German libertarian communist group Kolinko's detailed three-year investigation into work in call centres, restructuring and the possibilities for workers' resistance.
Hotlines - call centre | inquiry | communism
Taken from http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/kolinko/engl/e_index.htm
1. Introduction: We've got something to tell you
About call masters and team leaders, partition walls and works councils, communication training and standard phrases, sabotage and waiting-on-hold, entry masks and base unions, moments of revolt, questionnaires and leaflets...
In the summer of 1999 we decided to start working in call centres in order to meet people who work there and to understand what's going on. We wanted to combine our rage against the daily exploitation with the desire and search for the struggles that can overcome it. Therefore, we had to understand the class reality at this point, be part of the conflicts and intervene. Three years and a millennium later we have written down part of our experience, taken from more than ten call centres in which we sweated; from discussions with friends in England and Italy who also worked in call centres; from reports of other call centre-workers in the US, France and Australia; from interviews, theoretical discussions and the debate on methods of inquiry and intervention...
We have written this because we feel the urge to publish something now. In the last three years we have discussed, tried out, pushed so much; we now want to contribute to the further discussion. Who are we writing this for? For everyone...
* who wants to understand what the reality of exploitation looks like in call centres, how people get together there, how they do their work and how they rebel against it;
* who is looking for ways to collectively confront the shitty situations in the sphere of exploitation that we come across every day;
* who has had enough of representatives of parties and unions and wants to take things into their own hands;
* who - like us - wants to find the revolutionary tendencies that can sweep away the conditions of exploitation.
We write this down because we want to provoke a discussion of how we can get rid not just of call centres but the relations of exploitation altogether. We ask you to read our experiences critically and maybe try out something similar. Not that we see this as a 'duty' or a 'historical mission'. We can overcome the leftist culture of representation and self-sacrifice only by referring to the concrete conditions of exploitation, by inquiring and intervening.
This is our struggle for the control of our life, against alarm clocks and work shifts, the rhythm of the machine, the racist foreman, the sexist division of labour and the warmongers. Therefore we need clear thoughts, open discussions, solidarity and responsibility, specific methods and concrete aims.
This is a contribution to the process. This is our own perspective. We aren't journalists, scientists, professional writers or officials. We have written this as workers who experience and fight against daily exploitation, and as a collective who is searching for revolutionary potentials in order to get rid of the relations of exploitation.
During the process of the last few years we have referred to and discussed several concepts, theories and methods: These have included: critical discussions of Marxism, for instance of Socialisme ou Barbarie in the fifties in France and the Quaderni Rossi in Italy in the sixties, who examined the concrete conditions of exploitation and the prospects of a new class movement; the left- and council-communist critique of Leninism as an ideology and state policy which has forced the workers in Russia into a new (soviet) regime of exploitation; the critique of the positive reference to capitalist forces of production, of an allegedly 'neutral' technology, of the idea that it is enough to substitute the bosses with bureaucrats in order to achieve communism; the critique of the Leninist concepts of avant-garde and the division between 'economic' and 'political' struggle, which is used again and again by layers of petty bourgeois and intellectuals in order to enforce their claim to leadership; the critique of the idea of workers' control, meaning that the factories could be taken over and run by committees of (skilled) workers without the abolition of the capitalist form of production and reproduction...
We use these critiques, and concepts of class composition and inquiry. A revolutionary class movement can only grow from the material conditions of the exploited, from their forms of co-operation and from the struggles that take different forms, arising from specific conditions. We are part of that process and try to join in the revolutionary reshaping of this world. We want to intervene where it is important to support the communist tendencies within the struggles and to avoid the traps set by capitalist promises and illusions.
So our questions are:
* What is the class composition in our region, worldwide...?
* What are the current methods of production, what work is being done, what constitutes a factory?
* What are the conditions in the sphere of reproduction?
* What is our role in the struggles?
The inquiry in call centres was an attempt, a start. We invite you to follow us through a part of class reality, that we have investigated. You will find some rough edges in this text along with information, questions, critiques, proposals. This book is a reader. You can read it from start to finish or browse it and jump around the various sections.
After this, 1. Introduction, there is a section on our starting points: 2. Inquiry: Understand, Intervene... What are we referring to? What are we hoping for? After this we describe what we have done: 3. Evaluation: Three Years in Call Centres. What kinds of problems did we have with the interviews and leaflets? What worked out well? What could we do better?
Under 4. Call Centres: In the Whirlpools of Circulation we briefly describe what call centres actually are and how they went from boom into crisis. In 5. Everyday Working Life we tried to understand what actually happens at work, how the workers co-operate, how they are made to work by the machinery and in what kind of situations they (can) attack the relations of exploitation. Above all we used our own experiences and the interviews for this.
In part 6. Confrontations: The Pulse of Collective Struggle we approached daily exploitation from a different angle. We focused on the kinds of conflicts, experiences and problems; for instance with sabotage and strikes, and the role of forms of organising such as works councils, (base) unions, support initiatives. For that part we referred to the reports and leaflets from 'our' call centres and others.
At the end we have brought together the experiences in 7. Proposal: the Next Steps... a call for further discussion. Under 8. Appendix we have added our questionnaires, some of our leaflets, a list with short descriptions of the call centres mentioned in the text, a list of literature/links and a glossary (with call centre vocabulary).
Have fun reading it. And bear in mind: We want your opinion, comments, stories...
love and rage
kolinko, Ruhrpott, Summer 2002
1 If you want to know more: we have added a list of texts and links in 8. Appendix.
2 We have written a paper on class composition. See [http://libcom.org/library/discussion-paper-class-composition]. In the German-speaking world the mentioned concepts are being developed further by the comrades from Wildcat who use the term 'militant inquiry' [Militante Untersuchung]. See: [www.wildcat-www.de]
2. Inquiry: Understand, Intervene
Over the past few months - while writing this paper - it was obvious that capitalism is having more and more difficulties keeping its head above water by using promises for a better and happy future. Promises it could barely keep - and if it could, then only for a chosen few. What it does is to keep on producing crises, slumps of economic growth, redundancies and a tightening of the pressure of exploitation - from Asia to Latin America and the USA to Euroland. It has become clear that despite high technology and overproduction, the drudgery, the tightening-of-belts and the menace of impoverishment continue. Their New Economy fucked up and was replaced by the New War in Afghanistan and Palestine...
But then news keeps coming in about uprisings in Argentina, general strikes in South Korea, Italy and Spain, showing that the effects of capitalism can not be bombed away and that the lack of promises for the future cannot be replaced by threats from the past. But where is it going? How do the struggles come together and how do they find a way of becoming a new class movement?
'Another world is possible!' is the slogan of the anti-globalisation movement, but so far the noisiest part of this alleged 'movement' is turning its attention to the managers of the old world. Either they see them as responsible for the evil - politicians, bosses, IMF clowns - or as contacts and future negotiating partners, as in the case of (Tobin) tax laws. Both neglect the fact that these officials and their meetings are just signs of the existing social relations. Protests during their summits remain first and foremost symbolic expressions of 'We have had enough!' But how can we - as workers - express our anger at the present state of the world beyond twice yearly demonstrations? How can the movement produce not just a short-lived change of the cityscape, but find, while struggling against the everyday routine, the beginning of and the way to a new society?
In order to really change conditions we need to attack the relation of capital where we are brought together every day: at the assembly line, in open-plan offices, in school- and retraining-classes... That's where we (re)produce the relations of capital on a daily basis and here lies the chance for subversion, too. It is only from the struggles that develop within this material context and the daily experiences of the proletariat that another world can arise. These struggles take place against a background of contradictions and divisions such as racism and sexism. Their explosive force is determined by the extent to which they can overcome the contradictions and divisions and whether they develop into a movement in which the workers come together along the chains of production and the routes of migration. Certainly, struggles are possible and important in all areas of exploitation, not just those of 'wage labourers' but 'unemployed', school students, housewifes... But for us there are two criteria for the assessment of the chances for and the possible impact of struggles:
* Do the exploited get together because there is a common 'place' where they meet, co-operate, struggle? In the case of 'unemployed' this can be difficult if they only meet on and off at the job-centres but otherwise do not see each other.
* Do struggles have direct effects on other sectors and workers, because they interrupt the accumulation of capital? The problem arises, for instance, with restaurant workers. Their strikes have little effect on the creation of capital overall. This 'weakness' concerns many other sectors: universities, cleaning and... most call centres.
The experience and the development of power, the chance to break up the seeming 'natural-ness' of the relations of exploitation, all have their starting points in local struggles. If we want to be part of this as proletarian collectives we need to do it here: supporting the struggle of the railway cleaning workers, distributing strike news of McDonald's workers, understanding the conflicts in the asparagus-fields, preventing bailiffs' seizures, throwing ourselves into the sweatshops of the New Economy...
That's how we perceive our inquiry and intervention in call centres in the last three years: as a revolutionary project in a specific sector that tries to understand and criticize the totality of capitalist relations. Inquiry is, on one hand, the way in which we ourselves get together: collective discussions, going to work, interviews, theoretical debates... On the other hand it is our relation to class reality: experiences within daily exploitation, attempts to escape from it, intervention, collective struggles...
Inquiry means understanding the context between the daily cooperation of the workers and their forms of struggle and finding the new (communist) sociality within. We need to analyse the reality with all its contradictions. It makes no sense to glorify strikes or sabotage or to praise the 'unity of the working class'. It's our task to emphasise the prospects and the strength of a struggle by using examples but also to point out limits and weaknesses, the counter-measures of the bosses, attempts of the works council to undermine struggles, the narrow-mindedness of those who are proud of their profession, the racism.
We have to underline the fact that the conflicts and struggles take place on the basis of class relations, and show where the chance for the abolition of these relations and the potential for liberation lies.
This critique and the actual experiences described can be used in future confrontations. As a collective we have started at a certain point. But only as part of a movement, where struggling workers themselves analyse their conditions and connections, can the inquiry become a joint search for a new world...
3 We use 'workers' to describe our common situation of exploitation. That includes those who are dependent on social welfare (pensioners, 'unemployed'...), those who are being prepared for exploitation (students) and all home/domestic workers who do unwaged work. We prefer to use 'workers' instead of 'exploited' or 'proletarians'.
4 'Exploitation' for us describes the totality of capitalist relations. Besides 'work' there are areas where we are being prepared for it, disciplined or administered: schools, universities, at home, public offices, prisons... 'Work' also includes unwaged forms (house-work, subsistence, slavery). Their product is added to the capitalist chain of valorization and keeps it going.
3. Evaluation: Three years in call centres
3.1 Concrete aims of the inquiry
In 1999 when we were sitting together in Oberhausen, Germany and planning the first steps for an 'inquiry and intervention' we had hopes such as:
* Understanding what is going on in one particular sector of exploitation
* Encouraging other leftists to understand class-reality in this region and their own situation as proletarians
* Helping ourselves go further, to get organised in a theoretical and practical way.
But one step at a time...
The class reality
Our situation was that we got reports on strikes from France or scientific studies about the restructuring of the auto-industry from time to time, but we didn't know much about how the workers in our own region were reacting to changes in exploitation. The decision to concentrate on one sector - Call Centres - gave us the opportunity to understand the situation more precisely, especially given our limited capacity. We wanted to continue our previous discussions with other workers about the organisation of exploitation, and thereby keep learning and progressing. And last but not least, we hoped that through contacts at work and the leaflets, we would get in contact with some interesting people as the first step to new proletarian meetings.
We wanted to go beyond our critique of 'leftists', i.e. that they 'navel gaze' rather than being interested in the class reality. We had the impression that our previous attempts (for example: kolinko: The Subversion of Everyday Life, 1999) were good on paper, but weak in practical results because we had a critique but we did not have a concrete suggestion. We knew that a lot of lefties were working in call centres and so we were hoping that it would be possible to bring the 'political movement' and the struggle against exploitation closer together. We wanted to concentrate on a common project with our sometimes personal and co-incidental contacts with people and groups of the 'revolutionary class left'. The suggestion for the common inquiry was aimed at pushing the international discussion about the tasks of revolutionaries today and so bring us together with new soul comrades.
had the idea that 'inquiry' would be a 'liberation' for us. After months of making sluggish progress on the 'Subversion of Everyday Life'-text we wanted to have more reality again. Not only reading and writing, but watching, listening, feeling and being creative, making trouble and at the same time getting rid of the existing differences of experience between us. Most of us knew something about 'workers inquiry' through the history of the older comrades and the Italian mythology but we wanted to try it out ourselves. Some of us had experience of distributing leaflets on construction sites, in restaurants and factories but often this was a single action and not the result of a common discussion. We were hoping that the 'inquiry as a collective' would also help us go further: with theoretical debate, with the confrontations with the henchmen of exploitation, with the organisation and arrangement of information, with the ups and downs of everyday working life and with the joint planning of a proletarian intervention.
Why Call Centres?
In summer 1999 we had various concrete reasons to start an inquiry into call centres:
* There was a strike at Citibank at the end of 1998. We asked ourselves whether this was a sign of a rise in new militancy of the workers in this sector.
* In our region, the Ruhrgebiet, call centres were mushrooming and the number of workers was growing into thousands. More and more young people were working there, including some of our friends.
* Most of the jobs in call centres were available for 'unskilled' workers. This gave us a chance to get jobs there. And we hoped to find struggles and conflicts that had the chance to go beyond the limits posed by pride in ones profession or the myth of the higher status of office workers.
* We were excited about the new concentration of workers: companies with a hundred, two hundred and sometimes more than five hundred workers, mostly with the same working-conditions. We wanted to know if this facilitates struggle.
* Businessmen, politicians, union officials and many more were in agreement that here a 'beautiful, new world of work' was growing. We had heard about the 'clean jobs' and we wanted to try them out.
* Call centres were not only mushrooming in Ruhrgebiet. We heard about it in Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris, Dallas... As workers in different regions had similar conditions it would be easier to make connections and exchange experiences. If 'callcentreization' is a worldwide tendency we could suggest a common inquiry project.
3.2 What did we do?
There were different levels of the inquiry. The first level could be called 'Pre-inquiry'. This was:
* Collecting material about call centres: studies from universities about the growth of call centres in certain regions; newspaper articles; materials from management and unions...
* Theoretical discussions, for example about work organisation, machinery, the movement of capital (circulation). We took this as a self-teaching process, so that together we could understand more about the context.
* Comparing (and further developing) 'theoretical knowledge' with our everyday life experiences at the call centre. We decided to work in different call centre (in different sectors, at inbound and outbound), to gain experience of many different conditions, but also in the hope of discovering hidden conflicts. The decision to go alone into a company was a controversial issue during the inquiry.
* Interviews with ourselves and other call centre workers: On one hand the interviews were to give us a more detailed picture of call centres. On the other hand we were hoping that they could be the start of a common discussion about the everyday life of exploitation and the possibilities of struggle.
* Distributing a suggestion to other revolutionaries, that they take part in an inquiry in their own region. Because of electronic communications it got around the whole world of the revolutionary/ class struggle groups. With groups from Italy and England we started an intensive exchange.
The pre-inquiry lasted roughly a year. In Autumn 2000 we entered the second level and everything heated up. We published the leaflets and set up a website, where we could put out the leaflets and other information about conflicts in call centres and anywhere else.
It must be said that we decided early on to bring out a series of four leaflets (flexible work extension, intensification of work, nonsense of work and struggles at call centres). We are now more critical about this decision. We also published extra leaflets about concrete conflicts in single call centres: planned elections of works councils, standard phrasing, forty hours of unpaid work. The leaflets have been distributed in and around the call centres of our region. In other cities they were handed out by comrades.
With the leaflets and the website we wanted to create a place of exchange for 'worker-militants' in different companies. Moreover, we wanted to add our position to the daily break-time discussions to see how the workers and the management would react.
At the moment, we are mainly floating at the third level of the 'political evaluation'. We want to share our experiences with other comrades and learn...
3.3 How do we see it today?
In the following we go through and review the individual 'parts' of the inquiry.
We have been asked if we benefited from the questionnaire and the interviews. In the beginning we had the idea that a political discussion could come about through the reciprocal interviews with other workers in which the daily organisation of work is criticised. But we only did a few interviews with a dozen other workers so it is hard to answer the question.
We mostly got to know these 'other workers' through political contacts rather than at work. During the interviews we had some discussions but there were just too many questions.
All in all, the questionnaire did not produce a 'representative' result. We don't even know if the questionnaire opened up the consciousness or the eyes of comrades in other call centres. We received only a few questionnaires back from those we distributed; one from a call centre in Scotland; one from Holland.
For us, the questionnaire helped to structure our very different work experiences. We did summaries of the interviews - for example about machinery, co-operation and the relationship to work - that fed into our theoretical discussion. Later on in our inquiry, we stopped using the questionnaire, but then we had the problem that the 'company reports' became just like a collection of stories. We came to the conclusion, that we needed three different questionnaires for different situations:
* One long and precise questionnaire, like the original, to get more information about facts and connections (work organisation, machinery, hierarchy, workers' behaviour...). It is enough to have three or four interviews at the beginning of an inquiry. Focus: facts, overview.
* One shorter questionnaire for interviews and conversations at work, for other workers and ourselves to be able to see, for example, the co-operation with workers in different departments. This is also largely about 'self-reflection' and 'self-inquiry': how do we behave in everyday situations at work? What kinds of conflicts exist and what is our position in relation to them? This questionnaire has to be useful for workers themselves, to answer it by themselves and use it for discussions at work. Focus: discussion, agitation.
* Another short questionnaire for interviews with activists and other acquaintances to ask about what's going on in 'their' workplaces. This is good for the exchange of struggle experiences, which we can discuss and distribute. Focus: reflection, exchange. This questionnaire is also good for reports.
On the website we published texts and reports which would normally have ended up collecting dust in files and hard drives. We also got something out of writing the reports:
Finding out what is important and how to write it down clearly. It is unfortunately harder with the reports than with the leaflets, to estimate whether reports about strikes in Italy or about the suffering of young data typists are read and discussed.
Our experience with the website is that it has not become a forum in which others participate and put their own experience on the web, as it was planned. Reports were sent in sporadically. The question is whether an electronic medium helps at all.
The website worked as a reference point; comrades and workers were able to read and download all the leaflets, reports and translations. We have not been dependent on sending texts, so this made the communication easier. Additionally, we could document the hotlines-leaflet from Brighton, England and material from Italy.
Certainly we came into contact with people through the website, which probably would not have been possible with other media. One important critique was that the reports on the website were too short and did not say anything special. They aren't helpful for comparing to each other or as a learning process. It makes sense to have list of questions there, to be able to write reports along the same lines. In the future we have to solve the problem of how we can get to a more 'global' website. One that collects more situations from sectors of exploitation and gives more information about struggles. Information, not from the bourgeois media but from revolutionary initiatives on the ground. But this again, is a completely different question...
At the beginning we had some discussions about whether we should write general leaflets at all, meaning leaflets which did not relate to a concrete discussion or conflict in a certain company, but which say something about exploitation in general. With the concrete leaflets (which we finally produced) we hoped that we could provoke intensive discussions, and maybe even reactions, in which we could get involved directly. With the general leaflets we hoped to have more space in which to present the whole spectrum of exploitation: from the attempts to make us work longer and more intensively, through the contradiction between quality and quantity, right up to the question of union representation. We also wanted to distribute the leaflets not just in front of 'our' call centres but in the whole region and beyond.
The final decision to do a series of leaflets about different issues was influenced by the assessment that, at the moment, conflicts in call centres are rare, and not really open. Looking back, the series had some problems: we tried to build a bridge between 'political analysis in general' and 'concrete situations' by adding concrete reports on several 'theoretical issues'. We got stuck between the levels. On one hand it would have been better to write more 'political' leaflets related to the political situation in general (war, crisis, reconstruction of the exploitation, role of the unions). On the other hand it would have been possible to concentrate on one company in order to have a more precise analysis and criticism of the development of exploitation and the whole organisation of this company. However, it would have been a balancing act: on one hand not losing the concrete situation of the workers through the 'world-view', and on the other hand not getting bogged down with the nitty-gritty of one company...
It is hard to work out whether we actually gave useful 'struggle information' in the leaflets, which was our real aim. In the first three leaflets we wrote about different work conditions, plus information in general; for example, in which other cities there are call centres belonging to the same company. While in the final leaflet we gave some conclusions about struggles that had already taken place in call centres, (about the role of the representatives, problems with petitions and the problem of the work being transferred to call centres that were not on strike), there were hardly any conflicts where the conclusions were put to the test.
We found out that the leaflets about conflicts in a particular call centre provoked more reactions from the workers, and from the management. Here is an example, about distributing a leaflet on forced 'standard formulation' at Quelle:
It was in the evening and I was alone at Quelle. At first the two workers were not interested, but when they heard that it was about the standard formulation they were surprised and took a leaflet.
A little later a tall team leader and a little fat works council woman came along. The team leader had some of the leaflets in her hand already; she explained that we would call for a wildcat strike, which is illegal and that the management would take steps. She also wanted my name. Two other workers came out and an older gentleman asked me if he could have one of the leaflets and asked the team leader if he would be allowed to read it. She was laughing a little hysterically and said: 'If you want to have a laugh, Mr. ... Someone is complaining about the alarm clock that wakes him up'. The works council representative could see that the team leader was not sticking to the point, so she came over all 'confidential' to me:
'This thing is going to fail! Even if we could get 300 people together and walk out for 15 minutes, in a legal sense we would get fired. Get involved in the union!' I talked a bit about the loss of real wages and the loss of jobs which my union was fighting for the last few years. Which she acknowledged with a smile. The team leader found it all a little bit too cosy: 'The election for the works council is soon, you could participate. Apart from that I take it that you are going to carry on leafleting?!' Yo.
After using the toilets at 'Beim Pueppchen' I met a young guy, who clapped me on the shoulder with the words: 'Keep on going on!' This left me with a pleasant warmth, considering the low temperature outside. Together with my late leafleting comrade some other workers came. Everybody wanted a leaflet.
Somebody started shrieking and we were expecting something awful: 'Can you take the responsibility of endangering other people's jobs?' We knew that we had to battle with this person in front of the other workers, and it was not easy because some of the workers agreed with her: 'I like working here,' etc. We said stuff like 'you don't have to grovel', 'there is more to your life than work' and 'don't let them play us off against each other'...
This 'madam' then tried to intimidate us with a rhetoric like gastric acid: and repeated again and again: 'Listen, sweetheart, the company can close down this place at any time; we can be proud of our jobs, we accomplish good quality; only ten percent of the phone call is standard formulation; I am a supporter of socialist-communist ideas; if your colleagues don't like the job they can get a job somewhere else or go self-employed...'
