(March 2001) We work in call centres and elsewhere and produce a series of leaflets. That way we want to support and bring forward the discussion among workers. We need to stand up together against work stress and being forced to work. We can only do that by self-organising and by finding ways - together with other workers - to react against management measures and to push through our own interests. Our strength lies in the fact that we can quickly agree with other workers on - for instance - refusing overtime, ignoring boss's orders or reducing the call-rhythm. Without the boss being prepared and without the mediation or control of works councils or unions. If we develop that strength and use it, that can be a step towards overcoming wage slavery altogether.
All hotlines-leaflets are published - together with more information and contributions - on the website: [www.motkraft.net/hotlines]. Take part in the discussion and send us your ideas, critique and reports: [email@example.com]
Callgirls and Callboys: What a madness?!
Work, work, work - governments, bosses and unions agree that only work makes life sweet and sensible. Blessed are those who have work. But as soon as we assemble metal pieces at the workbench, give patients healthy injections in hospital or handle customers while sweating under headsets, the enjoyment quickly finds an end. We get confronted with contradictions which the bosses desperately try to hide.
In Call Centres
bosses tell us how well everything is organised and that they will teach us everything we need for the job: how we need to talk, how the computer works, etc. At first we are glad to be allowed to learn everything with coffee and cookies. But later - under the headset - we realise that we have not learned anything really: we have to improvise a lot, get additional information, adjust to new situations, etc. in order to avoid being left looking the fool and to make sure that the customers get what they want.
Constantly we get told what a responsible and interesting job we will do. It will demand our creativity. But on the job we realise quickly that we are in control of very few things and that the work is monotonous. Team leaders take care that we perform the repetitive work steps correctly.
Around all that the bosses make a big fuss about quality. The customer is king, our aim is the best possible customer service, we need the total customer experience - every day we hear such things. For this purpose they tell us exactly what work steps we have to perform, they make test calls and put whole squads of trainers onto us. All in order to increase 'quality'. On the job we see something else happening: because not enough workers were hired the callers have to listen to the endless queue-music. When they get through they are transferred into the next queue because we, the workers, are only allowed (or able) to perform certain things, not others. We are supposed work our butts off and take (or make) as much calls as possible. Therefore the 'quality' suffers because everything is done in a hurry.
Because these contradictions are obvious and frustrating the bosses make a big hype about how great their company is. They want us to keep on working hard (and not 'internally dissociate ourselves from the company or job'). They tell us about how lucky we are to be able to work in their team and what important goods are produced there (bank loans, computer printers, baby clothing). They also give out certificates, bonuses and T-shirts - and one can become 'agent of the month'. We are now part of one family, we are all in the same boat. Or: We all pull the same rope - but the question here is: who's neck is it hanging around!?
After having wallpapered the loo with all the certificates and after having well-invested the 3.50 deutschmark bonus on the stock-market, we realise that behind all that hype the normal work is continuing. We need to look at the interests behind work in order to understand why these contradictions and absurd situations are developing.
First of all bosses want to turn money into more money. In order to do that they need to make us work for them. They invest wherever they get most, for instance in Call Centres. If that does not work out as expected, they switch sectors and invest somewhere else - maybe in the production of waffles or weapons? So the bosses, therefore, have no special interest in work. But money does not multiply by itself. So they have to - whether they like it or not - get involved in the work process. They need to get two things straight that create conflicts every day:
(1) The production has to yield 'profit': Few and badly paid workers should produce as much as possible after short training, with cheap material and machinery. The investments should stay small, the work intensive and the profits high. In call centres that means, that we, the workers, get only short training periods, are divided into shifts, should keep the calls short, sell a lot and make as many calls an hour as possible...
(2) The contradictions develop because at the same time the 'quality' should be right: the bosses take care that we produce something that they can sell, for instance a car, that really runs, or a help desk, that actually gives the callers good advice. The car or the advice on the phone have to have a value for the 'customers' (function, look nice, be practical, give help...). Therefore, the bosses have to make sure do not do a sloppy job...
