Report from October 2002 about work, resistance and the possibilities for struggle in a Milan call centre.
At the beginning everything looks really nice when you enter Fiat's call centre in Milan. Lots of space, multi-coloured cubicle walls and little flags, lots of young people sitting in front of large monitors, wandering around or relaxing and smoking in the corner by the vending machines. They speak all kinds of languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Polish... Something between an internet cafe, a children's day care centre and one of those newsrooms in an American TV soap.
Work begins quite relaxed, too. You get a training course where you're told that the call centre won a prize last year. That everyone is nice to each other because that way work is fun. That we're supposed to smile all the time - even on the phone - because then customers get a good impression and keep buying those Fiats, Alfa Romeos and Lancias. Some weeks and many calls later you realise where you've ended up. The surroundings have ceased to cast a spell on you: Welcome to the world of call centres!
There are seven hundred people working there, mostly women, full-time and part-time. A lot of them work in administrative jobs but the majority are sitting on the phones, divided into different departments by language, service offered and different tasks. Many have fixed-term contracts that last ten or twelve months.
The inbound workers receive calls from private customers like complaints, questions etc. And from dealers and garage employees who are looking for a spare part, want to cancel an order or check a warranty case. Then there are the outbound departments selling insurance and other services, and a customer service where owners of navigation computers can send a text message and get called back. Some of the workers service only one 'line' (like the navigation customers), others do two, three or four different ones.
The call centre technology consists of a wild heap of PC's, telephone appliances, old and new software, fax machines... With the wired headset you're a prisoner on a ball-and-chain. Or a brain patient whose head is wired to the computer.
Like in other call centres, the calls get distributed by an ACD machine. This machine takes the call, uses the calling number to see what country it's from, which department is in charge, which worker there is 'free' - and puts the call through to that worker. On some lines, there is also CTI (computer telephony integration). This means that for calls, for instance concerning the navigation system, the data record will be on your screen, the instant that the call comes through. It's direct-to-ear, meaning that calls arrive automatically on your headset - without you manually accepting the call. You hear a spoken phrase and then you have the customer on the line. This means you have no control over the calls...
At the beginning of the shift you have to log into several programs - depending what calls get put through to you: software for documenting calls, for ordering spare parts, for navigator customers to help them find their way, and others. Some of the programs are designed like Windows, with windows and clickable buttons, some are still DOS-like with codes and the tab key. The computers are linked to a network and use central databases.
In the 'first level' you don't have to worry much about the general organisation of work. You make a call, look up the information. On some lines, you then process a fax, then another call. Usually, you can process your stuff alone. Sometimes you ask other workers or the team leaders for advice. If a request 'cannot be solved' you tell the customer there is nothing you can do for them. You might pass on 'cases' concerning replacement parts and warranties by writing requests and information into a text field and sending them to the 'second level' by clicking a button. Just get rid of it! You don't care what happens to those cases afterwards.
Some 'second level' workers sit in Milan as well, others sit in other Fiat branch offices elsewhere in Europe. They get that twenty percent of cases which the 'first level' cannot solve into their personal Inbox (list) and have to solve them. The cases remain with them until they have found a solution. They call people who are supposed to give them information, other Fiat employees, garages, suppliers... Here, you have more responsibility. While in the 'first level' you can act dumb and just wait for calls to come, in the 'second level' you have to think about solving things placed in front of you. This means more stress.
The work is more than making phone calls. You take calls, talk to people, ask questions, listen, give answers, calm them down, press them for info... But at the same time you're constantly busy with your PC: entering numbers and data, clicking commands, entering codes, searching for entries on the screen... Some 'agents' always look like they are about to crawl into the monitor... Often you don't even notice the intensity of work yourself.
The work is made harder by all those different software programs of different ages that have a tendency to crash while you have an impatient customer on the line. The programs aren't structured very well so it takes you weeks to work out where to find things. If you have information you can't be sure it's correct because data is often obsolete or wrong.
Many calls go by without much problem. They want something, you give it to them or you don't. Some callers hate you and blame you for Fiat's supply problems or for the faults of the software, the servers, the telephone appliances that are being used (all of which sometimes break down). For others you are a servant who is to hand over information quickly, nicely and obediently. You get calls from angry customers who don't stop talking and get on your nerves. You get calls you hardly understand because the caller is standing in the middle of the street or sitting in a car... or the connection just happens to be shit again. You get calls when your computer crashes and you have to enter all the information all over again. You get calls from people who have simple questions but you don't have the right information because nobody has given it to you.
Most of all, though, you get calls, calls, calls... You have the conveyor belt in your head. After having processed one call you get the next, then the next. The work is tiring. Because the same processes keep repeating themselves, because the callers keep having the same questions and you keep having the same answers, because you have to stick exactly to the software mask: name, number, another number, third number..., because you keep looking at the monitor, because you have a hard time understanding people, because the line is crackling... till your head is humming at the end of the shift and you can't even read your paper in the metro.
