Preliminary Notes on Recent Call Centre Struggles

Article on the growth of call centres and struggles within them, focussed on Brighton in the UK.

From undercurrent #8

Call centres are appearing everywhere. Representing a new way of integrating telecommunications and computer technology into the process of reshaping the division of labour, they are predominantly situated in the circulation process of capital - although some are within the production process itself. Bosses and politicians herald them as an example of the future of labour. Britain, whose national economy revolves around the finance sector, has 40% of the total call centres in Europe and this number is increasing every year. It is estimated that there are 350,000 workers employed in 4000 call centres, expected to rise to 500,000 in the next three years.(1)

In Brighton, they are literally on every street corner, as well as in the surrounding towns. Sucking-in the student, unemployed and casual workers which make up a large proportion of the local labour-force, a mere cursory glance reveals numerous telemarketing companies, telecommunication companies such as BT, Cable and Wireless and Ericsson, financial companies such as Lloyds/TSB and American Express (the largest employer in the Brighton area), as well as privatised utilities such as Seeboard. In a town like Brighton, with an economy primarily based on the retail and service sectors, call centres are seen by many workers to be a stop gap to something bigger and better (a thousand and one ways of avoiding the fact that you are and will remain a proletarian). Yet, some of the underlying antagonisms between workers and capital have started to take shape.

Before Xmas, workers at BT struck for the first time in 13 years. Occurring in the 150 and 151 repair (call) centres, it has been claimed as the first strike at a call centre in Britain. A series of three one-day strikes had been called by the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) in protest against the increasing influx of agency workers (seen by the permanent workers for what it was: a strategy for lowering their wages and eventually replacing them with the lower paid agency staff) and the heavy handed pressure and intensification of work that management imposed on the workforce. However, only one of the three-day strikes actually happened, since the CWU and the management naturally came to some sort of agreement over increased union recognition in the workplace.(2)

The labour force at BT call centres was at that time supplied by the employment agency, Manpower. However, in March 2000, they lost this contract to Hays Management Consultants, who, though promising not to cut down wages, did exactly that on the first day that they took over from Manpower. After promising that there would be no pay cuts, in one day they slashed at least £30 from most workers' pay packets by reducing the evening rate from time and a half to time and a quarter. Hays had hoped that there would be little reaction to these measures, but subsequent events showed that they were mistaken. On the first day, many workers walked straight out of the job refusing to sign the contract which would mean their acceptance of the pay cut. Others responded by taking other action: large amounts of overseas phone calls were reportedly made, apparently totalling over £15,000. One call was claimed to have been made to the speaking clock in Zimbabwe with the receiver left off the hook over night; as well as this, top of the range stock was sent out to householders with faulty BT equipment. Many worked-to-rule, refusing to perform any 'extra' tasks than the ones in their job description. And whereas before the office had been a tense and hostile environment, now it was coloured by workers chatting merrily and putting their feet up disguising their refusal to do any work. Although, it is not possible to measure how many agency staff have left BT in Brighton in the last month, constant recruitment by Hays suggests that they have a constant shortage of staff. And due to the reaction of the workers they have been forced to suspend their pay cuts for at least a few months.

This is only a basic description of last month's worker activities in Brighton - there is not space here to go into more. We are also sure that plenty of other actions, which we are unaware of, took place at other BT call centres all over the country. These tensions could be the precursors of future struggles to come. Take Pembroke Dock in South West Wales for example, where the decline of manufacturing industry has created the space for call centres - specialising in e-commerce - to start moving in, to the extent of renaming the area 'Cyber Bay'.

Pembrokeshire's economy was previously based on the energy industry. Today, out of the four oil refineries, only two remain, whilst the local power station was shut down under pressure from environmental groups, like Friends of the Earth, who protested against the proposed burning of a high-polluting mineral, Orimulsion. While the burning of Orimulsion was obviously not very pleasant, the attitude of the Greenies exposed once again their disgusting ideology: none of them are complaining now that the call centres are being established, while the local people, desperate for any work, are pushed into working in the new sweatshops for £4.60 an hour. With unemployment levels at 13.2% (3) the bosses couldn't be happier: seen on the one hand as providing the local labour-force with the 'opportunity' to escape unemployment, on the other, the call centres are welcomed by the local bourgeois factions as the key to the economic revival of the region which has become like a ghost town since capital abandoned the manufacturing industry. The Pembroke Dock call centre was built even before it had a company to fill it, while due to the low skill levels of the local workforce, a special call centre training camp has been built near by. As in Brighton, employment agencies are to supply the workforce for the new call centre and it is Manpower who have the contract at the present time. How long it will be before the proletariat of South West Wales sees through the bullshit of the myth of the cyber-god of exploitation remains to be seen.

This is a mere preliminary analysis of workers' activities in some of the new 'sweatshops'. The emergence of call centres has been treated by bosses and capitalists from all around as signifying a new composition of social relations, an ideological approach filtered through constant references to the merits of the service and information society. For us, their ideological mutterings are mere disguises for their attempts to constantly expand capital's 'voracious appetite'. It is not in our interests to solve the problems of the economy, but to aim for its complete destruction. For that reason, taking on the proposal made by the German Communist group, Kolinko, we intend to investigate call centres as new areas of workers' concentration and thus areas of potential subversive struggles.

We welcome all correspondence, contributions and exchanges.

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(1) Revolutionary Perspectives #16

(2) Some of us went to the picket line in Brighton where we encountered some disgusting CWU leaflets, calling on workers to work harder for shareholders. This speaks for itself.

(3) In nearby Milford Haven the rate is nearly a fifth of the working population(18.4%), in Tenby it is 14.2% while in Haverfordwest it is less at 7.7%.