workers prefer it to other call-centres they've worked in because the supervision is more easy-going.

We're instructed to stick exactly to the sales script, and not to ask workmates for advice or help. But our supervisors are usually busy doing something else, rather than watching us.

The "old hands" even told me, soon after I started, that the supervisors smile sometimes. After a couple of weeks, I can confirm that.

No-one claims that the owner of the business ever smiles, but he isn't in the office much.

We are casual workers with almost no rights. When we start, we're told that we will be sacked if we make less than 0.7 sales per hour.

In fact, in my first week, only one worker on my shift reached 0.7. The rest of us weren't sacked. The supervisors do sack people – on the spot, without notice – but usually they can rely on the people who make lower sales just dropping out.

The turnover is enormous. An "old hand" is someone who has been there a few months. New workers start every day, and most of them leave within a few days or even a few hours. One "old hand" told me that in the week she started, 21 other workers started, and all had left or been sacked by the end of the week.

Call-centres have been called "the new sweatshops". They are new in one sense. They have become widespread only in the last 20 years or so, since new telecoms technology reduced the relative price of phone calls. In their organisation of labour, however, they are no sort of cutting edge, but very old-fashioned.

They are an example of the way, described by Marx in chapter 15 section 8 of Capital, that modern industry, by creating an army of unemployed workers desperate for work, can nourish and sustain archaic workplaces on its margins.

In terms of the sequence of the capitalist organisation of labour described in Capital, our call-centre belongs to the very lowest level, "manufacture". There is no system of machinery, no division of labour, no extra productive power gained by cooperation - just a group of workers, side by side, each with their own hand tool (phone).

No talk here of "teamwork", "continuous improvement", "quality circles", "multi-skilling", or any other of the modern buzzwords. There is no question of the management asking the more experienced and successful telemarketers for ideas to improve the scripts. We workers are specifically instructed not to ask each other for advice. Training means a supervisor reading out instructions for half an hour to new starters.

"Skill" here is deliberately narrowed down to a matter of how many numbers you can dial in a shift and how well you can maintain a bright, buoyant, confident, crisp tone of voice when making the 400th phone call of a shift, saying exactly the same thing that has got a negative reaction 390-odd times out of the 400.

Everyone tries hard to make sales, of course, because a large part of our (low) pay depends on how many sales we make, and in any case after hundreds of negative reactions you crave a positive one. That's why the call centre can afford to skimp on supervision.

It's a particularly poignant example of how, as Marx describes it in Capital, in piecework systems "the exploitation of the labourer by capital is effected through the exploitation of the labourer by the labourer".

The twist here is that in most piecework, the average worker can get an average, decent rate of production and an average wage by an average effort. Workers can evolve work patterns, sometimes just by tacit understanding, to limit the self-exploitation.

With us, there is a large element of pure luck in your number of sales. And there is no average, jogging-along level of effort which will get you an average, jogging-along level of sales. You can easily get no sales at all.

We get a minimum hourly rate even when making no sales - unless and until we are sacked! - but very often workers who feel a bit unwell or under the weather just go home early and give up their hourly wage. They'd rather lose the money than sit there for hours going through the motions and knowing that at the end of it they had achieved absolutely nothing except to bother a lot of people with unwanted phone calls.

Our work is a vivid example of alienated labour in one of the senses described by Marx in the Grundrisse: "Living labour itself appears as alien vis-à-vis living labour capacity, whose labour it is, whose own life's expression it is, for it has been surrendered to capital... Labour capacity relates to its labour as to an alien".

Myself I wouldn't buy what we're selling, and I notice that everyone I call back after they've checked out the details tells me that they have decided against buying. But there's more to it than that. The script is not lying or deceptive. Most of the workers believe that what they're selling is an OK bargain for the buyers. The essence is this: one of our vital human capacities - our ability to persuade, to make a connection with other human beings, to win their confidence, by our voice and manner - has been purchased by capital and processed into something alien, the reading of a sales script.

I've been surprised to notice that the peculiar telemarketer sing-song in the voice, and the use (ad lib, not in the script) of peculiar telemarketer phrases never heard in everyday speech ("and for the lady in your life, we can offer...") are more marked in the more experienced and successful telemarketers than in the newer ones. Maybe it is that they deal with the alienation by creating a different voice, a different persuasive personality, for work purposes, preserving their "real" selves for life outside work.

I'm also surprised by how polite the big majority of the refusals we get on the phone are. It doesn't bother me when people just put the phone down on us (as long as they do it audibly, so that we don't carry on reading the sales script to a dead line). The alienating pressure comes not from the people answering the phone, but from the employer.

The workers are every age from 17 to nearer 70, a slight majority of men over women, and an affable, friendly, articulate lot. I guess we wouldn't stick it in telemarketing for even a short time otherwise. We don't like the management, but the general attitude is a shrug: "This is what life is like when you're a casual worker".

A drive to organise us, I think, would have to be part of a broad, general, IWW-type drive to organise casual workers, conducted as much on the streets as in the workplaces where few stay for more than a few weeks at a time.

I doubt whether it will be a specific drive to organise the telemarketing industry. (The inbound call-centres, more up-market, may be a different question). Many of the workers in our call centre have second jobs, and almost all have other jobs which they have recently come from or will soon go on to.

Moreover, the outbound call-centre industry, new though it is, may not have long to live. It may soon go the way of the door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesperson.

It has expanded suddenly. By 2005, it was making 13 billion calls a year in Britain.

But what we're doing in Brisbane would already be illegal in Britain. There, over the last few years, about half all households have signed up with the government "Telephone Protection Scheme", and telemarketers are legally obliged to sift their call-lists through the TPS; in Brisbane, we're just given pages from the White Pages and told to dial every number.

"As the TPS list grows", according to the Guardian, "that ever-diminishing number of households who haven't registered will - inevitably - be bombarded more and more by unsolicited offers until they can't take it any more and they sign up with the TPS".

Sally Hooton, editor of the trade publication Direct Marketing International, concludes that: "Cold calling is dying".

What won't die - what is as old as capitalism, and will die only when the working class overthrows capitalism - is the intense exploitation and alienation which it exemplifies.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.