The other workers soon left and the madam was so convinced about herself and the company that after a while it just wasn't fun any more, and we wished her a good day. Later it turned out that she was the boss of the workplace. The next day she wrote a pretty dull memo to all workers, warning them about the leaflet.
Another prominent example is the reaction to a leaflet about working conditions at the ISI Company. First they sent the cops after the people distributing leaflets - without results - and then they took legal measures against the provider of the website. There were people who were given the leaflet before they were sent to ISI by the Jobcentre. They sent us a thank-you note that the leaflet had warned them and helped them not take the job.
Things like that are nice...
There was a range of reactions to the leaflets by the workers, from thumbs-ups to contemptuous expressions, from copying the leaflets on the work photocopier, to open disinterest. At the company the leaflets caused some excitement... for one or two days. Most of the workers liked the parts with the report on other call centres.
The reactions to the general political parts were often: 'OK, so what? We know that already. What can we do?' On one hand this alleviates the anxiety some comrades have that it would be 'patronizing' or would 'scare off' the workers if you open up your analysis about the circumstances. On the other hand, it also disputes the view that one has to explain everything to the workers so they 'become revolutionary'. The conclusion is: the leaflets gave some discontented people words of encouragement and for a short while it was a reference point at the discussions in the break rooms. For example, in a concrete discussion about the usefulness of a works council...
At the beginning of handing out the leaflets we decided not to call for a call centre workers' meeting outside of work. This was due to the experience that in times of low movement, workers meeting with 'other workers' outside the workplace does not yield great results.
In addition we think it is important to have the discussions directly at the place of confrontation. In the case of call centres, this was because of the risk of pulling the active workers out of the concrete conflicts. Certainly we hoped that it would be possible to get in touch with other people to discuss their situation and some actions against it. But we were expecting that those people would be more interested 'politically' in what we are doing. The electronic answers to the leaflets confirmed this expectation: we hardly received any answers from 'workers' from our region who gave reports about their situation. We got most reactions by team leaders and other arse lickers. They were complaining about our calls for sabotage. And secondly by people from the union, who were complaining about our interpretations, for example about the Citibank strike; and thirdly by other lefties who were working in call centres.
But the latter were mostly not from our region. We got more answers from Italy, USA or Australia than from Duesseldorf or Dortmund. We had expected something different: given the situation for instance in Berlin we thought there would be more 'lefties' in call centres in Ruhrgebiet who would be interested in raising hell.
Concerning the purpose of the leaflet-interventions there still are some open questions:
* In what situation do leaflets have the effect of a catalyst and in what situation do they serve as a conflict-barometer for management and thus allow them to react and take the pressure off.
* Should we write about conditions in other places at all? Does it compensate for our own situation ('It is even worse at other places!')? When does it become clear that we can only improve the situation by taking action together ('It is the same everywhere else!')?
* When does a leaflet make sense, and when is it better and possible to communicate in more direct ways?
* Our friends from Call Center Offensive in Berlin criticised that we would hold ourselves back: we are not causing trouble, we don't ask for public meetings. Maybe a more offensive action would have polarized the situation; maybe it would have only been one spontaneous action (followed by sackings).
The relation to other exploited workers is neither 'tactical' - as between functionaries and a revolutionary subject - nor 'enlightening'. The relation between revolutionaries and workers is that of a collective process: where is the possibility of workers' power and self- liberation in the daily experience of exploitation? [kolinko, The Subversion of Everyday Life, October 1999]
All in all half of us worked during the inquiry in roughly ten different call centres, taking catalogue orders, selling subscriptions, doing computer support-line and in bank call centres in Germany and in two other European countries. We started working before the questionnaire was developed and the 'theoretical' discussion was finished. The decision not to work together in one call centre helped us to collect different experiences, but on the other hand confined us to 'being alone in a company' and so mostly just watching and discussing.
Certainly we met angry people, but there were rarely situations where common actions against stress at work were possible. There were only a few occasions where we were able to extend our discussion into a bigger circle. Once we invited a few friends from 'our' call centre to dinner to discuss a leaflet and talk to them about a strike that had taken place. Other discussions took place directly at work. Actually we were hoping that those meeting could help us to move over from the intervention with the leaflets to other kinds of intervention... more on that later. Overall, we cannot make a general point that our time in one company was too long or too short (it ranged from two months to two years), that we had been too reserved or too loud. We were clear that it is not possible to 'start' conflicts.
Despite this, there were some frustrations, for example that the leaflets led to so few results. We had not discussed the concrete behaviour of 'revolutionaries' at the company enough and so we were behaving different from each other:
At the bank I firstly just looked at what was going on. After two weeks there was a discussion about what we could do to get higher wages, considering that the bosses were giving us more tasks to do. During the discussion I tried not to relate the question of wages to the tasks, but to wanting to have a better life and this is possible with more money.
This was mostly a discussion between two of us and a little bit of group conversation. During later discussions with the Citibank strikers I tried to bring out things about their experiences (what was important at the strike, what changed, what problems do we have now?). I told some of them why I was there. They agreed that it is important to do something, but sometimes they didn't understand the reasons for doing things in this way... [Duisburg, 2000]
Or like this:
I was having a discussion with some workers who had been there for longer than me: what do they think about the wage reductions, how they deal with them, and about their opinion of the company... The reaction was: this is a heap of shit, the wages don't make ends meet, I'm looking for something different... With the new guys I tried to find out why they are here (they ask me, too); for most it is an interim solution, until they find something better. The first impression of the company is negative for everybody: chaotic, treating people badly. Against this is their positive impressions of the other workers. It's easy to discuss stuff with them. Some have already worked in other call centres... Right from the start there was a story where I work: in my team there is an arsehole; everybody knows that he is stealing from people. No one can prove it but he moves around and then the stuff is gone. First I thought, that's bullying, but then those who were saying it were not idiots. And then there is another arsehole in my team, who tells new people a load of crap, allegedly because he doesn't want others to be 'better' than him. He is really just a prat who is sent packing by everybody. Some of us new workers agreed that a) we will give him a hard time about this and b) that we come and act together if something really happens. [Koeln (Cologne), 2001]
Some of us were more open. They discussed their activity with other workers and passed the leaflets around... others were more hesitant, they didn't want an extreme confrontation and the risk of getting fired. These different ways of behaving were also related to whether we happened to meet right-on workers who we could be open with. On the other hand, it is also a question of mentality; whether we like making trouble with the team leader or if we prefer to get in contact with other workers a bit more quietly...
We did not find so many 'rebels' - or they didn't find us. Otherwise we could have taken more offensive action. For example, we planned an occupation action, so that we were not just standing around leafleting, but really shaking up the normal working day. However, there was not really enough of us to do this. But here there is also the danger of trying to make up for the workers' passivity through our own activism.
In conclusion, the absence of open workers' struggles limited our own room for 'movement'. So we got stuck between distributing leaflets in front of the gates and having discussions at work. If no new questions turn up during struggles then our position is only one amongst all the others - even if it is more 'radical'. We asked ourselves, what is the point in leaflets and other kind of interventions at all if there is no workers' self-activity to refer to? We don't think that interventions in a period of relatively few struggles inevitably descend into vanguardism or unionism, but they do remain on the outside. This could be the reason why the inquiry stayed in our hands and did not become a 'workers self-inquiry', where we could discuss the political content of everyday working life with other workers, and arrive at a common strategy for developing the class struggle.
3.4 How did the left receive the proposal?
Judging by the reaction we got - reactions of lefties and others who work in call centres - we can say that at the moment it is difficult to get across the connection between a) intervention into exploitation and b) a perspective of social change.
We were not able to explain that we understand inquiry neither as a 'unionised' addition to the 'political' activities in general, nor as 'workplace based activity', but as an independent method of getting organised against class-society at the assembly line, under the head-set or in the dole office-queue. A method where the separations between 'political and economical struggle' and 'activist and proletarian' are overcome.
The reasons for this lie on various levels. First of all, because of the real separation of 'workers' struggles' and 'political movements'. Not having a lot of struggles in our region makes it possible for large parts of the left to hide in self-modesty or keep on 'playing movement' and digging around in their own political sandbox. There is not much one can change about that. More important is to find out where we reproduced labels such as 'political' and 'unionist'. For instance in the division between the 'political proposals for inquiry' and the leaflets 'for the workers'.
As a result of and during the inquiry we had discussions with various lefty groups. They could be categorised as follows:
* Discussions with groups who refer to class reality in a similar way to us. The inquiry led to regular exchanges with groups from various regions. People sent us materials from France, Spain, the USA etc. The proposal for the inquiry was translated and distributed. One result of the inquiry was a more intensive co-operation with groups from England and Italy, with whom we discussed the approach of the inquiry, everyday life in call centres and the actual leaflets.
* Discussions with left activist groups (student groups, discussion circles, left unionists) who were interested in the 'issue of wage-labour'. We were invited to some public meetings as 'experts' on the modern form of exploitation. The most interesting part of the meetings was that different people were coming together: call centre workers, lefties who were working in call centres and were interested in what is politically important about it, and some people who were interested in our 'political initiative'.
But even here we had some difficulties explaining the political approach of the inquiry: 'Inquiry and intervention' are not a separate thing alongside other 'left issues', but a comprehensive approach to organising within class reality.
The decision to focus on one sector didn't make it easier. It was often thought that we were interested in call centres because of their special exploitation, or because it is somehow modern. This relationship of lefties to exploitation became very clear during the attempt to censor the 'ISI-campaign'. A number of left groups and media took this case up. But they gave the main focus to the 'particularly bad' conditions and the censorship of ISI against the Internet provider, instead of focusing on how one is able to stand up against the capitalist oppression in such a firm. All in all, we think that the inquiry and the leaflets inspired a number of people. Many people and groups told us that they found our approach 'correct', because we not only write about 'work' as a subject but do something concrete, and because we neither back the existing representatives nor want to establish new ones.
But the lack of workers' struggles leads to the same problems in relation to the left as we had at work: if there is no self-activity of the exploited the traditional left or unionised forms of organisation seem to be the only practical possibility of getting something better. For example, people go 'summit-hopping' as long as there is nothing more exciting in their own region, or run to representatives until they find enough confidence in their own strength to act for themselves.
So, what could we have done better? Firstly, we could have said some things more clearly:
* our critique of the left - the anti-globalisation movement, single issue groups, the parties - how they refer or don't refer to class reality;
* that we don't want another 'political organisation';
* that we should not just criticise, but that we should have suggested an exchange between initiatives which are dealing with class reality and which also focus on their own situation as proletarians.
More like 'direct action in your call centre, too.' We said that from time to time, but didn't make it a central point. Secondly, we should have got more involved in the debate of the 'New Economy', in order to debunk the leftist hype about Linux and other open source software, as well as the nonsense about 'immaterial labour'.
3.5 What gave us impetus, what would we do differently today?
First about what drove us. The project opened up new perspectives for us, we had the experience that we can do something practical after theoretical discussion, and that theory, experiences at work and political action can come together. We enjoyed leafleting and seeing that it caused trouble, watching the little bosses go crazy. The inquiry gave us more points of connection with other comrades; the discussion and exchange with people from certain regions was more intensive, the feeling of isolation weaker.
But there were things which were tiring and got on our nerves: we almost ran out of breath during the long pre-inquiry - breath that we needed for later. We asked ourselves whether it would have been possible to have written the leaflets after two months of working experience. The decision to do a series of leaflets put us under pressure and suppressed our spontaneity. The discussions about the leaflets sometimes became hair-splitting, and while we turned words and phrases around three times the leaflets were losing spirit. And we were not able to question the 'the role of the written word' as we had hoped: we guessed that we would also find other forms of creative expressions - posters, happenings, etc. - which in addition would help to break the hierarchy inside the group between people who write a lot and those who don't. But there was the problem that we had set ourselves a time limit.
These are more or less mistakes of strategy. At some point we got the impression that there were bad vibes, which are found in any 'political' group and which belong to the nature of groups. The only thing we can do is describe it: some of us had a feeling of a 'pressure from outside'.
Every published word was supposed to be 'correct and unambiguous'... This led to the point that our articles more or less fitted the conventional forms and that the 'political' articles seemed to be the most important. So the product changed the process: the discussion became pedantic and so too the writers who were able to use these 'political forms'. We don't know where this 'pressure from outside' comes from, but we think that during this weak situation of class-struggle, 'revolutionaries' inevitably come together in these small groups and have the tendency to spend a lot of time exclusively with each other. The 'political' statement, in the left microcosm becomes more important than the analysis of concrete experiences. But we also don't want to wait until we are able to merge into the class movement. Are there any forms that go beyond the 'groups'? Our desire for bigger and more open meetings is growing. We should try not to make a home out of our circles...
With our next attempts we are going to do some things differently. There are some questions which we are discussing in relation to this:
* How can we undermine the separation between doing the pre-inquiry first and then the intervention, so that we avoid the long hard haul of collecting material and doing analysis but rather get into interesting confrontations straight away?
* How can we write a proposal for an inquiry, a shorter and more provocative version that has a wider appeal than just to confirmed Marxists?
* Should we only focus on one sector, or does it obscure our view of other interesting situations of exploitation in our region?
* Should we concentrate on one or two places, companies, or call centres and write concrete leaflets?
* How can we get rid of the obsession with 'article-production' and develop other forms of communication and use them?
* Should we go into a company with a number of people in order to discuss everyday life more precisely and have more support?
* How can we make more trouble at the company, instead of just watching?
* We are asking ourselves whether it is a good strategy, faced with our limited powers, to concentrate on one sector for two or three years, in which nothing is going on from the point of view of class-struggle (and so letting the other conflicts slip out of view).
You will discover our conclusions on all this in the last part... (to keep up the tension).
5 The article is here: [http://libcom.org/library/subversion-everyday-life]
6 We mean the texts from Italy about inquiry, for example Quaderni Rossi of the beginning 60s. See also 8. appendix: literature and links.
7 See 'working'.
8 The suggestion had been published by Collective Action Notes/USA and others. You will find it on the Internet: [www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/kolinko/engl/e_ccvor.htm]
10 See below 'leaflets'.
11 We didn't do so many interviews, because a) we had a questionnaire that was too long (more than 150 questions) and so we needed a lot of time for every interview and even more time for typing them up; b) a few interviewees first promised to do it, but then pulled out, because they didn't want to anymore or were afraid...; c) we were too lazy to do more; d) some of us preferred to have conversations at work instead of interviews...
12 See more in 7. Proposal, at the end of this paper. In 8. Appendix you will find all the questionnaires. Updated versions for downloading are on: [www.prol-position.net]
13 See more about this in 7. Proposal.
14 You can find all leaflets in 8. Appendix.
15 The attack on the hotlines-website at [www.free.de] meant them getting threatened with a considerable fine. ISI used the laws regulating competition for their case and claimed the description on the leaflet insulted and offended. What was great was that a lot people from the left and the anti-censorship-scene took it up and documented and distributed the leaflet. So people from Brisbane to Frankfurt to San Francisco knew about the conditions at ISI. Sometimes doing an Internet search on 'ISI' brought up 40 results all pointing to the leaflet...
16 More on their situation can be found in chapter 6. Confrontations under 'Call Center Offensive'.
17 Separations like, for example, mechanical engineers who in the day-time chase after jobs, but at night play Antifa (Anti-Fascist-Action); or the office workers and unemployed, who are engaged in anti-racism but don't make the connection with their own situation of exploitation...
18 Including some frustrated team-leaders, who couldn't manage the contradictions of their job of controlling their 'old' colleagues.
19 See footnote 15.
20 Some people assume with the Linux/open source discussion that the fact that the programs are written and distributed without any wage and everybody (with that qualification) can be a part of it, and because of the transparency of the programming, it has a communist tendency per se. The ease with which IBM integrates these programs into their selling-concept and the attempt of the German authorities to use Linux in their administration shows that those programs are used as commodities, within which a lot of non-paid working hours are included. The productivity of collective activity is thereby transmitted into capitalist productivity. The discussion about 'immaterial labour' -as represented by Negri/ Hardt in their book 'Empire' among others - is based on the stupid theses that labour today has become 'communication-work', in which the creativity of the 'immaterial worker' is asked for, their communication abilities and so on. They see a communist tendency in that too. Based on this some 'immaterial' intellectuals claim that they are the centres of the new social process. Through looking at the factories, call centres, hospitals etc. of this world it is easy to knock this theory down: most workers see themselves exploited through the capitalist relationship and have not been able to create their own creativity...
21 Although this pressure comes from 'inside': We wanted to write the leaflets in such a way that they have a 'correct' analysis and are at the same time understandable to everybody. In addition there would be some critique by a comrade, which should be part of the discussion...
22 See more in chapter 7. Proposal.
4. Call Centres: In the Whirlpools of Circulation
There are now container loads of materials concerning call centres; their function and development. However, a lot of this stuff is produced by the call centre management themselves and is thus brightened up to keep the shares high. In this part we try to give a general overview:
4.1 Service hell, or a hell of a service? What is a call centre?
What are they?
Call centres are not an economic sector. They are a specific work organisation that is being used in diverse sectors. Roughly speaking, you could say call centre workers function as a human interface between a database (customer data files, product information, internet etc.) and a person calling in or being called. The workers are connected to the database by computer, and with the customer mostly by telephone, but also by fax or email.
In 'Inbound'- customers calling in - the worker has to supply the caller with the required information from the data base (balance of a bank account, technical advice...) or enter their information into the database and pass it on (ordering products...). In 'Outbound' - the worker is calling someone - the person called is being asked for information (market surveys...) or provided with information, mostly to sell something to him/her. Enabled by the headset (earphones plus microphone); telephoning and computer work are mostly done simultaneously.
With inbound, automatic call distribution systems pass on the calls directly to single workers. At some call centres; the connection between telephones and databases enables the workers to have the caller's costumer data automatically on the screen when welcoming them. At outbound there is software that can call costumers and automatically pass the call to the next available worker.
Call centres don't provide a new kind of service, but rather the work of sales staff, bank workers or insurance employees is being organised in a different way. This new form of work organisation results from a combination of:
* A greater division of labour; for example, the different tasks of a bank worker - providing information on the state of your bank account, consulting concerning investment and credits - are now divided between several call centre workers; and
* new technology; the growing standardisation of, for example, banking enables the use of computers, thus in turn speeding up this standardisation. The greater division of labour, plus the integration of computers and telecommunication devices, create the basis for the job to be done 'over the phone'.
Here are some examples to warm up with:
Ascend Communications have opened up a call centre at Sophia-Antipolis/Cote d'Azur, France. Here, customers from Europe, the Middle East and Africa receive services. (According to a company rep) the place was chosen because of more attractive and better conditions for the employees than in Paris or Brussels and because many foreigners with the necessary language abilities are living in the area. [Les centres d'appels attisent les convoities, L'Usine Nouvelle, 23rd of April, 1998]
Cegetel, offering telecommunications services, have installed a call centre in Toulouse, France. Up to 750 agents should be working there by mid 1999. Cegetel have invested 40 million FF (around 6 million Euros) and received 7.5 million FF (about 1.1 million Euros) subsidies from city and regional administrations. [Les centres d'appels attisent les convoities, L'Usine Nouvelle, 23rd of April, 1998]
EasyJet are selling their flight tickets directly through a call centre in Luton, England. Avoiding travel agencies has lowered their costs by ten percent. Calls from different countries are atomically passed on to the agents who speak the respective languages. At the moment, an 'internet-booking system' is being built up. Furthermore, they are experimenting with working from home to lower costs for call centres. [Clegg, Alicia: Coming in from the cold, Management Today, 1999]
Fastphone Telemarketing is running a call centre in Pasewalk, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Northeast Germany. 95 percent out of the 240 employees are working part time, usually between 5 and 7.5 hours a day, six days a week. Their monthly 110 hours vary up to 30 hours +/-, to be equalized in a year. The average age is 27. Wages before taxes were 10 DM (5 Euros) an hour in 1994, in 1998 around 11.5 DM (about 5.8 Euros). Due to a company agreement they receive 5 Pfennigs (about 2.5 Eurocent) extra pro call, which adds up to 80 DM (about 40 Euros) a month. [Gewerkschaftliche Praxis, no.1, February 1999]
Lufthansa reduced their former 211 call centres to 9, in order to raise productivity. The centres are situated in different time zones so they can take incoming calls around the clock (Dublin, Ireland; Kassel, Germany; Melbourne, Australia...). Thus, most of the employees are working the cheaper day shifts (no extra pay), which the workers also prefer. Two hundred people work in Dublin, speaking nine European languages. Amongst other tasks they provide flight information and booking. The call centres are interconnected with each other, so a call for which the respective language is not available at that moment can be automatically transphered to Kassel or a centre in the US. [Take-Off for Lufthansa's 200-Agent-Centre, Business and Finance, October 1998]
Volvo has call centres in Gand, Belgium and Rugby, England for the European customers of their truck, bus and ship departments. In Gand, every week seventy agents answer about 20,000 calls from sellers, importers and customers. Their 'breakdown-service' is supposed to guarantee that every customer with a technical problem will receive help within 24 hours. Following each call a file is written in English and passed on to the local or regional bases to enable support. Previously, all problems had to be solved inside the respective country. Today, the two call centres with six language groups deal with all the calls. [Le paysage des call centres cartographie, Bulletin des la FEB, June 1999]
Walter TeleMedien Gruppe, by their own account, is Germany's biggest company running call centres, in Ettlingen, Bremen and Magdeburg amongst others, 10 locations with 21 centres and 3,000 employees altogether. The group has 200 customers (e.g. Deutsche Bank, Allianz, Beiersdorf, Deutsche Telekom) in sectors such as insurance, credit, hotlines (product information), teleshopping, e-commerce. [Berliner Zeitung, 22nd of June, 1999]
In order to assess possible impacts of workers' struggles, we raise the question: what is the call centres' function in the accumulation of capital? It might for instance be decisive if a strike affects other workers beyond the limit of the respective company or if - apart from the company on strike - only 'private costumers' are affected. Inside a company, the question is if other departments or the whole production process are disturbed...
Most call centres are producing services for 'private costumers'. Then there are centres producing for other 'service firms'. It is hard to estimate how many companies use call centres directly related to the material production process - e.g. regulation of delivery or transportation.
Call centres are mainly active in the following sectors: banking and insurance, information technology and telecommunication sector, marketing/sales and market research. Here, the most important functions for the firms are: source of information (products, sales locations...), simple services (orders, money transfer...), customer services (after-sales service, guarantee...), sales, interviews (market research...). Inbound call centres make up eighty to ninety percent.