...meet uninterested workers
Although the bosses like to present it the other way, it depends on us, the workers, whether the company is running despite this contradiction: we are asked to take care that the work is done quickly and is profitable - and that it produces 'quality' at the same time. Everything depends on us, but we do not have a special interest in the work either. Every job is more or less the same. Ok, some give us a better income or the conditions are not as bad, there are really shitty jobs and bearable ones. But all in all we only go out working because we need to. We need the money for a living. We do not have any interest in the thing itself. Hanging on the telephone for hours, yearning for the next break, answering stupid questions, not knowing anything, but having to give advice to people, struggling with the watchdogs... who cannot imagine something better? We need to get used to the fact, that we have to work a large part of our lifetime, and we want to see a sense in it. So we try to do the work right somehow because otherwise it would be even more stressful, for instance because the calls would be even more nerve-racking. But all that has limits.
The bosses try everything to make us handle the stress that is connected to work under these contradictive conditions. We should satisfy as many callers as possible, despite cheap training, missing information, bad products, etc.. They put pressure on us, hypocritically using 'quality' as an excuse:
- If they would openly admit that they just want to increase their profits, we would not work half as well. So they lure us with the 'quality' of the product or the great company which deserves our good work.
- If they would openly admit that they want to control us so we work faster, we would resist quicker. So they justify the control with the holy 'quality'.
- If they would openly admit that they really have no clue how the work is done and organised, then we would ask ourselves what we really need bosses for. So they hide behind huge quality management-programs and ask us for 'suggestions for improvement'. That way they want to learn form us. But they use their newly won knowledge not for improving 'quality', but rather in order to give us even more work to do and to 'rationalise' production.
No one cares about sense
The contradiction between the interest in profits on one hand and the production of useful goods on the other leads to all the daily absurdities on company level. And it characterises the whole society:
- We have accumulated knowledge and wealth but neither get used for the needs of all: most people on earth still live in poverty - as workers or as 'unemployed' whose labour cannot be utilised for piling up more money.
- Whenever productivity is raised by using machinery - that means: the same amount can be produced in shorter working time - we still do not work less. The usage of machinery is supposed to increase profits, not shorten the working hours for all: wherever bosses 'rationalise' and fire people, those workers who stay in the company have to work more intensely and do overtime, the fired ones need to look for other jobs.
Behind all this is the contradiction that we, the workers, produce all the wealth, but we do not decide how we work and what happens with the wealth. When talking about 'employment' nobody cares about the sense of the work or whether we really need a product or service. The decisive question is whether wealth can be accumulated in the form of money through our work. That also applies for call centres. We, the workers, have not decided that in Europe alone millions of people should work in call centres.
But luckily we do something really sensible there: We take care that the things, which are produced by workers, are being sold to other workers while the money ends up in the hands of the bosses. Or we inform thousands of workers on the phone about the deficit on their accounts so they know that they have to carry on working for their debts. Or we sit in an order-taking department at night while people call who cannot go to the shops during daytime because they have to work then...
If we are sick of it all and had enough of these absurd situations, the great company and the cool boss, the taking-the-piss of customers and quality-tests, overtime and just the ordinary madness at work, what shall we do? We will not find a solution by trying to make work more 'human'. The bosses - supported by the unions - want to sell us the work as sensible and bearable by introducing teamwork, coloured screwdrivers and flat computer screens. All these attempts have the aim of making us put all our creativity and productivity into working. They do not change the situation where bosses and companies' balance sheets decide where money is invested and what gets produced. As long as the central aim is to make money into more money we will just go on and on reproducing the contradictions between work stress, 'quality', senselessness, etc.
No union, no party or other organisation will abolish these contradictions for us. There is no finished plan for a 'different' society - but there are thousand good reasons to utilise the existing productive possibilities for (instead of against) us. If we want a life where we produce for our needs, without exploitation, work stress and watchdogs, we need to take that into our own hands. The first step - the 'taste of something new' - can develop in situations where we challenge the daily work stress together. Where we use our creativity for actions against the work stress - instead of using it in order to save the chaotic organisation from collapsing. Where we use our co-operation as our power against the bosses - instead of working together side by side without noticing each other. Only this way we can overcome the gossip and mutual harassment at work. Only this way we can develop new relations and self-confidence that we need for the upcoming conflicts with the bosses.
For risks and side-effects try it out, send us ideas - or wait for the next hotlines!
