Call Me Self Centred, but...
By Matt Rimmer
Call centres don't have a great press as work places. Their image as 'modern-day workhouses' founded by events such as the strike at thirty-seven BT centres in 1999 when workers protested against bullying management and high dependency on agency staff. A 2001 Trades Union Congress campaign highlighted inadequate health and safety procedures, hostility towards union membership as well as workers not being paid on time and being made to put their hands up to go to the toilet. Since then call centres have had to come into line with other areas of UK employment, however their essential nature remains.
All call centres appear instantly familiar to anyone who has worked in one. Electronic boards loom high displaying a mass of statistics - incoming and outgoing call volumes. Workers sit at rows and rows of computers and headphones units. They are monitored in everything - their time in and out of the phone, break times, number of calls taken or made, sales statistics etc. Their calls can be listened in to by supervisors. Big Brother is watching at all times.
In tandem with this meticulous observation is obsessive targeting of all aspects of their work. Deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union Jeannie Drake commented at the time: "Our members'… are subjected to performance targets which are deployed to intimidate them…" There is "an inability to deal effectively with customers because of targets which limit the amount of time they can spend on calls."
In his BBC television series 'The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom', Adam Curtis explored the origin of target culture, highlighting this in the work of right wing mathematicians and theorists including John Nash, a paranoid schizophrenic and subject of the film 'A Beautiful Mind'. They believed the ultimate goal of human interaction was an equilibrium maintained by individuals acting purely in their own interest, like players in a poker game. They advised organisations to actively harness this human selfishness as the only effective way of making people productive; to encourage them to compete as part of a game in which they are challenged to meet, by any means necessary, goals for which they will be rewarded with incentives.
'Fuck you buddy' was a mantra of Nash and co. This might seem anathema to the customer service friendly slogans of modern business but in fact this is precisely the way call centres work - workers have to be seen to be productive by whatever means necessary, appear as good as, if not better than, their colleagues. Incentives are 'officially' built into the system of salary increases and promotions for those overachieving and 'unofficially' on a day to day basis through infantilising 'incentives' - games and team competitions with prizes of alcohol, sweets etc.
The first call centres appeared in the 1970s but underwent massive expansion in the 1990s. As Keith Dawson argues in 'The Call Centre Handbook', they became an industry in their own right. Locally this has been of real significance, as calls centres have been central in the regeneration of Liverpool. The city is the UK's number one call centre city and features in the European top ten, with approximately 27,000 people employed - 4,000 jobs having been created since 1997 as 10,000 manufacturing ones have been lost.
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