Furthermore, there are many companies specialising in software or interior designing for call centres, plus the usual financial advisors and qualification bodies.
It is easy to see: after the closures of giant factories and downsizing through out-sourcing; with call centres more workers are brought together under one roof again. Call centres with 200 or 300 mostly part-time employees are common.
Technically, workers could work at home in isolation. Some firms actually do have home workers and control them by means of software and communication technology. But despite these possibilities, why do call centres still rely on the concentration of a large number of workers in one room or building? Partly because of the necessity of the immediate cooperation of the workers. From experience, we can say that in most call centres a direct contact to other workers and 'superiors' is necessary to react to some customer inquiries or (technical) problems. In others direct communication between workers is hard, due to the number calls, noise and separating walls, but training and controlling workers still requires concentration in one office.
Age: Many call centre workers are young. There are differences, depending on sector and level of qualification, but overall two thirds of all call centre workers are younger than 35.
School education: The level of school (de)qualification in call centres is high: forty percent have got their A' levels and/or a university degree. However, one shouldn't conclude that these workers are performing 'skilled' jobs. On the contrary: following a study in 'service call centres' ('unskilled' market research work) students make up about 60 percent.
Gender: More than sixty percent of all call centre workers are women. In some branches they make up eighty to ninety percent, mainly in commerce, which means rather 'less qualified' jobs.
Hierarchy: There is a lot of drivel about 'horizontal' hierarchies in call centres. In most cases, there is one team-leader for every ten to fifteen telephone terrorists. Aside from the team-leaders there are also coaches, on top of that there are qualification managers and 'the management'.
Fluctuation: In the boom phase call centre bosses complained about the high rate of staff turnover. Rates of 30 to 40 percent were seen as 'normal'. This, too, is an international phenomenon: in Germany, Britain or Australia, similar figures are estimated. One of the reasons for this turnover is the composition, e.g. students tend to change their jobs more often. Also, workers might hope to find something better elsewhere. In Britain, turnover in full time jobs is higher than in part-time jobs.
Many call centres lost more than half of their new employees during their first year. On average, turnover is 23 percent a year. The sick rates show similarly disastrous picture. Nearly every third call centre has a sick rate between six and fifteen days per month. [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 7, 2000, commenting on the Hay Management Consultant Study, 1999]
Full/part time: The percentage of part-time workers in call centres comes to around fifty percent, which is relatively high. About twenty percent of the men work part-time and eighty percent of the women. The proportion of casual workers and those working below the benefit entitlement limit [geringfuegig Beschaeftigte] - comes to around ten percent, most of whom are women. The proportion of temporary workers is lower in in-house and higher in external call centres.
Shift work and weekend work: With the introduction of call centres the former 'white collar sector' can now enjoy the three-shifts per day pattern and other models of 'round-the-clock work'. More than eighty percent of call centre workers are working in shifts. Nearly three quarters of whom work between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. In many call centres working Saturdays and Sundays is normal.
Rates of pay: Wages differ depending on the type of call centre. In so called 'service sector call centres' you get less. In the Ruhrgebiet, average wages before tax are around 1,300 to 1,400 Euros for a full time job. This is relatively high when compared to other jobs in the 'service sector' (restaurants, cleaning...). The average wage before taxes for newly hired call centre workers in all Germany is about 1,500 Euros.
The cost of wages: The share of wages in relation to general costs (for the capitalist) is relatively high, at about 60 to 85 percent (compared to a car factory where it is three to five percent).
Many workers complain about physical consequences of stress on the job: Tinnitus, eye complaints, head or neck problems, too much strain on the voice, insomnia or irritability. When asked for the causes they name the high number of calls, long duration of calls, screen and shift work, but also the control by the technology and team leaders.
Despite repeated efforts of the unions ('call centre representatives', call centre 'rank and file groups'...) most of the call centres are 'non-unionised', exceptions being the 'in-house call centres' in the trade, banking and insurances sector. But even in the 'direct banking' sector union membership is estimated at around five to ten percent.
4.2 Don't believe the hype! The development of call centres
Forms of 'call centres' have existed for a long time, e.g. as telephone information services, writing offices or calculation offices. But we can see a real boom with corresponding management strategies, job descriptions and a public hype since the early / mid 1990s. In Germany, nearly 90 percent of the call centres were founded after 1991.
In 1997, thirty percent of companies in Germany were using call centre services. Two thirds of them had their own integrated call centres (in-house). The rest used external services. In the US, as early as 1995, around 80 percent of companies were using call centre services.
The Background to the Boom in Germany:
* Rationalisation in banking, trade, insurances: The old type of white-collar employee (long training periods, relatively high wages) came under pressure. For years, banks have been closing down branches, at the same time as the volume of business has increased. Consumers are expected to execute their transactions themselves using cash points (a.t.m.s). If you get a problem, you are always free to 'phone the call centre...'
* Rationalisation during the privatisation of telecommunication companies: Deutsche Telekom has outsourced whole departments and transformed others into call centres.
* Growth of the (mobile) telephone sector: In Germany, only around ten percent of people had a cellular phone in 1998, by 2000 that was about 30 percent, today the figures are higher than fifty percent. The price per call was lowered, free of charge 'service numbers' were introduced. The companies' expenses for telemarketing rocketed.
* Boom of the 'new economy': More hardware and software were sold, requiring customer advisory services (by telephone). Many specialised shops offering advice for technical problems ceased to exist. So now we have supermarkets selling PCs.
* A growth of (regional) state subsidies for 'new jobs': in the first phase, there were 'scandals' of companies grabbing up to 50,000 DM (25,750 Euros) per newly created job, whilst the average cost for a call centre workplace was around 15,000 DM (7,670 Euros).
In many sectors a 'technical recomposition' has taken place: especially in the banking sector the new work organisation of a call centre made it possible to attack the white collar employees' position. The tasks of a 'formally highly qualified' bank worker with several years of training are now executed by call centre workers, after two days of training, for about two thirds of the white collar wage and subject to much stricter controls as well as much higher workloads.
On a global scale, call centres are mainly located in Western Europe, the United States, and some countries in Asia. In the US, a few million people are said to be working in call centres, in Britain half a million, in countries like Germany, France and Australia between 150,000 and 250,000 each. Most of the figures are estimates, since call centres are not a sector of their own and so there are no exact figures available.
Until the late 1990s Britain and Ireland were the leading countries with call centres in Western Europe, mainly because of the language of the local workers: many multinational corporations opened up their call centres there in order to have access to workers with English as their first language.
Parallel to the regional concentration of call centres a kind of international call centre workforce developed: e.g. Italians first go to Ireland to work in a call centre there, then later work in Dutch call centres. These people are not so few and far between.
Regional concentrations also exist inside a country: e.g. in Germany Bremen, Hamburg, Ruhrgebiet, Saarland, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In Britain they are mainly concentrated in Scotland, Northern England, Wales and London.
Reasons for a regional concentration of call centres:
* Sufficient amount of workforce available (high unemployment; students);
* Pre-qualification through previous jobs in call centres or training at so-called 'call centre academies'
* State subsidies for 'structural adjustment' in certain regions - e.g. in Nordrhein-Westfalen in combination with a general permission to work on Sundays and bank holidays that started May 1998;
* Other 'technical' supplies (installations, maintenance of the technical equipment) or proximity of 'customers' (media companies, software industry).
Call centres prefer to settle in regions with high unemployment or university towns with many (multilingual) casual workers.
A call centre is easier to move than a steel mill or a mine. Calls can easily be transferred, which means the caller might not notice if they are talking to an English person in Leeds or Amsterdam. And telephone equipment is cheaper than a smelting furnace. Outsourcing works in different ways:
* All calls are answered or made by external call centre services [see glossary]
* Simple calls (information...) are dealt with externally whereas the internal call centre does, for example, sales calls or after-sale-advice
* An external call centre does special sales campaigns with better know-how for these kinds of calls
* The internal call centre is only available during the 'working week', in the rest of the week calls are passed on to an external call centre
* The internal call centre is over its limit because of too many calls, so all further calls - the overflow - get transferred to an external call centre.
We've seen all of these forms of outsourcing work for years. It is especially triggered by the rising and already relatively high wages in in-house call centres as well as in certain regional concentrations. Some examples:
* In the mid 1990s, British Airways shifted their call centre from South London to Glasgow, the main reason being the differences in wages
* Since the end of the 1990s, we hear of English and American companies having their calls answered in India, e.g. GE Capital (finances) or American Express (credit cards).
* In 2001, Atento in Spain (telecommunication), a Telefonica (Spanish Telecom) offspring, has planned to open up call centres in Morocco because apparently there are enough Spanish speaking people there.
* Similar tendencies in Germany: In 2000 the mail-order company Otto threatened to shift the Essen call centre to East Germany if the workers didn't agree to a 500 DM wage reduction.
* In turn we hear that in East Germany call centres settle in West Poland where many people speak German.
It is not always about regional outsourcing. In some cases out-sourcing to external firms will suffice for the capitalists. Here is an example of how workers are divided and put under pressure: Hewlett Packard (computers, printers...) has built up a pyramid of internal and external call centre companies they use to - as the bosses put it - 'keep costs down'. The tasks of some of these call centres are coordinated in a central call centre for Europe, in Amsterdam. Certain departments are kept 'in-house' to get to know the customers' problems and questions (call centres are also a kind of ear for the company to find out what doesn't work, what's lacking with a product and so forth). Others are to provide a direct service for favourite customers who provide a lot of business. The rest gets out-sourced. In Amsterdam, this is done through the international call centre firms Sykes and Sitel, in Germany through Medion as well. Part of first level 'customer qualifying' has also been 'out-sourced'. In these call centres, the conditions are worse, controls stricter. First level 'agents' are required to keep every call shorter than ninety seconds. There is also a significant difference between the wages 'in-house' and 'outsourced'. The HP call centre workers in Amsterdam get about 30 percent more than those at Sykes performing basically more or less the same job one block down the road.
There has been a lot of ideological drivel concerning call centres. From the early to the mid 1990s, capital's representatives had been hectically searching for new ways to legitimise their system: consulting firms, university and economic research institutions, politicians and employers associations. Once again, they re-packaged capitalism as a 'service society' and emphasised how much we need call centres as a 'new kind of service'. This myth crumbles when workers and customers find out that this 'service' doesn't arise from new desires, but rather because it's the only way left: the opening of the call centre means the closure of the local branch. People are now working in shifts and cannot possibly go shopping during 'normal' opening hours, so they have to do their banking at night and by telephone. When buying technical devices, there are no experts left in the shops so you have got to call the hotline. But also those 'call centre agents' may not be able to help you sufficiently, and they themselves experience this kind of work as 'customer fobbing-off'.
So, new myths had to be created: new economy, information society. The problem with this new economy was that in the beginning it was limited to an exclusive part of the labour market: programmers, small entrepreneurs... hardly compatible to the masses. As a next step, call centres were sold as a kind of new economy for the unskilled: everyone has a personal computer, actually it's not really work you're performing but communication; the environment is modern and clean; call centres create new jobs for the rust belts and overcrowded university towns. It was not all just empty promises, often you had a real reason to quit the hairdresser and get yourself a job in a call centre. Nevertheless, even in the early phase the first contradictions showed up to question this picture of 'light work'.
Call centres were compared with 'battery farms' and 'communication assembly lines'. Such comparisons came from many workers' experiences: big noisy offices, piece rate per calls, general stress. The factory being out, call centres became the new playgrounds for old industrial sociologists and the creators of the brave new working world. Papers were written, titled 'Call centre: organisational interface between neo-taylorism and customer orientation'.
Job 'enrichment' and employee qualification become central demands of these criticisms. Not very imaginative, given the history of the call centres' development and the experiences of debates around 'humanising jobs' and 'team work' in the factories. Coloured screw-drivers, new coffee vending machines, flat screens or the 'team work' hype won't do anything about the principal tendency to exploit our labour power as efficiently as possible.
4.3 Boom, Boom, Bang! What about the crisis?
We don't yet have a precise picture of how the crisis will effect call centres. In 2000 they noisily announced growth rates of 20 to 25 percent a year. We can now state that this was just bosses' nonsense. Nowadays you hear more about bankruptcies, closures and lay-offs. The number of vacancies have decreased especially for better call centre jobs, for example in some banks or technical support. Some examples:
* End of November 2001, Deutsche Bank 24 announced the closure of their call centre in Duisburg-Rheinhausen. More than 200 workers got the sack.
* End of March 2002, British telecom announced 2,200 call centre workers being laid off. 53 out of 104 call centres are to be closed in the next two years.
* Mid April 2002, e-plus (mobile phones) announced the out-sourcing of their call centres, affecting 2,400 workers in Germany, probably getting laid off.
* Mid May 2002, Swisscom announced the closure of six call centres. 250 workers get the sack. By 2004, the remaining eleven call centres are to be reduced to two.
* Mid May 2002, Comdirect Bank AG announced further dismissals. Since the end of 2001, 200 jobs have been cut, at the moment 300 are on temporary contracts.
* In July 2002 Citibank announced the closure of its call centres in Aachen and Nordhorn with about 800 workers. Only between 200 and 300 will be re-located to the centralised call centre in Duisburg.
With the crisis developing, it's also getting harder to find a job. There's competition for the 'good' jobs, and today many companies prefer to hire through temporary agencies.
Reasons for the slump
* It is a consequence of the general crisis, especially in the 'new economy': for example, shortly after the announcement of the Kirch Media bankruptcy a call centre company working mainly for Kirch also announced its bankruptcy. Similar developments can be seen at AOL and HP, which are also cutting back on their call centres. The companies try to save money where it seems the easiest, i.e. in 'services'. This shows that service is, in many cases, just a by-product of the real production.
* Economic slump and the 'cleansing process' of increased competition: As a call centre service company manager put it in early 2002: 'The price for info-calls has gone down by up to 40 percent. With a price per minute at around 30 to 40 cents for customer service calls, call centres are hardly able to make profits.' He mainly blamed it on the competition from 'cheaper offers' abroad...
* Lay-offs through making labour power superfluous by the introduction of new technologies: In some fields, they recently experimented with speech recognition computers and Internet communication. Simple tasks like receiving mail-orders or handing out information on a person's bank account are already partly executed by means of these technologies. As early as 1999 union reps claimed that in the years to come tens of thousands of jobs would be lost this way. It would be the same development as with the telephone operators after the introduction of relays or the accountants in the big offices after the introduction of computers...
The future of call centres is not yet clear. Nearly all medium-sized and large companies in the capitalist metropoles have moved certain tasks to in-house or external call centres. Furthermore, other fields of office work are shifting to call centres, e.g. parts of public administration. Some broad development towards a further division of labour is possible with call centres taking all direct 'customer contacts' (front office) and specialised workers analysing and making decisions (back office). At the same time, technologies are being further developed and introduced to intensify the work: software for simultaneously dealing with inbound and outbound calls, integration of different data bases, standardisation of data input masks... The automation of certain steps in the work process - e.g. 'qualifying customers' - will lead to lay-offs in certain fields. Elsewhere, the combination of different media - telephone, fax, e-mail - will lead to bigger workloads. Taylorising communication will affect all areas of office work.
The extraction of surplus labour in taylorised offices will create different work processes: dealing with orders on a 'mass' level as well as 'creative' customer services or 'intelligent' solutions to technical problems. Varied forms of cooperation will still exist: with other workers in the call centre, over the telephone with workers outside the call centre etc.
Call centre bosses will still depend on continually getting new workers into their call centres because:
* In many call centres; working over a long period of time is just unbearable
* After some months of working there, most of the call centre workers will have learned enough tricks to slow work down, take breaks etc.
23 In chapter 8. Appendix, you'll find a glossary with the most important terms; just in case you might occasionally lose the thread ;-]
24 More on this in chapter 5. Everyday Working Life.
25 In other words: 'The agent is positioned in the centre of the communication process between company and customer, executing the verbal-sensual communication efforts between them. In relation to the customer this means the use of voice and ears (headphones and microphone: headset); in relation to the company's information system it means the use of eyes and hands (keyboard and mouse) to mediate communication. In between, there is the intellectual and emotional transformation of this information.' [www.callcenteragent.net]
26 You will find a list with all call centres referred to in the following paragraphs in chapter 8. Appendix.
27 More on the real effects in chapter 6. Confrontations.
28 We have taken the following figures from many sources. One reason that it is hard to find decent figures is that call centres don't represent a sector 'of their own'.
29 Some statistics on the distribution of call centres in various sectors (as a percentage): 39.1 finance services/insurances; 19.1 information and communication; 11.6 trade and sales; 7.2 media; 4.4 industry; 4.4 ticket services; 14.2 others. A study from Computerfachwissen, April 1998. More detailed info on market research is missing here. In other studies, marketing and market research come to up to 30 percent of call centre tasks. Furthermore, sex-line workers are missing from these figures.
30 'Make or Buy', April 1999. In Germany, they come to more than 90 percent; the low percentage of outbound call centres here is due to strict regulations of telemarketing. In the US or Britain there are less restrictions.
31 More on this and on the following paragraph in chapter 5. Everyday Working Life.
32 Jan Thieme/Michael Ceyp, Grosser Call Center Gehalts- und Karrierevergleich, Hannover 1997, p.43. In Australian call centres, the average age is said to be 23 years, see [www.wsws.org/articles/2001/may2001/call-m14.shtml]
33 More numbers on that: Commercial or specialist qualification 32 percent, Abitur [A' level equivalent] 27 percent, 19 percent Mittlere Reife [GCSE equivalent]. Arbeiten im Call Center, Handlungshilfe fuer Betriebs- und Personalraete. Frankfurt, February 1999.
34 Overall women make up 67.2 percent. By industries: wholesale trade 89.5, mail order business 86.7, publishing/media 75.2, tourism 75, banking/insurances 66.9, data processing/electronics 49.3. Arbeiten im Call Center, Handlungshilfe fuer Betriebs- und Personalraete. Frankfurt, 2/1999.
35 In some call centres there is a first and second level. This partition derives from the work organisation. It is not a formal hierarchy. Nevertheless, workers of the second level are usually better qualified and better paid. On the relations, see Handelsblatt, 19th of September, 1999: 80 percent first level, 15 percent second level, 5 percent management. This corresponds with our experiences. See also footnote 76.
36 The figures indicate how many workers leave their job during the first year.
37 Percentage of full time workers out of all workers in West Germany, 1997: men 97 percent, women 56 percent; figures given by Institut zur Erforschung sozialer Chancen (ISO), 1999. 80 percent of women in call centres work part time, of men only 18 percent; Jan Thieme/Michael Ceyp, Grosser Call Center Gehalts- und Karrierevergleich, Hannover 1997, p.47. Another study calculates 46 percent full time workers in call centres, 34 part time, 9 percent at or below benefit entitlement level [geringfuegig Beschaeftigte] and 11 as free-lancers; H. Bichler/G. Vogl, Call Center: 'Zusatzleistungen sind nicht ueblich', WSI-Mitteilungen, April 1999.
38 Verwaltungs-Berufsgenossenschaft: Call Report 1, Branchenbild Call Center. Hamburg 2001, p. 22.
39 Shift work makes up 84 percent, out of which 71 percent is between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.; Institut fuer Arbeits- und Organisationspsychologie an der Goethe-Universitaet in Frankfurt/Main, 1999. Many Bundesland (regional) governments gave special authorisation for work on Sundays and bank holidays in call centres.
40 See: [www.sueddeutsche.de/index.php?url=/sz/karriere/gehaltstest&datei=index.php] (May 30, 2002) Exact figure: 1,534 Euro. Further examples: simple banking services inbound, Ruhrgebiet: 1,600 Euro before, 1,100 after tax; banking services outbound, Ruhrgebiet: 1,900 before, 1,200 after tax (plus 100 or 200 Euro Bonus); bilingual technical support in the Netherlands 1,600 before, 1,100 after tax; technical support internal call centre Ruhrgebiet: 2,100 before, 1,400 Euro after tax; customer advisory services, inbound Northern Italy: 1,200 before, 900 Euro after tax; insurance Inbound bilingual in Northern Italy: 1,300 before, 1,000 after tax...
41 Verwaltungs-Berufsgenossenschaft: Ccall Report 1, Branchenbild Call Centre, Hamburg 2001, p. 13. International comparison of yearly costs of wages in call centres for 1998 (in US-Dollars): Australia 17,000, Tokyo 32,000, Taiwan 28,000, United States 26,000, Hong Kong 24,000, Singapore 22,000, Ireland 20,000, United Kingdom 19,000 [www.wsws. org/articles/2001/may2001/call-m14.shtml]. For 2002 there is a comparison between India and the US: the cost of one workplace in the US is 100,000 dollars and in India 10,000. [www.rediff.com/us/2000/aug/05us.htm], 1st of August, 2002.
42 HBV union magazine 'Einblick', 1999.
43 Michel Medienforschung und Beratung (MMB), 1999, calculates 75.6 percent.
44 Deutscher Direktmarketingverband (DDV), study from 1997.
45 Datamonitor, October 1999.
46 In April 2002 in Germany 17,000 further lay-offs in the banking sector were announced. Deutsche Bank plans to kick out 1,460. ver.di publik, April 2002.
47 Deutscher Direktmarketing Verband, January 2002 (in billion DM): 1997 4.3; 2000 5.9.
48 USA: 1998 69,500 call centres with 1.55 million employees (Datamonitor, October 1999) 2002 sources talk about 5 million (1st of August, 2002 [www.rediff.com/us/2000/aug/05us.htm]) Britain: 1998 4,100 call centres with 198,000 workers (Datamonitor, June 1999; i.e., more workers are working in call centres there than in the 'former' bastions of struggle altogether: mining, steel and car industry); 2001 400,000 workers [www.wsws.org/articles/2001/may2001/call-m14.shtml], 2002 500,000 workers (Financial Times, March 8, 2002, this time comparing them to be twice the number of those in the complete forest and fishing industry). France: 1998 70,000 workers (L'Usine Nouvelle, April 23, 1999), 2001 150,000 up to 200,000 (La Gazette, January 2002). Germany: 1998 1,600 call centres, 2002 3,746 call centres (DDV, January 2002). 1996 45,000 workers, 1998 80,000 up to 150,000, 2002 225,000 workers (WSI-Mitteilungen, April 1999, and on [www.rundschau-online.de/wirtschaft/2522569.html]). Others estimate for 2002 150,000 up to 240,000 workers in about 2,000 call centres (tageszeitung, 14th of February, 2002). Australia: 2001 4,000 call centres with 160,000 workers [www.wsws.org/articles/2001/may2001/call-m14.shtml]. China: 1999 there were already 63,000 call centre workers, with strong growth rates ('log in and find out', magazine of postal union, ÖTV and HBV, August 1999).