Steffi. our best conversation.
peeep in the headset, hello caller, here is the always-at-your-service-bank, my name does not matter, what can I do against you, my mouth repeats the phrase without the brain intervening, I just talked to steffi about bse and 68, now again it's the big subject, money, oh yes, you want to buy shares, I put you through, but thank you so very much for your call, clack, I press the button to finish the call and off he goes, peeep! here is the always-at-your-service-bank, transfer? sure, from where? whereto? how much? never call again! clack, peeep! hello? always-at-your-service-bank, cheers mate, you want to complain, write to the following address, yes they will answer that sometime, listen... okay arsehole, bye, clack, steffi, where were we? Oh yes, bse, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank, you are disturbing, what do you want? a loan, better leave it, bye, clack, peeeps! hi! what? eh? yes, always-at-your-service-bank, online-banking? well, you buy a computer and call the appropriate hotline, good luck, clack, peeep! hello, always-at-your-service-bank, shares of dotcom soso, how many? for one hundred thousand deutschmarks, sure man, good bye, clack, oh no, I typed in and ordered the wrong share, well, no big deal for that guy, peeep! hellohellohello, dear customer, I can't understand you, I am going to put down the phone, ok? clack, so thing with bse is, eh, steffi? hello steffi! shit, she's got a call, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank or whatever, whaaat! you have been in the waiting queue for twenty minutes and then the line was cut off, yes, that's the way they do it here, complain? please, write to, yes they will take care of that, by the way, for the last twenty minutes I desperately had to go to the loo, bye, clack, peeep! always-at-your-service here, hello team leader, what did you say? today my performance is just around average, but I show some promise? byebye, clack, get lost, peeep! no, I cannot help you, my computer just slightly crashed, but thank you for being so frank, fuck you basta..., what a pity, already gone, hello steffi, the people in 68 already had, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank, what can I do? what? you want to pay your telephone-bill, the one from German Telecom, haha, bye, clack, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank, my name? what does that have to do with anything? clack, peeep! I don't know shit, clack, peeep! Not-at-your-service-bank, I hate you, why do you call, clack, peeep! you!? transfer? never! clack, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank here, hi! fuck yourself, bye, clack, peeep! clack, clack, clack, no peeep? bse, steffi, what a madness!
Every day, again and again, it gets fought out a million times. A bloody duel, one that can only be finished through getting fired, going to a psychiatrist or calling in sick. A duel between woman and woman, secretary and outbound-agent. The secretary has to protect her boss from the agent's bombardment of questions. The agent has to conquer new sources of money for her boss. All weapons are allowed in this fight. But the secretary can employ some weapons the agent is not allowed to use, due to the 'call centre convention', for instance 'wild abuse' and 'slamming the phone'. The agent on the other side has the advantage of ambushing the secretary without warning, the famous element of surprise: 'Hello, my name is... calling from..., please connect me with your manager!' If the secretary is not alert here, it can happen that she puts the call through because she is used to follow orders instantly. In that case she risks to get into serious problems with her boss. One point for the agent. But it's rarely that easy. Sometimes the lady on the switchboard transfers to the by far bigger enemy, the manager's secretary... But most of the time the secretary takes on the duel herself: 'We are not interested'. Now it the agent's turn. If she has no experience she accepts the statement and wishes the secretary a nice day. But she will find out that her boss won't like it at all if she accepts the secretaries attitude. After all, this is market shares warfare! So the agent has to call again the next day. And she knows that now it can get pretty loud. The consequence: she has to come up with new tricks, like intimidation of the person opposite through very complicated phrasing, questioning of her authority or the simple claim that the boss would expect the call. Sooner of later the secretary will know all the tricks and the duel goes into the next round...
The duels does not always turn out this ugly. If the secretary claims that the boss is in a meeting or on holiday there is a truce and you can see the person on the other side of the line as a human being. And you ask yourself what all the stress is about. If the other person had not chosen the wrong profession she could be quite nice after all...
Many might have listened carefully and gotten envious. Envious of the exciting and useful activity. How do you say? Sensible hours on the job. In this case that means: the agent dedicates about two hours a day to the duel with secretaries, so ten hours a week. Taking 10.000 agents that means about 100.000 hours a week. A secretary fights about 0.25 hours a day with wild agents, taking 10.000 secretaries that means about 12.500 hours. So the duel with the secretaries produces 112.500 working hours on the hot line. If that makes any sense!
Sorry, I have not introduced myself: I am an outbound-agent and do not allow secretaries to shake me off. I will call again and again till they put me through to the boss, so in the end I can tell him that our company can help him reduce his telephone bill...