Many workers say quite openly that this work is shit and that they couldn't care less. And yet they are still friendly to the customers and somehow do what has to be done... The fact that your work is with customers makes you somehow do your work.
Even if most people won't work here for a long time - and know they won't - they somehow organize themselves to be able to put up with it. They try to have a friendly relationship with 'co-workers'. They develop techniques of cheating the software using 'wrong' entries. They get used to rebuffing angry callers... Some even try to do their job 'well'. But with all those stupid things happening all day; one call after the after, dealers waiting for months for a spare part, customers with new cars that stop running after one day... after a while they can't take it either. They really make an effort - and sometimes the others laugh at them - trying their best to give some kind of 'service' despite it all... Sooner or later most of them give up too.
Workers also try to have fun in order to somehow put up with the work, the boredom, the stress. If you have communicative skills, you may as well use them to your own advantage in private communication (a little flirt between calls...). You can check your own e-mail on the PC. While you are working, you can send texts, surf, chat, or read stuff on the internet. All this is prohibited... but at the same time it's tolerated because otherwise the atmosphere would be even worse.
There is a game of hide and seek going on with the team leaders. You somehow get your work done without making too much of an effort and without fucking up. You surf or do something else without the bosses taking notice. Some team leaders behave differently from others. Some wield their sticks and give people a hard time. Their function is mainly to control you. They have a program that allows them to control if the 'agents' have a call or are on 'ready' and thus may take a call. They also see how many calls have been accepted, how many have been in the waiting loop for how long and how many have hung up. They look at the 'cases' the workers have handled and tell them off if they have made a mistake.
Some team leaders used to be agents and know what's going on. Others are from the 'outside' and don't know anything. Some pursue their careers and do a one hundred percent job. Others just want to be left alone - i.e. not having arguments with workers.
Many of the workers' debates are centred on customers, problems with the organisation of work etc... Most of the time it's the stupid team leaders, the dress code... Why do the bosses treat us badly, why is the cafeteria food bad, why do the guys have to wear a tie? One worker said the bosses want us to get angry about things like those, rather than about the bad conditions in general. What good is bitching about the chef... it's not about the food, it's about the whole damn kitchen...
The 'bad' organisation of work is another constant cause of arguments. Not long ago, one worker asked why Fiat doesn't simply supply all necessary information to the workers. 'Just because the bosses want to stay in control!' she said. 'But we could handle things much better if only they let us.'
This is a living contradiction and call centre workers are supposed to make up for it every day: They act as buffers for the customers' meanness and anger by being friendly and they try to make up for the faults of the technology by improvising. In order to make things work at all, they come up with ways and means to make up for the mistakes of the programmers and the flaws of the telephone appliance. And while they do that the team leaders are spying on them.
But there is a bright side of things: You meet lots of young people from many countries. You build friendships, relationships... Even though we're divided into language teams there is a lot of contact between the different departments. That's what makes the work bearable. Apart from that, you're only there for the money.
Some people also let off steam by bitching at others. They get mad when they get a misplaced call and they can't put it through because the 'agents' in charge are not at their desks. Instead of blaming the bosses for routing those calls to workers who are 'not responsible' they try to place the problems at the feet of fellow workers. There are only a few workers like that, though. People know who they work for. Fiat has a bad reputation... 'Sure the work is shit, sure I'm looking for something else...' But there is not much debate as to what else we can do, whether we need this work at all, whether we can create a different society...
Hardly anyone is in the union. Most couldn't care less. They work there for a few months and then they look for something else. Although who knows if that would be any better... Some dream of well-paid positions, a few will make it. Most see only two possibilities anyway: either you quit because the work sucks or because you're moving on (different job, different country...); or you get promoted, that is, you get away from the phone... When striking workers from the neighbouring Alfa Romeo factory who were protesting against the impending shutdown of the last remaining productive units blockaded the call centre, some call centre workers came at five or six a.m. so they could still get into the building. Many 'agents' participated in the 'general strike' in April, but there were big differences between teams. In one team, the team leader told everyone that 'striking is not allowed'. Everyone showed up for work! In other teams up to thirty per cent participated in the strike; in one team eighty per cent went on strike.
One worker said the 'scabs' said they needed the money. But she thought that was a pretext. The wage is really bad (about nine hundred Euros for a full-time job), but she said people were doing so much overtime and it was really important to do something on that day. She said the real problem was something else: most are young, around twenty-five and have no experiences of strikes. And many have no relationship to Italy, they're just passing through as migrant workers.
But it's important that officially, the general strike had nothing to do with Fiat or with our immediate conditions but fundamentally with the political situation and unfair dismissal laws... One worker who participated in general strikes in France said that only an indefinite strike could secure unfair dismissal laws...
From the book of kolinko: hotlines - Call Centre. Inquiry. Communism. 9/2002. More on the kolinko-website