49 36 percent of the 12,000 workers working in the 60 multilingual call centres in Ireland in 2001 are from abroad. Tosca D1 report call centre inventory - Ireland, 2001.
50 Les centres d'appels téléphoniques: des lendemains qui sonnent, La Gazette, Janvier 2002.
51 See also Financial times, March 3, 2002: 'Big users of call centres like British Airways and Zuerich Versicherungen are spear-heading an exodus into English-speaking countries with lower wages such as India or South Africa. Simpler tasks are substituted by new speech recognition programs.' Whereas daily papers in Mumbai, India are stuffed with ads for call centre jobs, comrades from India reported there was already a noticeable shift towards South India...
52 Otto are out-sourcing jobs anyway: In a workplace in Essen, five workers receive calls for Otto - partly cash-in-hand for 5 Euros an hour.
53 As early as the 1970s these were the ideological playgrounds for union representatives and industrial sociologists.
54 You will find a special section on call centres and crisis at [www.callcenteragent.net] with an up-to-date overview of closures and lay-offs. As for Britain, see the article in the Financial Times of March 8, 2002, with the announcement of ITV Digital and Telewest cutting all 2,500 jobs. Furthermore they say that the number of those newly hired in call centres in Britain as a whole has dropped from 35,400 in 1999 to 24,900 in 2000 and 19,800 in 2001.
55 [www.motkraft.net/hotlines] entry of December 17, 2001.
56 Business Week, March 28, 2002.
57 Maerkische Allgemeine Zeitung, April 18, 2002.
60 [www.callcenteragent.net], April 2002.
61 In Germany, such attempts are being made at local councils, in Canada at the welfare offices and in France at social security and tax offices.
5. Everyday Working Life
The revolutionary movement is weak not because of the lack of a political organisation, a strong union or a communist party. It is weak because of the real conditions of exploitation. The question is why the exploited do not find a fighting, liberating expression of their productive power in this situation. [kolinko, The Subversion of Everyday Life, 1999]
Why did we propose a detailed inquiry into the organisation of work and exploitation? As the quote suggests: statistics about the development of wages and strikes, or expressions of conflict, may reflect the crisis of the movement but they don't explain it and neither do they help us do anything about it. We hope the inquiry will help us understand the background of the crisis and also find out where a new movement begins: in the real conditions of exploitation. These are not reduced to 'the workplace' but include the general organisation of society: from the 'rearing' and reproduction of labour power in households, through their '(de)formation' in schools and universities, their squeezing in various workplaces, to their 'correction' in juvenile detention centres and prisons.
We are interested in the process of production as a place where exploited people from all over the world come together and have to get along - whether they want to or not. Where they are opposed to capital or the state not just as victims or petitioners but where they produce the wealth of this society and thereby materially change it. That is why our attention goes to the back-breaking harvest on strawberry fields, to the metal workshops, to the transport of goods and to the call centre 'service hell'. We ask ourselves how the coercion of work changes and under what conditions we have to sell our labour power. How are we actually being put to work within the combination of machinery, the division of work, and the hierarchy that goes with it?
The organisation of exploitation mirrors the current power relations, and new struggles and their possible self-organisation will be based on it. It is not just that someone else draws profit from our work but also that our entire life is determined by this exploitative relationship. It subjects our rhythm of life to shift plans, adapts our movements to the requirement of machines and changes our social relationships.
In the inquiry into call centres we have emphasised everyday working life. The following section is based on our own experiences and on interviews with other workers.
5.1 Agents - Where they're from and what they are up to
Here is a basic overview: There are more women than men working in call centres, except for some technical areas. Many work part-time, especially many women, parents, university and college students or people on training courses. All workers must be able to speak the local language. International call centres in Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris and Milan also ask for additional languages. Some call centres in the Ruhr area employ second or third-generation immigrants who work in both German and their mother tongue. Most full-time workers have formal skills, often from the commercial, health care or other service sectors but some also from the industrial or commercial sectors.
In one call centre in the 'first level' [see glossary] we found a remarkably high number of female medical and legal assistants who can earn more in a call centre than they can in the profession they studied. Working hours are better in the call centre and they can spend the day with lots of other workers, rather than just two other medical assistants and the boss. In the 'second level' which is staffed only by men there are some former metal workers. They prefer the call centre to the factory or small metal shop job because it is clean, because they have already ruined their backs or because they cannot find well-paid metal jobs any more. Some said they turned their hobby into a profession when they joined the call centre (e.g. computer technicians).
Many workers join the call centre with the idea of getting a quiet, clean job with a 'hip' working atmosphere and not much responsibility. They know that they will have to deal with people, but they won't have to see or touch them. That might be ok for a while. Here are some quotes from call centre workers:
It's easy work. You don't have to think much, you don't get dirty, and you don't have to sweat, carry bricks or anything like that. And you get money... You can pretty much set your own working hours or change them around. As an electrician, obviously you do more physical work. You aren't allowed to make mistakes either. In the call centre you make mistakes but you won't even know about it, there aren't any big consequences. Working as an electrician is more fun, though. [Duisburg, 2000]
It's much less exhausting but also more annoying. I worked as a waitress before and that meant more responsibility and more physical stress. But it's also funny in the call centre. We're allowed to talk to each other a lot. But I also think it burns you out after a while. [Amsterdam, 2000]
On a construction site, you can simply do your work, carry bricks, pull cables, speed up, work ahead to have longer breaks, etc. Somehow you make the day go by without thinking about the work itself. If there is tension you can scream around, yell at the boss, simply say what you think because everyone does it. In the call centre it's different: You have to watch out all the time because it's brainwork. You might find a rhythm but that means switching your head off and thinking simply nothing. Somehow everyone watches their manners. It's the same in other offices. [Oberhausen, 2002]
The first difference from the factory is that the work is not hard physically. In the call centre you don't have to know much or know how to do things, which is different from steelworkers. If they make a mistake, everything's messed up. [Duisburg, 2000]
In those call centres where working hours are more regular and where the same workers see each other more often, cliques form. They are culturally determined and often extend into 'free time'. Often there are the mothers, the students, Turkish people and other groups of workers getting together. They play an important role in organising work - and in coping with it emotionally.
Whatever their age, gender or family background, there is one thing that workers have in common: they like to talk. Most are open and it's easy to get along. Everyone has a story to tell, and once they have taken off their headsets, off they go. These conversations - between calls or in the official breaks - are about life in general, the cruelty and beauty of the world as well as future plans. They are as diverse as the workers themselves. There is talk of problems and joys in relationships, proposals for solutions for Palestine, debate of daily politics... and always work, the absurdity of customers' questions, the fact that the work could be done much better if we organised it ourselves, the blatant rudeness of superiors, that work is hell and how to escape it. There are not many possibilities if you have a mortgage to pay and don't want to lower your standard of living. For some women whose marriages are still intact, having children might look attractive.
Plans like long trips to distant countries remain wishes and there are no serious efforts to realise radical dreams of the abolition of work. Most shattered illusions end with sick leaves or searches on internet career markets. It is interesting that many look for another call centre job. Possibly because it is a well-known terrain?
The average length of service in phone work is low, from what we have seen it is half a year in outbound and between one and two years in inbound. Then people are 'burnt out' or everything has simply become unbearable.
5.2 Hiring - assessment centre
Before you can burn out you have to get hired. Looking at call centre vacancies, the jobs sound acceptable. They ask for the 'smiling on the phone' skill. Obviously, anyone can smile on the phone, it's not that difficult. But who would have thought that while you smile you also have to talk and you have to do it all day long? Then they ask you about your resistance to stress. You wonder briefly, forget about it and apply for the job. Because management are aware of this contradiction between smiling and stress, they often use the only appropriate selection and recruitment process - the assessment centre. - before they hire you. Here are some examples from banking call centres:
The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks questions to the applicants sitting around the U-shaped table: He asks the philosophy student why he didn't study theology after he went to a monastery school for eight years. The girl who just finished secondary school and will begin to study business economics in a few months sells bread in the mean time. The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks her whether she is able to sell yesterday's bread as today's. The woman carrying an employer's association [IHK] call centre agent certificate has a child. The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks her whether she can conceive of having a superior who is younger than her. The young man in the blue suit has been trained in a bank and thinks a lot of his appearance. The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks him what he thinks is so great about a bank.
There are eleven people in the room who have applied for a job in a banking call centre. In front of them there are three bosses in suits: the gentleman in the pin-stripe suit - the call centre boss, the woman in the twin set - the human resources dept. boss, the casually dressed gentleman - a team leader. The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks the questions. The lady in the twin set with her relaxed femininity calms things down, mediates and even says that she likes to do aerobics. The team leader remains in the background.
Some of the applicants jump around wagging their tails. Most just answer the questions they are being asked. The room is really cold. I don't want to know about the applicants' answers. I don't want to hear some of them lose it while trying to make a good impression. The little blond girl has been getting on my nerves for a while. How can you humiliate yourself like that? I'd like to hit her. Some are pale as a sheet and even the cool ones feel uneasy. Why don't I just get up and leave?
'You wankers, what is this shit!' I think, but I say: 'No, of course I've asked myself why I want to work in a banking call centre...' My story is so airtight and perfect that the gentleman in the pin-stripe suit has no chance to find the weak points and put me down.
When everyone has explained their CV and answered between five and ten questions the suits let us have a break. By now, we have been here for five hours. We get terrible coffee from a machine and then go and spill it in the actual call centre. Six workers sit on tables and talk on the phone. The room is huge but without windows. In a hotel, this would be the store room for detergents and linen. Light grey carpet, light grey 'calling islands' and fluorescent lights.
After the break the three really pick up speed again and present their job offers. Now we may choose if we want to do inbound or outbound. Does anyone still want to? The philosophy student has sadly failed. He has not made the appropriate impression when he told us why he studies philosophy instead of consistently studying theology. Anyway he lacks banking spirit. The girl who just finished secondary school has passed. If you can sell yesterday's bread as today's you can also sell credits that nobody needs. Mothers with children are out anyway. And a trained 'banker' will see through the job too quickly and make demands, so he is out. On the way out I meet the nice flight attendant again. She tells me she was so sick of the job because she hadn't been able to smile automatically any more. But here it hasn't worked out either. She was told she hadn't radiated enough 'warm heartedness'. [Essen, 2000]
Human resources woman, team leader and drinks: Total horror. They play 'good cop, bad cop'. Obviously, the bad cop is my potential superior. I fuck up right at the beginning because I have no idea what job I really applied for. The bad guy really spoils the job for me then, telling me it's so damn hard and that I'll be dead by the end of the day. That he'll lose his temper if I'm late, that there will be trouble if I don't clean up my desk. Aye aye, Sir! I just give him a nice smile thinking, my God, what is he so worried about. I don't even have the job yet, and I don't even know if I want it. And then I do have it... [Duisburg, 2000]
At the bank they made a huge effort with an assessment centre. For one hundred jobs, they invited three hundred people - in groups of about fifteen. Those people then had to pass several 'tests' all day (eight hours). The oral tests were evaluated by four bosses (two with a psychology background from a personnel service agency, one from the human resources dept. and one team leader), the written ones were evaluated by a computer. There was 'fun stuff' like:
- a group discussion on a given subject, with four observers judging how people behaved (loud, shy, dominating, passive...);
- an intelligence test (which was not called that), where people had to answer questions, put words in order and recognize drawings on a piece of paper;
- a test conversation with the human resources manager playing a nagging customer on the other side of a partition where you are assessed on how you react and if you ask all the important questions that they taught you to ask;
- a questionnaire with four hundred questions including all kinds of rubbish ('Do you like fat women'...) that was to test your 'personality' (do you lie, are you conservative...);
- an individual conversation where they asked why you want the job.
Then there were company presentations etc.
In the end there was another individual conversation where they told you about your 'personality'. The computer was usually really off the mark but that was not the point. It was obvious they wanted to check out if you go along with the rubbish without losing it or turning off your head.
For a lousy telephone job which consists of giving account balances and taking transfer orders and information it was a complete joke. But then I remembered that Johnson Controls had summoned up a similar effort for a factory job (making car seats)... [Duisburg, 2000]
5.3 Skills - Who's got them, who hasn't
During the initial phase of call centres, as during any introduction of a new organisation of work, the agents of capital had the problem of not knowing how to get the place running without major problems. It is precisely in these phases when they have to experiment and appropriate workers' knowledge which workers have acquired in the daily work process.
In order to hide their dependency, capitalists call work 'unskilled' and try to give the impression that they already have a fully functional organisation of work going. Many left-wing or union critics of 'telephone taylorism' who also emphasise that the workers are only appendices of the 'Call Master', help them by making call centre work look 'unskilled'. Looking at things more closely though it turns out that workers actually bring many skills with them and also get more 'skilled' during their work - not through the official training sessions but through experience and exchange during the work process.
All workers who start this job know things that management simply take for granted: the vernacular, communication skills, experience with keyboard and mouse. Still you must pass a training course before you enter 'service hell'. This may take between two days and six weeks. They train you in the internal software for the customer data entry and the products. Sometimes there is communication training, but really it is all based on training on-the-job, that is, you 'learn' most things later at work. Training is about having heard of everything rather than having understood everything or really knowing things inside out. Training often only serves as motivation, a.k.a. brainwashing, to make you identify with the company and the product. And the pleasantly labelled 'communication training' often turns out to be a standard wording drill. Here are some impressions:
Of course it was necessary to learn the in-house program with its data input masks. After that they placed me next to a co-worker so I could listen in. She was the one who really trained me. But the most important skills: communication techniques and the company processes are things you learn as time goes by. [Medion, Muelheim]
Other training sessions like speech training, communication training or how to deal with people, rules of courtesy, those are things you have to develop on your own or ideally you know already. Nobody will show you that. You just do it somehow. [Client Logic, Duisburg]
When we finally started to use the stock exchange order software, taking orders and placing them on the stock exchange we didn't get any further training. Those who caught on first passed it on to the others. Still a lot went wrong during the first days. After a few days the team leaders said there would be no more training because we had learned it by now and could pass our knowledge on to those who hadn't. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg]
In the beginning we had the pleasure to get some training which went on for four days. The first two days were a sort of brainwashing. 'Citibank is your family. Work in the team so you'll get on in life as well.'... I guess the reason is they don't want people to be turned off by the boring work. (...) Many had been enthused by the drivel and were disappointed accordingly when they found out that work still means work (...) Everyone expects you to represent Citibank with all your heart and soul. [Citibank, Duisburg]
So there we were. Ten people, all glad not to have to talk on the phone for two days. Two days of communication training. The teacher knew all the rules. The training was to be interactive. We were supposed to get involved, shape things, ask questions, participate. First of all we were asked to tell her all we wanted to learn during the training: understand customers, listen, express ourselves better, deal with stress... The teacher wrote our proposals on big sheets of paper, filling in what was missing and cancelling out what didn't fit in. She did that for two days.
Then she told us how the two days would proceed: Learning how to greet customers and listen to them, dialogue technique, leading a conversation, how to say good-bye. Then we had the privilege of watching a scene with Robert Redford ('Isn't he just great?'). A scene where he enters an office building and there are only dead bodies lying around. He runs out and calls some emergency centre from a telephone booth. The guy there takes the call and asks short, precise questions in order to find out quickly what happened. Here the teacher stopped the film. Everyone was restive. Would have been nice to go on watching that... 'So, what did you notice here?' We made an effort again, she wrote everything on one of those big sheets. Too 'unfriendly', to 'curt', but 'precise'... All that as a preparation for the first graph: 'There are four kinds of people and their kind of phone service.' Freezer is unfriendly and not very efficient, Friendly Zoo is friendly but not very efficient, Factory is unfriendly and efficient, Quality Member Service is friendly and efficient.
'And how do you judge yourselves?' Then we had to simulate phone calls with our neighbours and tape them. Afterwards we listened to them and our neighbours had to critique us. The critiques were then discussed among all. It was beginning to get boring. We were saved by the first break.
It went on in the same style. In two groups, we were to write down all the things one should not do while talking on the phone. 'Sleep', 'eat', 'talk to co-workers'... We were very creative here and found fifty things. The teacher murmured something like 'subversive', we had some fun. The company had given us folders and we got awarded stamps that we could put on the folder when someone had said something really smart or when one's group had won a competition ('Who knows more no-no-words we're not supposed to say on the phone? Write them all down on a sheet quite spontaneously!').
Sure, at some point we got to the list of all the things you should do when you are talking to a customer on the phone: 'Smile', 'listen', 'let the customer finish speaking'... We already knew that stuff. It wasn't the first training course for some of us. Then there was a graph about 'thinking' and 'feeling' and the importance of the 'nonverbal' impression for communication, later 'open' and 'closed' questions, feedback techniques, 'active listening', problem solving... all kinds of things.
Once we went out into the courtyard and played some kind of 'musical chairs'. Everyone runs around and must form groups of two or three at the teacher's command. One person always remains alone and leaves the game. In the end, two people remain. The winners. Very funny. Sometimes it was like a children's' birthday party, sometimes like the last hour of school: Everyone is tired but you have to remain seated. It all had little to do with daily telephone work. But that was not the point. Rather, it was some kind of motivational training. In between some people spoke their minds: 'We have different problems. The software sucks. Often we cannot look up anything. People on the phone get annoyed because they do not get any info...' The teacher looked concerned but carried on with her curriculum. And obviously staying friendly and interactive. Afterwards she forwarded the complaints to one of the team leaders... [Fiat, Milan]
Like many things in capitalism, this is another contradictory strategy of capital: The claim that workers were 'unskilled' led to them identifying with their work even less. . For a long time, call centre representatives have been complaining about excessive worker turnover and blaming it on the lack of 'career perspectives'. At that point the usual drivel about the creation of 'occupational descriptions' and formal skills set in. The union has been directly involved in this, demanding 'decent professions' for call centres as well: 'Skill the workers! Bosses, use the creativity of those creatures for your own success. Workers, be smart, you have deserved better.'
So union representatives, employers' associations [IHK] and employment offices got together and created a profession: The Call Centre Agent. In that phase many call centre academies were created. They hand out a certificate for a two to twelve month course. There are advantages for the employers: upon hiring a person with a certificate they already know that person has turned up regularly somewhere for a while and has already seen a keyboard and a headset. More importantly, the introduction of these formal skills serves to create hierarchies within the labour market: call centre workers are divided into 'skilled' and 'unskilled' with respective differences in working conditions, especially wages. This is a tendency which is not yet really all-pervasive, but more and more often people are being asked for these 'certificates' in job interviews.
Workers taking these courses hope for better jobs but also see it as a way of getting away from that annoying telephone job for a while - if the company pays for it. Here is a section from an interview with a participant of an IHK certificate training for 'call centre agents':
* What kind of training was it?
There is a course that is paid for by the employment office and one that is paid for by the European Union which is attended by people who receive welfare or somehow don't get unemployment benefits. Two lots of thirty people in full-time plus two part-time courses in all. The full-time course takes three months. In the end there is the IHK certificate.
* How did the people in your course get there?
There is not much I can say about the employment office course. I'm sure some were sent there by the employment office. Mine was mostly women over thirty who wanted to get back into employment. Many of them had been shop assistants or had other commercial skills. The other group were younger people without formal skills. Three out of thirty had worked in a call centre before but that had been long ago. About a third left the course without the certificate.
* What was the course like, what did they teach you?
There were exams in computers, communication skills, business basics, 'What is a call centre?', providing a service and 'training on the job'. And then there were classes such as stress management and motivational training. During 'training on the job' a lot of people found out the job is not for them, at least not outbound. Other than that, most people said they didn't learn anything useful on the course. Maybe a little about computers for people who had never touched one. Business basics was just explaining the difference between different kinds of company (plc, inc). No idea what to do with that. In services you learn all the lines they want to hear in job interviews: 'I want the customer to bla bla bla'. But that turns out to be pretty useless when you are actually at work.
* What did the school promise you?
Getting a job in the first place. Seventy percent go on to get jobs in banks.
* Where did you do your work experience?
It is only in the six month course that, you do a proper work experience placement. Then you get to work in another company for a month. We only did one week of phone practice in the call centre academy. All kinds of companies offer to take work experience people and also present themselves in the academy when they look for people.
* What's the difference between a three and a six month course?
Three months is for a regular call centre agent. After six months you're a 'call centre specialist'. No idea what's so special about that.
* Do companies look for people with certificates?
Sure, that saves them some initial training and they can also do some filtering by school grades. A good reference from another call centre probably counts just as much. I haven't met many people with certificates in other call centres. Except in one job interview in Bochum where all five had one. [Duisburg, 2001]
5.4 Work steps - Log in and kiss your dreams goodbye
We believe that the analysis of the work process and cooperation is important for 'historical' reasons: The way people work in a call centre is neither an accident nor the product of a master plan. Rather it is a result of the class conflicts of the last decades and has to do with workers' behaviour. The example of the banks shows that this change was meant to break certain behaviours or positions of workers, in order to intensify exploitation. Training a bank employee takes a lot of time and with rising 'skills' the bank worker's expectations rise accordingly. Wages in the banking sector have been comparatively high and workers were able to assert more control over the work process due to their many different tasks and responsibilities. Earlier attempts to increase exploitation through an attack on wages, new kinds of division of work and intensified or more demanding work did not go far enough for capitalists or failed, not least due to a series of strikes in Italy, Germany and other countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The position of bank workers could only be broken through a new organisation of work that put an end to the workers' 'stronghold': the branch office. In the call centre a worker's tasks were divided among several call centre workers. These can be skilled within a week or two because each step in the work process is simple and short. This also makes it easier for capitalists to intensify work (for example by employing new technologies) up to the point where a single worker gives hundreds of customer account balances every day.
Call centres thus reflect a tendency of capital, when under pressure by workers' behaviour, to divide the work necessary for the production of a product into smaller segments and distribute these among more workers. These concrete steps of work then become a new terrain of struggle. Here are two reports from the everyday reality of work in banking call centres:
I tell people their account balances, place orders and standing orders, and if they want me to I tell them all the transactions on their accounts in the last ninety days and order check books for them. For some tasks I also have to put customers through to other departments or to the call centre in Aachen. In my department there are one hundred and fifty agents doing the same work, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I get the calls directly into my ear, which means that I only hear a beep and I know the next customer is on the line. This happens around two hundred times a day but sometimes I can get more than four hundred callers. The computer counts the duration of my breaks, my starting and finishing times, my average call duration.
I never worked in the banking sector before. You don't have to in order to do this work. During job interviews, what they wanted most of all was for you to be communicative, open and service-oriented. Then we had four days of training, the first two of which revolved exclusively around the company and how great it is. The next two days consisted of product training on the giro account, data privacy in the bank etc. After that 'training' we spent another two days next to experienced agents who explained the computer mask to us, and then off we went... [Citibank, Duisburg, 2000]
I work together with about a hundred agents in the inbound area receiving calls from customers who want to place money orders or stock orders. There are other things like stock trading, credits, customer data or online problems that we put through to other departments. In the call centre there are another two hundred outbound workers who try to sell additional bank products to customers. During hiring tests they wanted to know how you can talk; there were intelligence and concentration tests. Expert knowledge wasn't required. During work it's like this: You get calls on your headset. Then you look on your display to see what kind of caller it is. Customers and first-time callers have different numbers. Then you recite your greeting line. Since customer calls have usually been routed through a voice computer where customers haven given their account number and pin number the computer automatically finds their customer data and brings it up on your screen. You listen to what customers want, place their money or stock order, send them information, collect data or a complaint. During the call you press the post-processing button so you won't immediately get the next call once the customer has hung up. Then you still have time to send stuff, write comments for other departments etc. When there is one call after the other it is really like an assembly line. You don't give a shit about people, you handle them like a machine... [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
People have very different ideas what work in a call centre might be like, ranging from 'self-determined work' to that left-wing idea of 'service hell' where there is one hundred percent control and workers have been reduced to slaves of false friendliness. Neither idea is totally wrong. But to understand what we are talking about theoretically, let's first describe the daily work. What do call centre workers do?
Log into the personnel program.
Start up computer, log into the program.
Start up intranet, check out news, possibly read mail.
Log into the telephone.
Plug in headset.
Switch phone to 'ready' and start.
Talk to customers, talk to superiors, talk to co-workers,
make data entries, send mail, fill in forms,
take breaks, drink coffee, chat online, flirt, lie, read magazines,
find information, have arguments, be bored.
Log out of the telephone.
Log out of the software program.
Shut down computer.
Log out of personnel computer.
That is a general short version of the daily steps of work. Here are four examples that make this more concrete:
Inbound, first level computer hotline
It's Monday, we're on early shift. Before I do anything I first have to log onto the personnel program. I do that on the team leader's computer. Okay, from now on I get paid for everything I do. At least that's something. I go to 'my' desk and turn on the computer, give my password and log onto the phone. The phone demands a password too. By now the computer has started up so I log into the program. This way they can see who did what and when in the customer records. I wonder why I haven't ever mixed up all those passwords. Hasn't happened to me yet. They have probably burned themselves into my brain and I will never be able to erase them again.
I have a few voice mails. I listen to them, maybe there is something private among them. We all have dreams. It's shortly after seven a.m. and somehow I'll make it until three p.m. I have done it before and I will do it again today although I know that in the meantime I will have doubts more than once. I have seventy-two minutes of break. Half an hour is fixed, the rest is at my own disposal. Luckily there are not many callers this early in the morning. If I had to talk to one of those good-tempered jokers I would die. Since there is not that much to do yet and the team leader hangs out in the coffee room, I go out to get coffee without logging off from the phone. When I come back either one of my friends will have taken the call or the phone will have been set to 'absent without reason'. This will show up in my statistics and be taken from my time off, but who cares?
The phone rings. If it rings three times and I don't answer the ACD computer routes the call to the 'next free agent'. But if I do answer, which is what is expected, I have one of four standard situations: registering customers, putting customers through to the technician, informing customers about the state of their complaints about broken appliances or taking an order. Or I have something exotic requiring the talents of a private investigator or a social worker: markets are looking for a notebook computer or a customer needs someone to assure him that he is not the only one having trouble with the capitalist world of commodities. In between I set my phone to 'post-processing' so no calls will arrive. Then I enter the data into the customer records or I use the time for a chat with my co-workers. Sooner or later it's that time: all lines are ringing hot. So I put an infinite number of customers through to the tech department, run back and forth between the team leader's desk and mine, put customers through to other departments, call back a customer and write notes and e-mail forms to other co-workers.
By some miracle it has turned three p.m. I log out of the program, say good-bye to the computer, log off from the phone and finally log out of the personnel program. Fortunately time always passes somehow.
Inbound, second level of a computer hotline
'Hello, Bla Bla Company... My name is... What can I do for you?' The calls come in over two lines: German and English. It's about computers. Apart from the calls sometimes I can also get e-mails or faxes from customers. Most calls are about minor and major technical defects or software problems (an estimated eighty percent). The rest are calls about lost passwords, information...
From time to time you also have to call people. Mostly to ask something, sometimes because they want to be called back. Between calls or faxes there is time for other things. I either surf the internet and read the papers there; or I do my own 'private' e-mails; or I do what we're supposed to do: I get an appliance and try something out like installing the new DVD drive, configuring a specific PCMCIA modem, the new docking station... Out of an eight hour shift I'm on the phone for an average of one and a half or two hours, do other stuff in connection with the calls for two hours, try something out for an hour; I spend about three hours doing stuff like surfing, reading, e-mails, talking to co-workers... spread out over the day.. From time to time one of the team leaders drops by to control what you're doing. That's why it's good to set up some technical stuff - and surf anyway. Sometimes they also come and want to 'motivate' or discipline you.
Generally, all calls go to 'first level' first. The agents there take them: customer number, serial number... and qualify them: which line is in charge (printers, PCs, notebooks), what is the customer's problem (very roughly). They write that into a data record, call our line, and the ACD machine puts them through to the first free agent in our department. We take the call and first we talk to the 'first level' agent. He or she tells us the number of the record they just created and we call that from our PC. Sometimes there's a brief chat, but in the 'first level' they have only ninety seconds to record the case and then put the call through to us.
We have an inbox in our call processing software that contains all cases we are currently working on and haven't closed yet. For example if we receive a call and don't find a solution at once the case will remain in the inbox. If we solve it we call the customer the next day - or the customer calls us to see if we have solved the problem and if so we close the case after the call. Or the customer has to do something first (reinstallation...) and will call back; in the meantime we leave the case open. Sometimes we also get a case back from the people at the Resource Desk, who look for solutions to more complicated questions, and then you call the customer... The team leaders have control over what's in one's inbox (and also have a regular look at it through their computers).
Back to the call: First we ask questions or start some explanation of to what to do like certain software settings, hardware changes, reinstallation... If we don't know what to do we put the customer on the music loop and there are four things we can do: a) we look into our own material; b) we look in the intranet or internet; c) we ask another agent; d) we go to the Resource Desk (experienced ex-agents who answer agents' questions and look into difficult cases). Everything happens on a regular basis, but the more experience you have the less often you have to consult the Resource Desk.
When you have a solution you get the customer back online (if you put him into the waiting loop; on which he might might have stayed for two or twenty minutes) and tell them the solution or what you think it is. Or you tell them it's not our problem and they have to call somewhere else. Then you say goodbye and hang up. Afterwards you have to write everything into the customer's record - what they wanted, what you did, what the next steps are (e.g. if they have to send something in or you have to send something out). Then you click several other buttons if something has to be sent out and the case is closed.
Outbound, making appointments for telephone contract sales
It's either seven fourty-five a.m. or ten fifteen a.m. No fucking difference, because in either case I have to start work in fifteen minutes. First go to the table where the paper slips with today's tasks are lying. Every morning the same search for my name. As always the slip is right at the bottom. On the slips, each agent is assigned to an outdoor salesperson for whom they have to make phone calls today. Then there are slips with the respective outdoor salesperson's resubmissions. Those have to be called first.
Before that I go get my little box with my scripts and my internal info. So I sit down at my desk. Chances for a system crash are best if I start at eight a.m. Afterwards the login usually works. I log in with my user ID and enter the data from the paper slip into a certain mask. Then the computer displays the outdoor salesperson's addresses that have to be called, one hundred and thirty-two, for example. Then you start at one and make phone calls. There is a button that automatically dials the number but most of the time it doesn't work. So you dial manually. Most addresses have already been called five times before, so the details of the person you are calling, who is in charge of telecommunications decisions in the company, are already in the system.
We're allowed to say what we want, as long as we're successful. Obviously there are some tried and tested expressions that everyone uses simply because they work. Most important is not to be warded off. The phone rings and Mr Smith is immediately on the phone: 'Hello, my name is... I represent..., am I speaking to... company on... street (address confirmation is very important but often skipped, as it's a stupid way to start a conversation). Mr Smith, I understand you are in charge of telecommunications in your company. We spoke to each other a few months ago and you asked me to call back at this time. Do you have time to answer a few questions?'
So far the customer hasn't understood what all this is about but you have to get your data first: How high is the phone bill, who is in charge... If they don't want to give you the data you sometimes just make it up. If you don't get any data it spoils the statistics. Then I terminate the call after about three minutes. I take a note if there was anything important. If the phone bill was around three hundred marks I don't file the customer under 'resubmission' because he doesn't have potential. And then the next one. We're not really allowed to skip addresses but sometimes I do, like when I have already called three times the previous week and the secretary has yelled at me every time. I don't have to listen to that for the fourth time.
The secretary answers the next call. Again, I simply claim that the contact person is expecting my call. That's the way to do it in this job: don't let the secretary ward you off! It's not good for your statistic either. Once she has bought it and put me through, the hunt is on for those vital company secrets. Supposing he has a potential then I start acting as if I first have to think for a moment before I say: 'Our outdoor salesman Mr... will be in your area next week. When would be ok for him to drop by for half an hour?' Most often, this commando assault does not work but it's still the best way to get appointments.
Twenty or thirty calls later the first half hour has passed. In between I exchange complaints about customers with my co-worker but those chats don't usually last longer than thirty seconds before we are back on the 'phone. After an hour I check my statistics which are displayed in the lower right hand corner of the screen. Of course I have been controlling it all the time but after an hour you can start measuring how it's going today. Twenty-five calls, seven net (which means I've talked to my contact person), no appointment made. That's ok. I make a sign to my co-worker, both of us press the pause button, we run over to the social room, smoke a fag, talk briefly about the last hour, and then we run back to our desks: four minutes and thirty-four seconds. Man, we were excellent again. And on we go: making calls and running to the social room every hour.
Outbound, making appointments for pension fund sales
The shift starts at nine a.m. That's the housewives' and single mothers' shift... and it's mine, too. First I get my phone book from the shelf, desperately looking for the page where I stopped yesterday. I call private homes from the phone book. It's their own fault if they have their names printed in there. So I have the phone book of Langensalza or whatever that place is called, lying in front of me, plus my script that has been written more or less collectively by the workers but that nobody has to stick to. The great thing about a phone book is that it's so fat you can easily skip some people.
We make phone calls for a company that no one has ever heard of and whose name has already changed in the course of the campaign. We make appointments for some kind of pension fund. The stupid thing is that nobody working here knows anything about that stuff. We have hardly received any information either, so we're not very convincing. The person on the other end of the line usually knows much more about it because they have already sorted out a pension scheme for themselves. We can only make appointments with working people between twenty and forty-five.
So I call the first one: Rainer. Men with that name are usually working, thirty-five and quite nice. You develop a really strange affection or disaffection for names. You generally skip foreign names. There is too much risk of not understanding each other, which is just a waste of time. You also skip all Adolfs, Alberts, Heinzes and Ottilies. Daniels and Sarahs are usually lazy students and shared houses and are not worth the effort either. Stick to Rainer and Volker, Sabine and Claudia, they take care of their pensions.
The first one is on the line, working and forty, great. Now I have to scare him, telling him about the new legislation and that he might be homeless when he is old. But he is a civil servant. The next one starts by asking where I got her number from (the phone book, you stupid cow): 'Well, you participated in a promotion campaign.' 'I haven't!' 'You must have, otherwise I wouldn't have your number, would I...'
After half an hour you lean back, drink, eat, and the housewives talk about the importance of old age provision. They have already made appointments for themselves. The boss doesn't pay any bonus or anything. There's just a fixed wage, paid in cash. And for five euros an hour (maybe six or seven after a certain length of service) you don't stay on the phone till your ears glow. So out of an hour, you chat for ten minutes. Plus there's four of us sitting in a small room, two pairs face to face without any separating walls or anything. So if two of us chat there's no way the others can make phone calls because the background noise is simply too loud. You're kind of forced to take a break. After two hours, we go down into the courtyard to have a smoke. Everyone is well behaved and signs their names in the break list. Usually it is just us, as there is no team leader around at this time of the day. It may sound easy but it's still about twenty calls an hour, the calls are terribly bland and so are the housewives really. That's why the six hours pass slowly as hell.
Official additional tasks
In the above examples we describe the steps of the work process 'ideally' that is when enough people call and the workers are working at full capacity. This is not always the case but luckily management have all kinds of other work in store for the workers. For example:
Basically we're also doing secretary work, like typing up the questionnaire answers (...) and of course all the texts still have to be translated into English, we do that as well (...). In the beginning, those translations were done by translators who were hired specially for the purpose. That is not the case any more as it seems to be easier like this. [Sofres, Paris, 2000]
In the beginning it was only money orders, standing orders etc., and passing on information. Then suddenly there were stock orders. Later on, all the calls to the technical hotline were routed to us and we had to make credit offers. So there was more and more stuff. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
It is both good and bad [additional tasks other than phone calls]. Sure, you have to work more but then again it means a lot of variation for you. Sometimes you're glad if you can do a complaint slip or prepare parcels to be sent out. [Client Logic, Duisburg, 2000]
Unofficial additional tasks
Apart from the 'official' tasks the extensive division of work creates many 'unofficial additional tasks' that mean stress but are indispensable for the smooth running of the workplace. The capitalist process of production does not allow a real and collective co-ordination of workers. They have to work together across partition walls and divides between departments and companies. These 'artificial' separations are meant to disguise the connection between workers, their daily cooperation which also offers the possibility of getting rid of the capitalists and organising production themselves (differently).
The 'separated cooperation' creates a lot of chaos that has to be made up for through additional tasks. As an isolated worker, we experience this contradiction as 'inefficient organisation of work' and 'incompetent management'. Only by looking at the totality can we realise that these problems are a result of the capitalist mode of production.
Those unofficial tasks include the constant retrieval of information, improvising in order to cover up the non-existing services or supply problems, making excuses to cover up ignorance or lack of information, making up for or trying to solve software problems...
5.5 Working together: From productive to subversive cooperation
As we have already indicated, capital extends the division of work in order to organise it more productively: there are redundancies in large factories, work is out sourced to suppliers who are connected to each other via an extended transport and administrative system...
However, this only seems to be a way out of the problems for capital and in fact is its biggest threat. It makes more workers dependent on each other, and in times of conflict they can use this dependency against the capitalist direction. Cooperating and having to communicate in order to cooperate can become the foundation for the organisation of your own struggle. Therefore one of the main goals of the representatives of capital is to disguise this extended cooperation using a number of means (such as technology, hierarchy) whilst not putting the smooth functioning of the work process at risk.
This is a big problem for them! But there are always ideologies lending them a hand, not least a (unionist) left that keeps emphasising the isolation in the workplace and the totality of control instead of questioning that shit and showing the interconnectedness of 'modern' workplaces.
Concentration and face to face cooperation
First of all the mere existence of call centres suggests that in spite of all the implied (subversive) risks of having lots of workers work together in one building, it is still more productive for capital than any home worker, no matter how well-controlled and isolated. For all the fuss that was made about telework or computer home work in the eighties, it has not amounted to much.
Call centres point to the fact that in spite or even because of machines direct human (and hierarchical) cooperation remains central to capitalist valorisation. If you ask individual workers if they co-operate with others they will normally answer 'no'. Apparently communication with co-workers is not seen as 'work'. But talking to each other is a necessary precondition for the work process and a daily part of socialising in the call centre.
There is direct cooperation with those sitting around me doing the same work and with those from the Resource Desk because I talk about the cases with them and together we find solutions, pass cases on to each other or bitch about work. [Hewlett Packard, Amsterdam, 2000]
It's the easiest thing in the world to ask the co-worker next to you if she knows something that you have missed, if she has understood things when you didn't listen, or if she knows tricks you haven't come up with yet. And that's how many-sided this kind of communication is, either a way of retrieving information or a way of passing on work. [Medion, Muelheim, 2000]
There is a more informal cooperation where co-workers tell each other about new things, like where on the internet you can find information about products that we advise on. Often we have to give advice on new products, without being trained in them. The new client companies software programme just appears on the screen, then people start calling up. So it's important that there's this kind of informal cooperation. [Client Logic, Duisburg, 2000]
Part of the cooperation is over the phone. In the call centre this is chiefly about passing customers on or asking for information.
At DB 24 there was cooperation when you put customers through to the back office if they had special questions (e.g. more credit). So you called through, talked briefly to them and then passed the customer on. Or you couldn't answer a customer's question, then you also called and asked them. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
At HP we always had the 'first level' on the line first. They told us what kind of customer was calling and what kind of computer he had. HP had tried to handle that with IVR and CTI but the technical problems and customers complaints were so massive that they went back to doing it the 'conventional' way. [Hewlett Packard, Amsterdam, 2000]
Sometimes I have to phone around for stuff, for example to find out where that laptop has got to. Then I call the repair shop first, then the complaint department, later maybe also the parcel service in the post office. [Medion, Muelheim, 2000]
The other day we were given a new task: so-called 'consolidations'. It was taken away from the branch office. Now if the branch offices want to do a consolidation they have to call us and we check it. But the branch office workers still have to authorise the transaction. Of course they don't like this new system because it makes everything more complicated. Then they don't really read the instructions for the new procedures properly, so they call us and we have to explain it to them. [Citibank, Duisburg, 2001]
Other (electronic) forms of cooperation
There is another form of cooperation on a more abstract level. Often we are not dealing with a concrete person, for example when we process information that another worker has entered into the database or when we make an appointment with a caller for an 'outdoor worker' or someone in the branch office. Often you don't hear from the other person until something goes wrong, for example if twenty people show up at the branch office at the same time or when the plastic fairing for the Suzuki was not supposed to be delivered to the Hell's Angels' HQ. 'Minor' disruptions like those show us that we are not cooperating with 'the computer' but with other people who often dislike their jobs as much as we do.
In the case of a computer hotline the extended cooperation is obvious. The computer components are made in Malaysia, Indonesia or China, transported to East Germany, Poland or the Czech Republic where they are assembled into a computer system and then delivered to the shops, bought, and finally supported. On the phone, the call centre worker finds out that the CD drive is broken, the customer sends it to the so-called producer and gets a new CD drive. In the repair shop they cannot find a fault and some cheap supplier feeds the drive, which might have a defect, back into the market where it might end up in an infinite loop or in a flea market in Gelsenkirchen or Mombassa. However the customer might not get a new CD drive because the dockers in Singapore are on strike or because the call centre worker forgets to press the appropriate button. Then the customer will sooner or later end up in the complaints department, but only after they have already been lied to or fobbed off by several call centre workers.
5.6 Machinery - never mind the call master
The carving-up of workflows into single tasks and the distribution of those tasks among individual workers is the basis for the use of machines. In offices this took place before the emergence of call centres: first, there was the rummaging through employees' desks and the cataloguing of their piles of paper, then accounting was standardised until everything was digestible enough to be stored in ones and zeroes.
But the mere fact that something is stored on a computer and a worker can access it does not subject her to a specific rhythm of work or the dictate of a strict sequence of tasks. Not even if she has to make phone calls on the side. So what is it that causes the feeling that many call centre workers describe: 'I'm getting calls like on an assembly line, one computer mask after the other pops up, and it's sucking me dry.' What causes that feeling when there's nothing threatening about a telephone and a computer as such?
To find out, we have to disassemble the whole thing into its pieces to see how they fit together to become machinery.
In the beginning there was standardisation
The problem for management is that often they are not able to see what is really happening in complex workflows and thus are not able to measure, control, and ultimately increase the amount of work delivered. Therefore they have to divide those complex processes into simple single tasks. The transition from artisans to the factory went like that, and it's no different in the call centre, even if customer cases are being processed, rather than metal or wood. In call centres conversation flows and data entries rather than movements are analysed and then standardised because the 'work performances' could hardly be compared if everybody talked the way they wanted to.
This way, one team that has delivered the demanded twenty calls per hour per worker, can be set against another team that hasn't managed it. Control measures are thus legitimised. At first glance, standardisation is not bound to any sophisticated technology: In some call centres we still find pen and paper rather than a computer, especially in 'outbound'. Here workers must use certain greeting formulas, sales phrases, conflict de-escalation techniques, and question lists. Here are some examples of scripts and standard wordings:
At eight a.m., I have to sit at my desk with all my papers and have the phone ready for my first call. I don't have a computer. So at least I don't have to turn that on, that's something positive. The team leader comes by with a pile of paper slips. Like copies from the Yellow Pages sorted by different sectors. Now it's your choice if you'd rather try to sell a subscription for a magazine to a carpenter or a real estate broker. Everyone has their favourites. Then you call all the addresses on the paper slips from top to bottom. After each call I make a sign by the address so I will know if I have to call again. Everyone has their own method because you keep your slips for resubmission until you have finally reached everyone on the slip. Later you won't be able to tell one thing from another anyway, what with all the addresses and your own notes squashed together. The most important thing apart from the address slips is the script. The great thing about the job is that not only you're not supposed to think for yourself, you're not even supposed to phrase for yourself. A conversation is supposed to be ninety percent pre-phrased from the script. Not only the words are pre-phrased but also what you emphasise, how you raise and lower your voice. After two hours there is a fifteen minute break for everybody, and you're not allowed to take one minute more. After the shift, you really feel like a machine that has repeated the same text a hundred times. [Subscription sales, Essen, 2001]
It all began in the summer this year. Up to then we were free to talk to the customers however we wanted. But then came standard phrasings and the horror began. First we got friendly instructions but when management realised we still spoke the way we wanted to they began to test us and put pressure on us. Now we get internal check-up calls every day and management threatened to give us written warnings for refusal or disrespect of instructions. [hotlines leaflet for Quelle, November 2000]
From paper to the computer
The standardisation of conversations and data collection is the basis for controlling and intensifying work performance. But it still leaves space for workers: questionnaires get lost in piles of paper slips, sometimes it takes a while before certain information is found in a folder...
The introduction of computers meant that most of the paper disappeared from the desk and certain software and computer masks made the worker really follow the work steps. For example she must make entries in a determined sequence because otherwise she can't go on in the software program. It's also easier to control how long it takes a call centre worker to make specific entries because times are automatically and electronically recorded.
The computer tells you exactly how to enter the figures. First the account number, then click if it's a money order, a standing order, or whatever. If it's a money order then the number of the other account etc. If you clicked a wrong button or if you've forgotten anything there is an error message. Or nothing happens at all. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
We have an ancient program that looks like DOS. You have to use combinations of keys like F7 for saving or whatever. You have to make all entries in a set order. If you skip something you can't go on... or the program crashes. But there are some tricks as well. You learn them after a few weeks of work. For example for missing information you simply enter zeroes in number fields and random letters in text fields. [Fiat, Milan, 2002]
When you're on the phone nobody tells you what to do. The computer gives you the information about the customers calling. If you press the wrong key, it says 'wrong key' etc. The computer gives you hints... [Client Logic, Duisburg, 2000]
Combining computer and telephone
Up to this point, the computer has mainly been used to deliver and store the information you need or generate on the phone. This is faster than using paper so it allows for intensification of work. However this is imposed more through personal control than through the technology itself.
A qualitative change happens only when computer and telephone are combined. This enables the agents of capital to take away the control over the tasks before and after the phone call from the workers: Dialling the number or accepting the call, finding matching customer data, hanging up, post-processing... They can also automatically record and compare the duration of the calls or the time between ringing and accepting the call. This combination of computer and telephone happens at three levels:
Connection of all desks to a central, computer-controlled telephone machine (ACD)
The ACD machine (Automatic Call Distribution) takes all inbound calls and distributes them among the workers who are logged in. Each worker has a profile saying which calls she can handle. The ACD machine also records which worker has received what and how many calls. So if there is a call from England concerning a computer product X the machine finds out who speaks English, who supports product X, whose turn it is, or who has not had a call for a while. Some machines are configured so that the call gets routed to the first 'free agent'. If all workers are either talking or taking a break the ACD machine puts the call in a waiting loop where it remains until the caller hangs up, or one worker is 'ready' again.
Many call centres also register every step the worker does on the phone - accepting the call, duration of the call... - and the worker has to push buttons on the 'Call Master', a kind of telephone with loads of buttons. There is a button for every kind of break: official break, loo, training, post-processing. When she is back on the phone she has to push the 'ready' button. Once a call has been routed to a worker there are two possibilities:
* In many call centres she has to accept the call manually in order to have it on the headset. If she doesn't accept it within a certain length of time the call gets routed to the next 'free agent'. The personal statistic which the ACD machine keeps for every worker will show that a call was not accepted. This 'accepting' of calls leaves workers with a certain amount of control. They can just 'let it ring' or watch several phones for co-workers who are taking a break.
* That is why in some other call centres the calls are put directly on the headset (direct-to-ear). There is a short ring in the line or a digital voice says that for example someone is calling on the info line. Thus, the workers have to have the headset on their heads all day or sign off every time they want to chat or go to the loo.
The ACD machine determines the rhythm of work based on incoming calls and serves as a supreme instrument of control. It stores all the data: breaks, post call processing, 'missed' calls, average duration of call, number of internal and external calls. The call centre managers need this for several reasons:
* They try to base shift plans on the data. What are the peak times, what are the times when nobody calls? If there are two hundred people calling per hour, a call takes three minutes and post-processing takes one, how many workers do I need? Of course this does not really work because it is not possible to make an exact prediction of the number and duration of calls.
* They present the data collected by the ACD machines as 'objective' quantities in order to speed up workers and set them against each other on an individual or team basis. To these ends, they make up arbitrary ratios like the service level which says things like how many calls were in the waiting loop for less than three minutes. Some departments at Hewlett Packard post individual workers' and teams' ACD statistics with names and daily rankings every day. TAS puts the data on the screens every day. At Citibank the list is displayed on a computer screen near the entrance. Here is another example:
At first we didn't give a shit about the ACD data. We can control our break times on the phone but we didn't take it that seriously. But then the call centre management came up with a bonus scheme. It's a bit funny. Officially they admitted that many people are late too often and go over their break times. Normally, this would lead to a talk with the team leader but maybe that's too much effort for them. Anyway they rate the 'skills' now. There are so-called hard skills and soft skills. The ACD is becoming important for the hard skills, anyway it's obvious that they analyse all that rubbish now. So once a month we get a letter saying if we got the bonus or if we didn't. Our data must be below a certain average. They also list the different items: how long you were logged on, how many calls you had, how many entries you made into the program, how long your average time was, how much time you took for post-processing, and of course the breaks. It might become important that in one month you spent fourteen hours, twelve minutes and eight seconds on the loo.
At first this really changed the mood, suddenly everyone paid attention not to be late, how long their breaks were, and always making entries into the program. Everyone started comparing their data. But by now all that has calmed down again. Now the ACD really bothers us when the team leader watches it and comes up to you twenty-three seconds later complaining that your call is taking too long, that he is watching you because you're the person who switches to break too often... [Medion, Muelheim, 2001]
Combination of PC, network and the individual worker's phone (CTI)
All call centres using computers use database software for registering customers and post-processing handling of cases. When ACD is used, a call is routed to a worker, she asks for the customer number or registration number, enters this into a software mask of the database and gets the data on her screen. Since there is a lot of potential for losing time in this - and since many call centre workers take their time - they have come up with something else: When CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) is used the customer's phone number is compared to the customer database. The found record is then automatically displayed on the screen of the worker who got the call from the ACD machine. So she receives the call and the data record simultaneously. If this process works - which it doesn't all the time - it allows a considerable speed-up of work.
Automatic dialling (power or predictive dialler)
In outbound, workers call people to sell stuff to them or frisk them for information. They may use existing customer data or simply the phone book. Partly they still use pen and paper, but some call centres try to use every second and keep the workers constantly on the line.
Power or predictive dialler software automatically retrieves customers' phone numbers from the database and calls them up. As soon as the machine dials, but sometimes even as late as when the customer answers, the call gets routed to a 'free agent' through the ACD machine.
Some call centres use the calling statistics to see how many people are home at seven p.m. on average. Then it makes a prediction as to how many of these people cannot be reached because they are already on the phone. Let's suppose that one hundred out of two hundred people are at home but that twenty percent of them are currently talking on the phone. And let's also suppose that there are one hundred workers on the line in the call centre. Then the power dialler will call about two hundred and forty people at the same time - half of them are not home, twenty percent are busy - and the ACD machine routes the remaining accepted phone calls to the workers.
While almost all centres use ACD machines, far less have CTI and power diallers. Their use is only profitable above a certain number of employees. Sometimes we have also observed that the technology gets stuck, crashes, creates chaos...
The ACD machine in combination with the phone and the PC presents itself to the workers as machinery because it determines the rhythm of work based on the calls. Calls come in and the machinery forces the workers to accept them. As a worker, you soon find yourself struggling against the rhythm of those ceaseless calls and having to think of ways to outsmart the machinery. This struggle is taken to yet another level when direct-to-ear, CTI or power diallers are used.
At Deutsche Bank 24 you immediately get calls on the headset and data on the screen. It's really annoying when you have the calls immediately in your ear. You constantly have to pay attention, you don't even have time to take a deep breath. The phone dictates when and how you accept calls. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
I do three different customer lines. Only the message on the phone tells me which call is coming in. A digital voice says something about 'spare parts' or 'warranty case'. Then I have to recite my greeting line right away because the customer is immediately on the line. At some point that happens automatically. You hear the voice and say the line, without thinking. You finish the call, hang up... and again it's voice, greeting, handling the call, hanging up... [Fiat, Milan, 2002]
When friendliness, the smile on the phone, is not a decisive part of the telephone service commodity, capitalists try to replace labour power altogether. Based on standardisation and computing, management experiments with the introduction of voice computers (Interactive Voice Response, IVR) in some areas. Particularly when standardisation is very advanced and companies have divided customer qualification and the actual telephone service into two levels, they then try to replace the simple prompting for customer data in the 'first level' with automatic machines. The same goes for banks where customer qualification is particularly high due to privacy and possible abuse of data. Here is an example:
At DB24 there is a ring in your headset then a window opens on your screen displaying the customer's name and other data. You recite your greeting line and if the person doesn't repeat their name you ask who is speaking. That works maybe in eighty percent of cases. In the other twenty per cent, IVR doesn't work because they have to enter their account number and pin number by voice or phone key entry before ACD / CTI puts them through to us. A lot of them are also annoyed by the IVR because they generally hate talking to a machine or because the machine doesn't accept their entries and keeps querying for the numbers. They go on and on about it to us... Others enter invalid data on purpose so they get routed directly to us. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
It's not so much workers' overwhelming friendliness which cannot be simulated by voice computers but rather capitalists' lack of knowledge about the work process and unforeseeable complications that prevents a broad introduction of voice computers for simple tasks. At Citibank workers have to record certain information during calls which is seen as important for the introduction of voice computers: does the customer have a speech defect? Does he speak a local dialect? Does he ask unexpected questions? Does he display any other behaviour which is difficult for machines to process?
They want to introduce a voice computer for all repetitive tasks like taking stock orders, money orders and standing orders as well as stock prices ('How much is this bond?'). But it seems they don't even have the technology for that yet. Today's voice computers (announcing account balances) are not terribly sophisticated either, as they crash when there's a certain number of callers. This week they started routing all calls to us through a voice computer (before that there was a separate number for the voice computer). This was a failure. Because of the voice computer, they couldn't close the lines any more when there were too many calls. So now they often have around a hundred and forty people in the waiting loop where there never used to be more than sixty. Everybody complains but nobody pulls the plugs... [Citibank, Duisburg, 2000]
Thus, voice computers have not 'rationalised' call centres as successfully as the unions thought, who claimed years ago that voice computers would make tens of thousands of call centre jobs redundant. Like the image of the 'workerless car factory' in the eighties, this overestimates the knowledge and the power of capitalists and thus reinforces the feeling of powerlessness and redundancy among workers.
The human-machine relationship
'Control' and 'rationalisation' are only one aspect of the function of machines. As much as the bosses try to disempower workers and make them work harder through the introduction of new technologies, they cannot escape from the contradiction that machines remain what they are: instruments of work. Ultimately it's the workers who make machines 'come alive', who make them productive.
How do workers relate to the machines, to the contradiction that they are instruments of work and at the same time the means of their intensified exploitation?
One thing that makes working in a call centre attractive is that you work with modern machines. In our homes, computers are currently hipper than blood pressure measuring machines or sheet metal cutters. What changes when you have to surf the internet or talk on the phone 'at work'? Here are some examples:
A lot of people bitch around all the time because the software is slow, freezes, crashes etc. You have a customer on the phone but you cannot do anything for him because you've go no info. You blame it on the 'stupid computer' but also on Fiat because they aren't using better computers or better software. There isn't much you can do about it because the computer is usually the only source of information. The customers complain but you're used to that anyway. At the same time a lot of people use the computer for their own ends: checking and writing e-mail, surfing, chatting. Some do it all the time even though it's forbidden and the team leaders talk to people about it. 
Everyone is surfing and e-mailing but it's not forbidden either. After all, it's part of your 'training'. Other than that you're supposed to play with the test computers (not your own workstation), build in stuff, install it, try it. A lot of people do it because they're interested in it... or because they want to show the team leaders that they're interested... or to pass time. 
In the call centre where I work lots of workers loaded PC games onto their computers or surfed the internet during breaks or wrote private e-mails or stuff like that. That didn't necessarily make the breaks shorter so management restricted the use of the internet to certain sites and deleted all games from the computers. The only thing they left was some paint program. First we wondered why they left us a fucking paint program that we really don't need for work. Then you could see that during the breaks a lot of people played with the paint program thus remaining at their desks, while others loitered around the coffee machine talking to each other. That showed us why. 
Well I mean, it's a computer hotline. So some people 'made their hobby a profession', and some use their hobby to hack programs or to crack the coffee machine. One time, the entire hotline found a pop-up program that allowed everyone to communicate to each other. In the beginning, five people were chatting to each other, in the end everyone added to the chaos. Management took the program off our computers. But before long some people found new ways to 'chat' with each other. 
5.7 Hierarchy - Here is the team leader
The rhythm of work is determined by a combination of customer calls, software and the ACD machine. However, workers hardly ever direct their hate against the machinery, because the ACD machine appears to be objective. Instead, they direct it against the team leaders.
As long as data entry is just something you do in a computer it annoys you but it doesn't necessarily make you accept every call or keep you from going to 'post-processing' for a little break. If it weren't for the team leaders. It's their job to put pressure on workers with the help of data from the ACD machine. Thus, the pressure to work is imposed chiefly through personally mediated command.
Team leaders, supervisors etc. are there to make us work and to impose the intensification of work. They control whether we accept enough calls per hour, how long our breaks are, whether we comply with quality guidelines etc. Apart from controlling us, they're assigned other tasks like organising, retrieving information etc. so that we don't see them exclusively as watchdogs or spies. We are supposed to have to talk to them if something goes wrong or when we need something - and at the same time they impose the call statistics on us. That way, the team leaders collect information on the work process and pass it on to management. The latter use the information to further intensify work. Since the team leaders are our first 'contact partners' they also act as a buffer. Whenever there are problems, whenever we're angry about something we are supposed to let it out on the team leader instead of attacking management directly. This is supposed to minimise and limit conflict. The Team leaders are supposed to impose the will of management on us. Depending on the kind of conflict and what they want from it they behave differently: Those who used to work on the phones before are good at acting more 'buddy-like'; they get very friendly with us and pretend they try to solve all the problems. Team leaders who have been hired from the outside are often more 'distanced' and authoritarian; they keep their distance and openly take measures against workers. [hotlines no. 2, December 2000]
This creates a situation where on the one hand many workers argue with their team leaders about breaks, shift plans and lack of information all the time while management can remain in the background and keep counting their money. On the other hand the arguments are often based on the 'we all are one team' nonsense, and them acting as if we were close personal friends:
The bosses don't behave like bosses. That's why they're called 'mentors' and 'supervisors', but they always remain friendly. The owner of a pub where I used to work liked to tell the little waitresses to pick up pieces of paper from the floor. That doesn't fit into a call centre strategy where they have to tell us that we are doing something extremely useful as a group and are being nice to each other at the same time. 
You get personal, are of the same age, have the same hobbies... Some team leaders have a hard time asserting their authority, and claims and conflicts are discussed at a personal level: 'Hey, don't you want to let me go early today!'... 
But this can only superficially conceal the frontline. The machinery imposes a rhythm of work, which workers can only liberate themselves from by cutting their connection to the machine: going into 'post-processing', taking breaks, ignoring calls. Team leaders try to make sure that doesn't happen.
The ACD machine can only compare figures, i.e. the quantity of calls or the duration of breaks. The team leaders have to keep putting those figures on our desks to 'motivate' us or threaten us with consequences if we do not 'improve'. However they also control the 'quality' - friendliness, compliance with speaking rules... So far there isn't a machine that can control that. The team leaders listen into calls - sometimes without the workers knowing it - issue orders, give training sessions. In some call centres they have additional coaches for that.
5.8 Being on the telephone - What service?
We're talking about talking, in different ways, with different functions and intentions, flexible and standardised, the same flowery phrases two hundred and fifty times or only ten times a day. Being yelled at, being talked to, not understanding anything, reassuring, rebuking, appeasing, promising, lying, making excuses, stammering, and being bored to death. Not listening but having something to say, reacting to catchwords, not finishing, or just letting them talk.
For both sides, talking to someone else on the phone means above all, an abstraction. On the phone there are no things like gestures, facial expressions, postures and clothes, which make communication easy when it's live and direct with an actual person. If I was talking to a twenty-year-old with long dreads and face piercings I wouldn't dream of talking to him in a formal way, and he probably wouldn't expect me to either. On the phone I even treat seven-year-olds like grown-ups.
Call centre workers must rely exclusively on language, their choice of words and emphasis, on anything a voice can do. And they must hope that their cultural understanding of communication somehow overlaps with the caller's. Considering this thin ice, it's a wonder communication on the phone works at all. Many times it doesn't. And one thing's for sure: call centre workers are the ones who have to adapt flexibly to the customers' communicative capabilities or incapabilities. Examples:
Inbound, computer hotline
My phone rings. 'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. Can I have your customer number, please. Okay, I'll put you through to the technical department.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. For that problem I have to put you through to a technician. Do you already have a customer number? Then I'll register you and then put you through. Just tell me your computer's serial number. Your last name is Parsley? The first name? The zip code? That's in Grevenbroich? And the street. With the number. And lastly your private phone number plus the area code. All right, I'll tell you your customer number, please note: 1234568. I'll put you through to one of our technicians now.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. For that problem I have to put you through to a technician. Do you already have a customer number? Then I'll register you and then put you through. Just tell me your computer's serial number. Exactly, the computer. No, you don't have to know it by heart, it's on the back of the box, er... the computer. It starts with XYZ S slash N and has about twelve characters. Well, just have a look. No, that's Microsoft's product id. I need the computer's serial number. XYZ S/N. No, not AJ, XYZ S/N. A little further down. Yes, yes, on the white label sticker. Your last name is Stock? The first name? The zip code? Then ask your wife or look on a letter you have received. And the street? The house number? I'll tell you your customer number: 1234590. No, that's not a phone number, it's your customer number. Hang on, I'll put you through.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. I'll put you through to the technical department.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. Then tell me your customer number. Just a moment, I'll look. No, it's not ready yet. There were problems with the suppliers. We expect the shipment any day now. Sorry, there is no way I can speed it up. Of course this is beyond the regular delivery time. Please address your complaints to the firm in written form. Of course I understand you. Yes, I can imagine how you feel, but if there aren't any in stock I cannot send out any. I'm sorry for any inconvenience. Bye.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name... You would like to talk to a superior, just a moment please.'
Outbound, subscription sales 
And here we go: 'Schnewsweek is offering a subscription (emphasised) for executives (emphasised) at preferential (emphasised) conditions (don't lower your voice!). You'll receive (emphasised) ten (emphasised) issues of schnewsweek absolutely free (don't lower your voice!) and after you'll get each double issue for a special price of 9.10 DM (emphasised) for twelve months (still don't lower your voice!) and what's really special, after (emphasised) that year you can cancel the subscription anytime (emphasised), immediately (emphasised). So you won't be caught in a (now the most demanding moment regarding my acting skills! I act like I have to think really hard how to express that state): subscription trap!!! (and now in a totally relaxed and casual way) Agreed?'
The person on the other end usually finds this ridiculous. Firstly, this is due to the ridiculous reading from the sheet because we aren't allowed to act the slightest bit as if this was spoken freely. Instead, real slow and with much emphasis. Secondly, it is due to this stupid trick: 'Agreed?'
Of course not, what do you think, but nice try and a really beautiful act. Or the other person has only heard 'free' and says immediately: Yes, sure, I'll take it. Others want to think about it at least and want something written, which is understandable. But they won't get anything, because in telemarketing special conditions there is no such thing. If you don't read Schnewsweek I'll quickly offer you some other magazine. Our publishing house has everything. But of course, strictly according to the script. The right sentence for every objection. If you don't find it or read the wrong one, that's embarrassing. If you stray too far from the script or if you read to fast or with wrong emphases, you immediately have the team leader on your back, or a fellow worker warning you of the team leader.
The relationship to service
How do those who are forced to serve experience the 'service society'? What sense do they see in 'their' call centre-work and how do they handle the contradiction that on one hand they are meant to 'serve the customer' (quality) and on the other hand are told to process as many customers as possible per hour (quantity)? There are two sides to the 'friendliness on the phone' thing. Most workers want to help the customer, but they fail due to the work-organisation and required work speed. If there are no three-piece suites in the warehouse, you can't deliver them. If the information the customer demands is not available the worker has to start improvising, lying or trying in other creative ways to wriggle themselves out of the sticky situation. This determines how a lot of call centre-workers relate to their 'service': 'I can't change the organisation of work. Some things just don't work and I'm the fool who has to compensate for them by talking!' The problems, failures, insufficiencies - the absence of 'service'- have to be talked away, while in the meantime some customers get really furious. They put you on the spot, eight hours a day. Never let the customers take the control of the conversation, otherwise you are lost. When the person calling starts to define the roles you have to react fast: put them off, tell them off, soothe them with lies, fob them off, but never let them walk all over you. In the run of their job, call centre-workers develop enormous capabilities to perform social- or psycho-therapeutic work. They find themselves in a tense atmosphere: on one hand they have to maintain a certain sensitivity while talking to the customer, but on the other hand they have to be rough enough to make it through the working day.
Without the call centre Aldi couldn't sell computers and Aral [gas stations] or Tschibo [coffee shops] couldn't flog off CD-burners. Or they would have to deliver a whole library of manuals. Before they buy stuff, some people ask if there is technical support they can phone when problems appear. It's also a psychological support in order to give people the feeling that they are not being left alone with the product and the problems. [Medion, Muelheim 2001]
5.9 Workers behaviour - Survival techniques
Workers develop forms of refusal of work wherever capital brings them together. Capital's insatiable hunger to multiply implies the tendency to use workers up and bleed them dry. In many call centres burning out is an everyday fact. Workers quit after six months or a year - in spite of nice workmates or conditions that seem to be good compared to other jobs - because they notice how their eyesight blurs, how their ears hurt, how blaring customer complaints burn into their brains.
In order to still be sane at the end of the shift, workers think of ways to take breaks, oases of quiet that let them breathe. To that end, they pretend they have important things to do and then somehow end up in front of the coffee machine. They make wrong entries into the computer in order to shorten the processing of a call or they 'work to rule', nice and slowly, so nothing goes wrong. If all that is not enough they have no other choice but to call in sick. After a few days in bed or at parties the telephone terror is easier to take.
We have found such forms of refusal in all call centres. Many workers who are usually not very rebellious use them. Most of the time they happen on an individual basis. They make it easier to survive, but they don't shake the regime of exploitation. Rather, they are a part of the process of exploitation because they make sure we don't collapse under the workload.
How does that happen? For example, call centre workers answer the phone but then put the call in 'silent' mode - so they can hear the caller, but the caller doesn't hear them - and go on chatting to their fellow worker. In between, when they hear keywords, they slip back into the customer conversation. It takes a little practice, but it's possible. Or they take the call but then go on reading their article and again react only to keywords. It takes coolness if you have to ask something three times. But you can always claim the connection was bad... You try to reach other workers from other departments and you take a little time to breathe between the communications. Or you take five minutes for a private call. Unfortunately, that is not always possible. You keep nice customers in the line as long as possible so you can have a nice chat. You joke, flirt, exchange e-mail addresses. This can end badly, if it was a test call...
Sometimes, customers create real problems. Then either you make the problem disappear or you make the customer disappear from the phone. You can put them into the nearest waiting loop or you can accidentally hit the wrong key or you can tell the customers what they want to hear. And you can test out the flexibility of ACD data: How long can I stretch my breaks before I get told off? How often can I refuse accepting a call before I have to go and talk to the team leader?
Here are two more examples which show solidarity among workers. Usually this only happens when workers have developed a certain solidarity and have had experiences with similar conflicts.
The inbound workers were supposed to talk callers into taking credit. Most workers simply ignored the order. First of all, because it is embarrassing when somebody wants to place a money order and you start going on about fucking credit. Secondly, because many workers think it's not okay to talk people into a credit trap when they don't have money anyway. Thirdly, because of the stress a long credit call causes. 
We were supposed to put pressure on our fellow workers. For example, as soon as there was a call for the French language line on the display which was visible to all, we were supposed to tell the 'free' French speaking workers to accept the call. We ignored it. Most of us made fun of that order. 
Between calls there is a lot of talk with other workers. Some customer calls mean emotional stress. You had to tell a customer he can't have credit when he told you about his suffering and the blows that fate has dealt him. Or you were yelled at for the fifth time because the waiting loop takes so long. In order to handle it you need co-workers, or else it's your boyfriend, girlfriend or room-mates who have to hear about it every time. No matter how well you keep your 'professional distance', it leads to a nervous breakdown if you don't have somebody to talk to about it.
5.10 General perspective - A report from one of the shit holes
The steps of work, the organisation of work, the machinery, workers' behaviour... the misery of work is more than arguments with the team leader or trouble with crashing computer masks. What we experience as 'imposition of work' is the combination of all that. Here is an example of an overall description of everyday life at work in the Fiat call centre in Milan, Italy:
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...[Fiat, Milan, 2002]
That is everyday working life!
62 We have marked most quotes with the name of the call centre and the place. Where we could not, or where the interviewee did not want us to, we have left out the exact whereabouts.
63 Here is a short summary of the part on workers from the last chapter. This time we focus on the subjectivity, the expectations...
64 Although most call centre workers seem to have relationships that are just as flexible as their jobs: It's never for long...
65 Assessment centres use different assessment methods. Usually, several applicants are tested simultaneously. The selection of the job-applicants is oriented on sexist stereotypes: women should be nice, give you a sense of warmth... men should give an impression of competence.
66 There is also the 'risk' that workers might see themselves and each other as equals among equals in their general 'un-skilledness' and get together in their anti-work behaviour.
67 As we have already mentioned, employers favour high turnover because by replacing workers they hope to ensure that workers collectivise their resistance to work. But it has its limits: when training and hiring costs get too high... or when there aren't any 'skilled' people left who are prepared to work in these places and consequentially the wages rise.
68 We can only say 'fuck off' to all those who call us 'unskilled' but constantly eavesdrop on us to sell that information as their 'entrepreneurial knowledge' and then try to chain us to some 'employment category' and to the phone until we retire.
69 Of course, apprentices have to work during their three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship - for lower wages.
70 Thus, the 'official organisation of work' is a fake and the official forms of cooperation are a dead end. See the next section on 'cooperation'.
71 We can recall that cooperation over the phone has already been 'turned around' in other sectors. Some of the truck drivers' strikes in France were chiefly organised over mobile phones and CB.
72 Under certain circumstances standardisation can be seen as a relief, because it means you don't have to 'think': 'I'm supposed to read those sentences they way they are written. So I'm not responsible for the way it works. I don't have to be creative at all. It works wonderfully. We read it the way it's written in the computer, and that's how we do it.' Market research, Amsterdam, 2000. See also chapter 6. Confrontations over standard wordings.
73 In some call centres the 'Call Master' has mutated from hardware to software. The 'Call Master' keypad is a window on the screen and you have to click the keys/buttons. When there is a call, the window pops into foreground automatically, so the worker can see what number is calling... It is a kind of CTI light. See also the following section...
74 There is variation here: Some call centres let customers talk to a voice computer first to let them enter their customer number. So here the CTI software looks up the record to be sent to the worker not by the phone number but by the customer number given by the customer.
75 Some ACD machines are connected to power diallers so that workers get inbound and outbound calls simultaneously (Citibank, Duisburg). See also chapter 6, Confrontations. Here are two quotes from adverts for power dialler software from [www.callcenterprofi.de] 'The advantage of ttCall: The creation of entry masks and conversation guidelines does not require any programming skills. The software also gives call centre managers control possibilities in the form of statistical analyses and employee and project related reports. ttCall (...) makes it possible to change from inbound to outbound on the same workplace.' 'Efficiency increases of between a hundred and fifty and four hundred per cent! At least that is what the predictive dialler function in eShare's Phone Frame Explorer promises. The system calls several customers simultaneously but only routes the agent to customers who can actually be reached. (...) The Call-Blending function allows doing inbound and outbound campaigns in the same workplace...'
76 In the 'first level' unskilled and worse-paid workers do customer qualification like on an assembly line. Often they are required to stay within a limit of an average sixty or ninety seconds. In the 'second level' better-paid and better-skilled workers provide actual service, e.g. PC support on the phone.
77 More about quality and quantity and the role of coaches in chapter 6. Confrontations, 'points of conflict'...
78 Here we expect you to read the script aloud to get the real outbound feeling. Afterward you can listen to forest music or Mike Oldfield to come down again...
79 More comments on this in chapter 6, Confrontations, 'points of conflict'
80 We certainly wouldn't ask anyone to stop individual refusal. But in themselves hiding, taking extra breaks or calling in sick don't make up a rebellious attitude leading up to a revolutionary dynamic. Rather, we find that dynamic in collective forms of refusal that make space for collective experiences of strength, such as collectively ignoring orders.
81 We have to see that in other places workers let themselves be set against each other and tell each other off if they answer calls too late.
82 It reaches the point where customers really get on your nerves. Especially after the point where you've realized you can't help him but he doesn't agree with you. Those debates can kill you...
83 'They pay you like shit, they treat you like shit, the work is boring. Nobody wants to work there for a long time.' 'It's shit work. I'll look for something else. Somebody should burn this place down!' 'You meet nice people from other countries there. But that's the only positive thing!' 'It's like in prison here!' Fiat call centre workers, 2002.
6. Confrontations: The Pulse of Collective Struggle
We are in search for moments of rebellion and subversion. At the beginning of the inquiry and intervention we had hoped to find them in the time between all those phone-calls and quality-monitoring-sessions. We had also hoped to be part of moments where workers themselves try to find a collective answer to their problems. But it was not that easy. We have met other workers who moaned a lot, who wanted to change something instead of taking all the shit - but there were also situations where most of the people remained timid or scared... some unaware of what's going on and some even licking the foreman's bottom.
The following part deals with points of conflicts, lines of struggles and forms of organising. We start once more from the daily experience of exploitation. The points of conflict emerge from the daily tug-of-war over the work, the control, the stress, the boredom. They have to do with hire-and-fire, money, 'free' time and dignity. Along these points evolve lines of struggle like strikes or sabotage. We will describe what kind of experiences workers had in these struggles and where their limitations lie. Along these lines various forms of organising also develop: institutions of representation like works councils or unions; or in contrast to them, rank-and-file unions in Italy or support groups in Germany, for example. Apart from or in addition to these forms, workers also try to organise themselves independently. We will first summarize our observations about these different forms from a critical point of view and then formulate some discussion-points for the debates to come.
6.1 Points of conflict
Call Centres were and are an attack on the refusal of many office workers to accept a deterioration of their conditions (in banks, insurances, the post office, telecom and other offices). For many workers call centres mean longer working hours, forced shift work, constant control and intensification of work. [hotlines no.1, October 2000].
With this quote the most important points from which conflicts and struggles in call centres emerge are mentioned. But we can't lump all call centres together under one headset. The conditions differ and range from a place like Atesia in Italy, where the workers are formally 'self-employed' and have to 'hire' their work-equipment and the 'wage' barely provides them with a living, to Quelle (warehouse company) in Germany, where the workers on the phone have to receive orders literally without any breaks, to certain departments of Hewlett Packard in the Netherlands, where workers only deal with twenty phone-calls a day, but on the other hand have to be 'motivated' to do 'voluntary self-training' due to the constant technical progress Although the machinery used (PCs, computer-nets, head-sets, telephone-systems, software) and the work-organisation (training, team-leaders, front-/back-office...) are similar in most cases, the work-tasks and contracts differ considerably, which also effects the conflicts and forms of struggle.
The fact that we are forced to work and the conditions of work itself can't be seen as separate conflicts, but as related to each other and thereby ruling our lives. Our inquiries and interventions have to bring this cohesion to the fore in order to make clear that only the abolition of class relations can provide an ultimate (dis)solution to individual conflicts. That's not easy, given that we want to refer to the concrete conditions at the same time. We want to start describing the different points where conflicts emerge:
a [Insecure working-conditions]
c [Extension of working time, pressure on wages and intensification of work]
d [Monitoring and control]
e [Bullying, arbitrariness and hoodwinking]
The capitalists try to impose insecure working-conditions in call centres: temp-work, time-limited contracts, apprenticeships, 'self-employment'... Call centres are a more or less new form of the organisation of work and therefore a playground for management-consulting-companies and human-resource-scientists to find the most effective ways of exploiting human labour. Here are some examples:
For years British Telecom has used temp agencies (i.e. Manpower or Hays) to employ people. These people do the same work as the permanents, but for less money. Some of them have worked at British Telecom for ten years without getting the same wage or other benefits that BT provides for 'its' staff. Others are sacked after a short time - or they quit the job themselves.
At Bertelsmann (publisher house) in Muenster the workers hired in 2001 only got six-month contracts. After the contracts ran out only a few of them got a new one... again just for six months. In this way Bertelsmann manages to replace the staff completely every year.
At Blu (mobiles) in Florence/Italy in 1999/2000 many of the 400 call centre workers were contracted with so-called apprenticeship-contracts (CFL: contatto di formazione e lavoro) which are time limited to one or two years. At the beginning of 2002 a conflict arose because Blu did not extend most of the contracts and shifted some of the work to the call centre in Palermo. The main share-holders (i.e. Benetton and British Telecom) want to get rid of Blu all together.
At Korea Telecom most of the workers are employed on temporary or part-time contracts. These workers only earn a third of the permanent workers wage (about 650 Euros), work 56 hours a week, without holidays, without social security. The workers - technicians and call centre workers... - accept these conditions because the management promises them permanent contracts in the future. [hotlines-website, 7th of November 2001]
At Audioservice (advertising, ticket-sales) in Berlin in 2001, the bosses wanted to prevent the workers getting holiday pay and sick pay. So they gave out one-day-contracts: if you arrive at work you first have to sign a work-contract that runs out at the end of your workday. The slightest rebellion could have resulted in not getting hired next day.
At Atesia (telecommunications) in Italy the bosses of Telecom Italia, the only shareholder of Atesia for years, try to impose self-employment on the call centre workers. Atesia is the bottom of a customer care pyramid. In its 'own' call centres also Telecom Italia hires workers on a basis of temporary contracts, temp agencies, apprenticeship contracts... but at Atesia they don't have 'real' work-contracts but so called 'cococo'-contracts (collaboratori, coordinati e continuativi).
'We have to hire our workplace for 1.500 Lire per hour. That amount we have to pay - without earning one Lire - even if we have been ill for three to four days.' [Worker quoted in: Il Manifesto, 1st of May 2002]
The workers are paid per call. If there are no calls, there is no cash and if you start making a fuss about it they won't let you rent your workplace the next day.
All these measures are due to the following aims of the capitalists:
* By creating a situation of insecurity - e.g. waiting for a decision on the extension of a contract or the permanent employment of temp workers or apprentices - the bosses can put more pressure on the workers who are then obliged to work their arses off in order to get a permanent contract. If they refuse to do it, they are sacked.
* By replacing or re-composing the staff regularly the bosses aim to prevent the workers exchanging their knowledge about the work and how to avoid it. This is also to make it more difficult for 'communities of rebels and trouble-makers' to develop within the work place. Often these communities consist of workers who have already worked there for a while and who have found out how to react against the bosses' measures. They know the weak points of the organisation of work in this firm, e.g. how to provoke a computer crash at a time when lots of calls are coming in. Those who are new do not trust the other workers (and vice versa) and try to do a good job in order to survive the probation period.
* By limiting the contracts to a fixed period, by hiring temp workers and apprentices, the bosses are able to react to the fluctuations of the so-called market. They try to shift the risk onto us. In busy times they hire like hell and in periods without many calls they sack us and we have to work out how to cope with that. Breathing factory call centre style. Particularly perverse in this context is the marking of workers as 'self-employed' by making them were badges, as happens in a call centre in Italy.
In addition to the contract stuff the bosses de-compose companies, re-compose them, transfer the functions to other company-owned or external call centres... maybe even to Morocco, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern or India. What is the strategy behind the outsourcing?
* The outsourcing of parts of the company, departments or particular functions creates smaller company units, which makes it easier for the capitalists to put the workers under pressure. Working together with 500 others in the same place is a better condition for us to develop a certain feeling of strength than hanging around with fifty work-mates, only half of whom you meet anyway, due to the weird shift-times.
* Through the virtual connection of different call centres and departments, chains of cooperation with thousand or more workers are created, just like in other sectors, but these workers are separated into umpteen companies. You can not see your work-mate, not even in the break, because she or he is working some floors above, labelled with a badge of a different company - or maybe of the same company but working on the other side of the planet. We don't know anything about the other workers, their (similar) working-conditions, the last strike...
* Many firms also outsource functions in order to create a hierarchy within the work-force: on the one hand a few better paid specialists, who get the companies ideology and motivation training crammed down their necks, and on the other hand a pool of hire-and-fire workers in outsourced workplaces who earn considerably less and are squeezed to the max.
* The bosses calculate that in this way the workers can be played off against each other more easily and that at the same time higher profits can be realized. Sometimes - at least that's what they count on - it's enough to merely announce plans of outsourcing to create an atmosphere of fear in order to force through a deterioration of working conditions or a drop in wages.
The extension of working time, the pressure on wages and the intensification of work
The capitalists have two ways to increase their profits. They can extend the working day and make us work longer - also with the aim of using the machinery more effectively - and by that can increase the exploitation, overtime pay or no. Sometimes that way they also get around hiring more workers. Or they can intensify the work: more calls per hour, idle times between the calls filled up with other tasks, more tasks in general...
Shift-work doesn't sound that threatening and if you just do part-time - as a student or as an additional earner to the main wage of your wife or husband - you might not suffer too much if you have to work four hours in the morning one day and six hours till midnight the next. But whoever has to do this forty hours a week is fucked.
Call Centres brought an extension of shift-work for the white-collar workers, sometimes with special permission for working night shifts and at the weekend provided by the administrations and the government. Some examples:
In 2000 in a call centre of Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg, the management had set one shift finishing at 10 p.m. and the next one starting immediately the next day at 7 a.m., not caring about the fact that you might need an hour to and from work so that there are only six hours left for yourself. Some trouble started in this place because the bosses' promise to take into consideration that women with kids need some time to organise the child-care was broken by this shift-schedule. But hey, shucks, it's your own problem how to get the kids to the kindergarten, ask granny or find someone unemployed to help you.
In the call centres of Telecom Italia they work around the clock: morning-, late-, night- and weekend-shifts. The same happens in many other call centres, e.g. at AOL in Duisburg, at ADAC in Munich...
Shift-work destroys our rhythm of life, even more if the shifts often change. Every month we have to fiddle around to get a free Wednesday for the yoga-class and on Sundays we get bored doing bank-transfers or receiving orders while our friends are having a post-party chill-out (if they are not working themselves).
Night shift and the constant change of sleep-rhythm drags us down. Insomnia, headaches and burn out - but at least we have a 'modern' and 'clean' job. Overtime also plays its part. Some of us have to do overtime because we need the money, some are forced to do it for other reasons: you work overtime or they won't prolong your contract; or the bosses put you under pressure by announcing that otherwise the company will go bankrupt; or they try to mark you as an outsider saying that you are the only one refusing to do overtime.
At Medion (PCs, domestic appliances) the bosses demand overtime during the special 'sales campaigns' by Aldi (a big supermarket-chain), offering cheap computers etc. The workers are obliged to work six days a week for four, eight or more weeks during which they also don't get any holidays.
At Verizon in the US the situation is similar:
Regularly the bosses order 15 hours overtime per week, so that working ten hours a day is normal. People who can't do overtime during the week are obliged to work at the weekends. The bosses also limit the time for taking holidays or visiting the doctor... [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
At Fiat in Milan a lot of workers have to do overtime because otherwise they cannot make up a living wage.
What lies behind this?
* They make us do overtime regularly and pay us a basic-wage for 20 or 40 hours a week. If we are ill or go on holiday, of course they just keep paying us the basic-wage.
* Due to the extra-hours the company can also avoid hiring more workers. We are supposed to cover the extra-work during boom-times by working more hours and stay at home unpaid when the boom is over. It's similar to the strategy of giving us short time contracts in order to hire-and-fire us with the rhythm of the economy.
We depend on wages to survive. But what if you already sweat twenty, forty hours or more on the phone and you still can't pay your rent, food etc.? In modern sociology they have made up a term for that: working-poor. In England, Italy and Germany there are call centres where they pay you so little that you can hardly live of it.
Atesia, a subsidiary of Italia Telecom with the biggest call centre in Rome, is employing five thousand workers who are formally self-employed and who have to 'hire' their work places. They get contracts for three months, some just get them constantly renewed for years. And they are paid by the call: for some calls they get one Euro, for some just ten cents, depending on the kind and content of the call. So the monthly income ranges from 150 to 1000 Euro, due to fluctuation in the amount of calls... In March 2002 the workers in Rome went on strike for two hours because they only got paid 15 Cents per call, phoning for a campaign of Telecom Italia, so that at the end of the month they earned 140 to 150 Euros. The strike was successful, the payment was increased to 40 Cents per call, but the overall situation has not changed: in general Atesia workers' net income is less than the monthly rent for a single-room flat.
In other call-sweat-shops the wage is at least high in comparison to other jobs for 'un-skilled' workers: at Audioservice (adverts, ticket-sales) in Berlin or Emnid (market-research) in Bielefeld, Berlin, Koeln and other towns, in 2001 you earned something between 6 and 7 Euros per hour. But if you are working part-time, that does not reach very far.
At Citibank or Deutsche Bank 24 you can be sure that your monthly wage of 3000 DM before tax is far less than the negotiated wage in the bank sector (about 25 to 30 percent). But hey, that is what they are aiming at: reduction of the branch workers, taylorisation and 'callcentreization' of the organisation of work so that they can suck unskilled and miserably paid workers into the telephone-jobs.
At Telecom Italia it is easy to see how the conditions in general and the wages in particular have deteriorated. Taking inflation into account the wages have decreased about 25 percent in the period between 1990 and 2001.
In addition to that we have to face forms of unpaid labour, for example at ISI (call centre service, subscription-sales) in Duesseldorf and Bochum...
The team-leader told me that the twelve hours trial-shift and the 28 hours telemarketing-work will be 'for free' for 'both sides' (Sounds great, doesn't it?! I'm allowed to work without having to pay for it. That's an exceptional offer nowadays!) [hotlines-website, 20th of March 2001].
Only after this unpaid probation period will the ladies and gentlemen at headquarters decide whether they will accept you... depending on your scores during the free trial period.
At IFB (tele-appointments for tax consulting) in Toulouse/France the boss is ripping off the workers by not giving them the promised bonus.
When you apply at that company they try to attract you with bonuses for each completed contract and they promise good career prospects within the company. But in reality it all looks a bit different: since I have been employed I have only got one single bonus although I kept on pointing out that it looks more than strange that despite all the appointments I arranged over the phone not a single contract had been completed. [leaflet of a worker, hotlines-website, 29th of October 2001].
Other companies invent other ways to lower the wages or force the workers to do unpaid labour: they want you to arrive a quarter an hour before the official work-time in order to read your e-mails (concerning work-instructions, of course), or they take the time you took pissing off your wage-slip... We don't need to explain why they rip us off here. It's all about money, baby! The single capitalists wouldn't pay us at all, if they didn't have to keep their human capital alive. They pay us peanuts when they can get away with it.
The more we achieve per hour, the more profitable is our work for the boss. In terms of profit it doesn't really matter if our ears fall off after hours on the phone, if our fingers hurt or our backs get crooked.
The intensification of work has got different faces:
At Hewlett Packard the team-leaders try to saddle you with the responsibility for more and more products or languages which you then have to deal with on the phone. You know a little French? Great, we will put some through to you then. Before that you might have had some time between the calls to surf the net or to read the newspaper, but now you also have to console despaired French guys prattling on about their PCs intestine problems (in a language that you hardly know).
At Verizon in the USA the workers are taught to turn the tables, meaning that they have to try to sell stuff to people who have just called to ask for technical support. Call centre workers are taught to change a conversation, for example about the details of the last phone-bill, into a sales talk. At Verizon this is called 'bridging'. Here is a quote from a worker:
Right, imagine that you phone us because you receive abusive phone calls and therefore you want to change your phone number. Then we on the other hand have to search in our customer database to see what kind of telecommunication products you already have in order to try to sell you something more. But not just one product, that would not be enough. I have to offer you voice-mail, if you haven't got it already; a double connection, if you haven't got it already. I have to do my best, spark and glow, to get you to the point where you say: 'OK. I'll take that for a month, but just because you are so nice.' [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001].
This additional sales-strategy (management-term: cross-selling) also exists at Citibank in Duisburg where the workers have to try to sell credits to the inbound-customers. There we see other forms of intensification, too: workers who do outbound-calls have also to receive inbound-calls in-between times. You are just about to prepare yourself for the next outbound-attack and - peep - an inbound-customer is already stuffing questions up your ear.
In order to reduce the time between the calls, at Seaboard (Electricity) in Portslade/England they put the calls through automatically:
As soon as you're settled and logged in, the calls start coming in, and as soon as you finish one call the computer automatically puts you on to the next call, leaving no time whatsoever in between to catch your breath or to recover from a stressful and emotionally draining call. You're on call constantly apart from the 15-minute break every six hours... [hotlines-leaflet from Brighton, March 2001].
At Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg it is possible to switch on 'after-call work' mode after a call, but the team-leaders always stand behind your back keeping an eye on the time you are on 'after-call'. And it really sucks that they put the call right through to your headset ('direct-to-ear'). There is no time to relax a bit before picking up the receiver. You are just sitting there waiting for the next peep in your ear like a hare waiting for a shot. Hearing it, you have to start talking immediately, because the customer is already on the line. The same is going on at Fiat in Milan and a lot of other call centres around the globe.
The reduction of 'idle time', of the little breaks between the calls - for a look out of the window (if there is one), for an extra fag, a little chat with your neighbour - is the main task for the industry sociologist, consulting firms and other puppets of the exploiters. They can try to extend the workday, but that quickly reaches its limits. Some of us refuse to do overtime. After six or eight hours on the phone, most of us are totally exhausted anyway. Overtime pay doesn't change that. So what remains is the intensification of work: 'Direct-to ear', cross-selling, restrictions on break times, automatic call distribution... they take our few moments of breathing space and increase the stress.
Monitoring and control
The intensification would not be enforceable without monitoring and control. Apart from the usual monitoring through foremen (team-leaders) in call centres, various forms of automatic collection and analysis of data concerning the work performance is used.
Imagine this: Shift starts. That's a sensitive time anyway. You have already spilled your coffee and while reading the 119 e-mails of the sales department the realisation of your miserable existence as a phone-slave just re-entered your mind - when the team leader-hyena comes sneaking up from behind, smiling charmingly, and the stats from yesterdays work slide onto your keyboard: amount of calls, duration of each single call, total idle time, total time in 'ready'-mode, total time in 'after-call work'-mode, time used between ringing and picking up...
The control takes place on two levels: they collect all data to be able to quantify your work achievements. The software is timing all work-steps and delivers nice stats at any chosen moment. The other level of control tackles the 'quality' of your work. They sit next to you or they annoy you with test calls (so-called 'mystery calls') in order to come back at you off afterwards by going on about your mistakes, your stammering, the missing smile in your voice...
At Pacific Bell (computers) in San Francisco, USA a 'promoted' agent permanently checks the recent call-times of the other workers.
In the middle of the room sits the Hotcube. The Hotcubist today is George. It's his job to monitor our calls, watch our times, listen in if necessary, and write us up. Stay on a call longer than thirty minutes and your name goes into a log. Sit in Wrap (the time between calls) for longer than three minutes, your name goes in a log. Take a 'health break' for longer than five minutes, your name goes in a log. Leave your desk without an appropriate code. Logged. [article in East Bay Express, December 2000].
The Hotcube is not just recording if you exceed the set time, the Hotcube is also phoning you immediately to give you a bollocking. We know of similar behaviour by team-leaders in other call centres. These creatures hang around in front of their screens, staring at numbers and stats and if the tolerated time-frame is violated the red alert starts and they come to action.
In some departments of Hewlett Packard in Amsterdam they pin the stats of the previous workday on the notice board, nicely classified by single 'agents', by the different language groups and by different 'teams'. So you can compare your achievements or miserable performances every day: who has ignored the most calls, who chats the longest, who's break queen of the day... The team-leaders use these stats to put us under pressure individually: 'Have we had a bad day again, yesterday? After the call you have to switch on 'ready-mode' a bit faster. And again you have been on idle-time for twenty minutes non-stop'. To give it all a more 'neutral' appearance they try to establish the so-called 'service-level' as an objective category. If fifteen out of a hundred calls are rotting in the cue for more than three minutes and the others are answered in time we have achieved a service-level of 85 percent. The Hp-management takes this service-level as the holy measuring stick for their own and all external call centres working for Hp. They threaten the 'internal' call workers-workers with outsourcing the calls to external companies if the service-level is not achieved. They do the same thing to the 'external' workers announcing the possibility of using the service of other call centre companies. It's a shitty game.
The control of quantity is meant to make us work harder, to eliminate all gaps, idle time, unproductive activity of our workday. They want to create a certain atmosphere: Just because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean that there isn't always somebody controlling my work-pace... Our physical and mental energy has to be sucked out as efficiently as possible in order to secure a constant valorisation.
Another level of control at Hewlett Packard, at Fiat and in a lot of other call centres are test calls from internal or external drill inspectors who are asking you fictitious questions (mystery calls). At HP they claim to not record the name of the called 'agent', at other companies you are told off immediately and personally when you have failed. At Deutsche Bank 24 you have to get through a monthly personal supervision about your 'quality' and they also put you under pressure through other forms of 'quality control'.
But we are put under pressure by different kinds of quality control. Once a month there is a 'coaching' for assessing your professional competence: a 'coach' sits down beside you, listens to a few calls and fills out an assessment form and discusses that with you. Also once a month there is a 'supervising' on your 'verbal competence': a 'supervisor' listens to calls and tells you afterwards that you are using too many negative expressions, should avoid conditional clauses and that the WPAs are missing (words of personal acknowledgement, for instance 'Well done...', 'Thank you very much for your suggestions..'). The 'supervising' also determines your elegibility for a promotion to a higher wage level. The verbal assessment is subjective and if the supervisor does not like you - or if there are any other reasons - they use it to deny a promotion. On top of that there are one-to-one meetings with the supervisors where they replay taped phone-calls and 'analyse' them. In this way agents are put in embarrassing situations. [hotlines-website, 16th of November 2000]
At TAS (tele-appointments for telecommunication companies) which has call centres in Muelheim and elsewhere it looks pretty similar...
Monthly call analyses and 'training on the job' (where a quality manager sits behind you and listens to your calls) are used to control whether you are actually handling the calls to a 'high standard' and, therefore, deserve the bonus. Again, everybody has access to the information about who has got the 'quality' and who hasn't. [hotlines no.2, December 2000]
The bosses try everything to make us handle the stress connected to work under these contradictory 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 from us. But they use their newly won knowledge not for improving 'quality', but rather to give us even more work to do and to 'rationalise' production. [hotlines Nr.3, March 2001]
Bullying, arbitrariness and hoodwinking
Given all that shit, insecure and miserable working conditions, low wages, shift-schedules which tear you and your life apart... for a lot of workers working in a call centre still seems better than cleaning, lugging bricks on a building site, working on the assembly line or as a doctors little helper in a surgery. If we have a choice at all. What are our alternatives? Reviewing the different situations at work we are also confronted with conflicts that are not about money or the related fear of loosing your income. They take away something that is generally called dignity. In a word: Your pride!
That happens in different ways. On one hand the job constantly creates situations where you have to put your arse on the line for something that you cannot even take the responsibility for: the delivery was not made yet, the call queue is endless, you cannot get hold of the wanted information, your PC is crashing or is slow as hell... Then the customer is telling you off and you feel like you have to justify yourself...
On the other hand many workers find the control of every little step un-dignifying, for example if the team-leader pins stats on the board telling everybody about how long your piss-breaks were yesterday... A guy working in a Call centre for Blu in Calenzano near Florence/Italy signed his report about the work-conditions with:
An inmate in the jail of Calenzano. [hotlines-website, 6th of March 2002]
That's not all; a lot of conflicts are specifically about the 'quality'-monitoring concerning pronunciation, the verbal expressions and not just the actual talking. During the training at Deutsche Bank 24 they tell you explicitly to sit straight in front of your screen and to smile because the customers can hear it on the phone. On top of that you are supposed to think positive, bla bla.
At Quelle (tele-order) in Essen the bosses insist on exact pre-formulated phrases, so called 'standard-phrases'. But here we are not dealing with nuts and bolts that have to fit an industrial norm, it's about damned words that they want to come out of your lips:
'Welcome to Quelle, my name is Firstname Surname. What can I do for you?' Standard-phrases, everybody who works for Quelle knows about them. Another example? 'Mr, Mrs... We currently make a customer survey. Are you interested in advertising material on the subject 'dogs'?'... [hotlines leaflet about the situation at Quelle, November 2000]
At Verizon in the USA they also control what the workers say and how they say it:
One worker said she wanted less direction over what she is told to say... at each call she has to say 'did I provide you with an outstanding service today?' and often feels like an idiot. If the workers don't say this sentence they receive bad marks and don't get promotions. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
The same story again at Telecom Italia:
The company-headquarters has just decided to improve efficiency without increasing costs, by introducing and enforcing the famous customer-welcome-phrase: 'Good morning, Telecom Italia here, my name is Filippo, how can I be helpful to you?' Excellent sentence, theoretically with high impact but practically useless. The poor agents are forced to repeat that till they go crazy, otherwise they get rebuked verbally or receive written sanctions. Imagine the customer who has been waiting for the repair for days and hasn't seen even the shadow of a technician. How should he respond to such a question?... Why don't they [the bosses] take note of the fact that we are human beings and not machines. [Bip Bip, Newspaper of the base-union Flmu-Cub, Florence, February 2002].
The last point is typical: They treat you like a machine that they can program. You are only supposed to go for a piss when they tell you that the time is right, you have to start chatting when they put a call through, you have to move your mouth like they have instructed. They do that in order to sell their commodity 'telephone service' better and in order to standardise our work and to raise productivity. In many cases mere instructions and commands do not reach very far, because workers find ways and means of avoiding them or they simply ignore them. Especially the more experienced workers know how to do that very well. Nevertheless often the instructions produce permanent stress for the workers and are received as bullying and arbitrariness.
The capitalists try to counteract these kinds of 'negative vibes' with bonus-systems and other forms of 'motivations'.
At Hewlett Packard in Amsterdam they provide a ten-minute-massage every month - the same at Lufthansa in Berlin - and if you're lucky you could become 'agent of the month' and get a little present.
At ISI in Bochum, Duesseldorf... they also have various treats waiting for you:
Whoever sells most subscriptions during the week can drive the company's red BMW all weekend. And every three months the best seller gets a weekend in one of Europe's capital cities. I could hardly sit still on my chair. [hotlines-website, 20th of March 2001]
Verizon in the USA doesn't want to seem stingy either:
There are signs everywhere about the bonuses people could get if they have sold a lot: pizzas, sweets, journeys to the Caribbean islands... [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
At Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg the recently programmed team-leaders can't stop telling you that you are working for the best company on the globe. You have already worked for three other 'world-best-companies' before and that didn't make you either richer or happier. It is not surprising that most workers don't give a shit about this kind of 'motivation'.
The bosses make a big hype about how great their company is. They want us to keep on working hard (and don't '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!? [hotlines no.3, March 2001]
The lack of training and the bad work-organisation
A lot of workers are pissed off about the fact that they often do not actually know what they are doing work-wise, meaning that they have had no, or very poor, 'training'.
At Hewlett Packard in Amsterdam workers are hired for their language-abilities, not caring at all about their computer-knowledge. After two or three weeks of 'product-training' they are let loose on the phone with the customers. It takes another few weeks till they know a little more about the stuff they are on the phone for. The customers are annoyed because they don't get any help or get misleading instructions on solving their computer problems and they even have to pay for the phone call. The workers are annoyed because these situations are really fucked, when you don't have the slightest idea what it is all about, when there's no-one to help you ('Got no time, hon') and you are supposed to swing it anyhow.
At Deutsche Telekom in the last few years all departments - not just the call centres - have been mixed up completely in a process of re-structuring and outsourcing. The workers in the call centres have to pay for the lack of coordination or for the fact that they only have access to information which is already out of date or invalid... as a result they have to face the angry customers. A lot of the workers are hired by temp agencies or are contracted for a short time and (therefore) have received insufficient training.
The companies want to deliver a service-hotline together with their products so that they can present themselves as 'service-orientated' or in order to be aware of the customers' wishes and complaints. You can phone these hotlines and tell the people that your milk is off or that you cannot switch on your new PC. Often these hotlines are just a fake: you cannot help the customer anyway because you are lacking information, you haven't got a clue or you are not allowed to put the customer through to the person responsible. As a call centre worker you are supposed to cover up this mess by sweet talk.
Hoodwinking the customer
In some call centres they expect you to take the piss out of the customers. At Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg they 'promote' an 'agent' to 'team-leader for a call' just to shut up a customer who was asking for the person responsible. Like at Pacific Bell in San Francisco:
The customer is transferred to me. 'Are you a supervisor?' he demands instantly. Since the beginning of the month, everyone in the call centre has been transformed into a supervisor. Brian sleeping at his desk is now a supervisor. Ian with purple hair gelled into points is a supervisor. Ron who begged not to be made a supervisor is a supervisor. I am hoping next month, whoever decided to make us all supervisors will make us CEOs. 'Yes, I am a supervisor.' 'At last,' he sighs. I feel sorry for him: he thinks he's reached someone in authority. [article in the East Bay Express, December 2000]
'I don't give a shit'... that's what an 'agent' could think about the hoodwinking and actually that's most peoples' reaction. If you have to deal with a hundred, two hundred or more voices a day and ten percent of them try to put you down you will have had enough. Furthermore, some customers are real arseholes who give you shit over the phone and make you want to punch them.
The relations with other customers are a bit more contradictory: they are people like you and me and they have a problem to solve. As a call centre agent you try to compensate for the lack of information etc. by being friendly and helpful. That's what your boss relies on. If we didn't do that, the call centre wouldn't work. Our 'human' work, talking to the customer, paying attention, listening, the coordination with the other workers, are essential parts of the 'telephone-service' commodity. This is also a hindrance to the further introduction of Interactive Voice Response computers.
Another form of hoodwinking is even sicker: you are supposed to sell the people stuff knowing that it's a rip-off or that it will lead them deeper into debts. For example at Citibank and Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg the inbound-workers are told to sell loans to the people who are calling. The workers know that having to pay the interest will kick the caller far beyond their overdraft forcing them to slave just for the loan - but hey, it's a good deal for the banks...
At IFB in Toulouse/France the workers know what they are doing:
The aim of the game is to reach managers, craftsmen, free-lancers, big bosses or ordinary private persons by phone in order to propose a 'free consultation on tax laws'. That is supposed to enable them to pay less tax, thanks to an individual evaluation that takes 103 laws into account. This is nothing but a load of bollocks. In the end they just take into account a single law and the advice of the consultant is simple. He proposes investing in real estate, meaning buying an apartment for about 100,000 Euro. He explains how the apartment is rented out and the loan can be repaid with the income. In this way you can benefit from a tax reduction, due to the 'Besson' law. In the short term this can work out, but in the long run it is very risky - i.e. for the whole time it takes to pay back the loan. [leaflet of a worker, hotlines-website, 29th of October 2001]
There are a lot of these kinds of call centre jobs: 'I just called to say... you have fallen behind with your instalments' or sales campaigns for whatever crap... Most of the workers can only cope with this kind of work by seeing the person on the other end of the line as just a customer: an object that you have to manipulate in order to get it where you want it to go. Even in the 'harmless' inbound-jobs there is the pressure to see the people as things but you still have some ways to treat them somehow correctly.
There is a lot more we could write about: anger at acoustic shocks and health-damage, rats in the work-porto-cabin at Medion, filthy headsets at Quelle... Often conflicts arise from these problems, they are occasions to get rid of the pent up frustration of daily work. But this is less about the single issues. The projects of increased exploitation hit us as a concentrated attack by the capitalists... not only in companies like Citibank, Telecom Italia, Hewlett Packard or Verizon, which are constantly restructuring to keep the workers moving around, and to force them into competition between different departments and locations.
We have to be aware that the capitalists use the single conflicts in order to divert the attention from the whole. want to limit the conflicts to their single issues in order to channel the anger and stop it from bringing the totality into question. During a discussion of workers at Fiat in Milan one of them said that the conflicts about the dress code (for example the obligation for men to wear a tie) or the bad canteen-food just cover the main fact that the working conditions in general are shitty. They want us to get worked up about small matters and aim our anger against the nearest team-leader or the canteen-chef and not against the relation of exploitation itself. Important for them is that there are negotiable solutions for single problems (a little wage rise, on Friday you are allowed to wear your shirt unbuttoned...). As long as there are negotiations the exploitation is not in danger. This point will reappear when we have a look at the unions and works-councils.
Up to here we have described single moments of attack, now we are ready for the remedies that workers use against them.
6.2 Lines of struggle
If the exploited turn their daily divided co-operation around into organising their struggle: if the office workers don't work away to the rhythm of some other workers PC-inputs, but rather use the intranet to co-ordinate the strike; if the assembly line workers don't have to try to catch up with the assembler before them, but rather use the co-operation to bring the whole assembly to a stand-still; if the struggle in the schools ruins a whole coming generation of workers; if joint proletarian rent strikes or mass-shoplifting was organised in the play-groups and parent and toddler groups. The struggle develops a material power, because it suspends the capitalist accumulation and undermines the state. The self-organising of the struggle by the workers is only possible in those conflicts that result from the daily structures of forced cooperation. In these conflicts the relationships and needs change. In this way we get to know that the means and possibilities are there to create a different non-capitalist community. In these struggles there is the chance to 'out' the supposed supremacy of capital, the seeming independence of the state and naturalness of gender relations as paper tigers. Because the practical relations to each other and to the means of production change and because in struggle they can be developed and created without capitalist mediation. This real movement within capitalist exploitation we call Class Struggle. [kolinko, The Subversion of Everyday Life, 1999]
A new (revolutionary) class movement has to be based on the struggles that we start in work-shops, on the building sites, at the assembly-lines, in job centres' waiting-rooms, in offices and shopping-malls. The struggles in these places of exploitation can take the offensive and make life difficult for the bosses. But it's about more than that: it is about the potential of the workers as a class to destroy the social relations of exploitation and to change society fundamentally. Bearing this in mind we try to summarize the daily (subversive) practices and the struggles of workers in call centres. But where are these struggles? Is it possible to struggle in a call centre at all? We want to come closer to this question by looking at some examples:
In some call centres workers have found forms of sabotage, for example making the machinery crash when the work stress has reached its limit. Ctrl-Alt-Del... and you have a three-minutes-break extra while the PC is rebooting.
Let a call die in your line... and it will take some time until you get the next one. Fiddle a bit with the cables... and the technician has to come and find the problem (alright, not very kind, poor lad...).
Probably the most common reason for sabotage is the creative expression of anger and frustration at work. There are people who demolish 'their' work-tools - headset, computer, software... for the pure pleasure of destruction. Most of the time these acts are done individually. Workers realise that they cannot bring a stop to the stress together, so they throw a wooden shoe into the machine.
Other workers react with sabotage against concrete actions of the bosses. At Deutsche Bank 24 in Bonn in 2001 the bosses introduced partitions and decided that at the beginning of each shift every worker would be told where to sit and work. By doing that the bosses wanted to prevent the workers sitting together in their 'groups' and having fun now and then. The night-shift, at least, managed to regularly deconstruct the partitions.
In times of strike, sabotage is a way to increase the pressure on the bosses or to prevent scab-work. During the strike at British Telecom in 1999 the workers were quite creative:
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. [Undercurrent no.8, Brighton, summer 2000]
During the strike at Verizon in the USA the workers also used sabotage to give a hard time to the middle management who worked as scabs in the call centres and the maintenance.
Different forms of sabotage were reported (out of 450 cases of sabotage 230 took place in New York City): cables were cut and Verizon announced that rotten eggs, bottles and stones were thrown at members of the management; a service-truck ended up in flames, another one was first caught in a garage door and later demolished and a third one was losing wheel nuts... The newspapers wrote about several cases of 'vandalism' (heading: 'Thousand of New Yorkers without phone-connection during the strike'). [hotlines-website, 8h of June 2001]
Most call centre workers have little experience of collective forms of struggle. Often they don't know much about the possible reactions of the bosses or about which forms of struggle to use in order to achieve the most. That's due to the fact that a lot of young workers are hired and to the lack of strikes and struggles in the last few years. So workers often get stuck with pre-determined, 'democratic' forms of resistance.
During some conflicts workers collected signatures hoping that a petition could put such pressure on the boss that he would be unable to push through this or that unpopular decision. At the end of the day he's also just a human being following the democratic myth that it's the majority that rules.
During the afore mentioned conflict at Audioservice in Berlin about day-contracts and the refusal of the management to pay holiday-money and sick-leave some workers wrote a petition ('Dear management...') which was signed by thirty other workers. They expected that, facing this expression of discontent, the bosses would fulfil the demands or at least express their willingness to negotiate. Instead, half of the workers who signed were sacked. The bosses chose those on the list who they suspected to be troublemakers and those who they wanted to get rid off anyway. At ADM in Berlin similar things happened when seventy workers applied for a holiday-pay. Soon after some of the workers were sacked, others were put under pressure by having to attend some 'one-to-one meetings' with the management. 'Either you withdraw your application or you can go!'
At Medion several petitions have already been circulated, for example to stop the workers having to deal with additional calls (concerning other products). These petitions were handed over to the works council who was supposed to impose it on the bosses. The whole issue fizzled out...
You wouldn't expect anything bad to happen, signing a petition, but in fact they are a trap: perhaps they note the names on the list in order to present them again during other conflicts or in a worse case the management knows immediately who is responsible and against who it has to aim at when starting some bullying, sending a warning or even a notice of dismissal...
At Audioservice the workers have taken legal action against the dismissals at the industrial tribunal. The same at Hotline GmbH in Berlin, where people were sacked because they had protested against mass-dismissals and had tried to form a workers-council. In both cases they could achieve a severance pay ranging from 500 to 5.000 DM (250 to 2500 Euros).
By taking legal actions or going to the industrial tribunal we expect that the state to back us up against the capitalists. We don't want to stop anyone from going to the industrial tribunal in order to at least get some money out of them, but we have to see clearly that taking legal action is just an expression of the fact that we have not found a way to fight back or that we were too weak to make our needs met ourselves. Sitting in front of a judge together with a lawyer might provoke various thought associations in your head, but the last thing you think of in this situation is that it might have something to do with a (collective) struggle against a social relation that is forcing you out of bed and under the headset again in the morning.
In the cases mentioned above nothing has really changed: The call centres have sacked some people, others were hired, some workers got a bit of money and are now exploited somewhere else...
The strike at Citibank in 1998 was one of the reasons for us to start an inquiry and intervention in call centres. This and other strikes in call centres show clearly what the power of workers in these fields of exploitation consists of - and what the limitations are. Let's take some examples to see what has happened so far:
We start with the strike at Citibank in the Ruhrgebiet in 1998 that caused a 'public' discussion about the working-conditions in call centres. The trigger was the announcement by the Citibank-management to close the call centres in Bochum, Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen (and in some other towns, e.g. Frankfurt) in order to centralise the work in a new call centre in Duisburg. The old work-contracts were terminated and it was clear that not all workers would be re-employed. Besides, the working-conditions in the new call centre were worse right from the start: lower wages, longer work-hours, less holiday...
In the call centre in Bochum there was a works council, which partly consisted of people who had already had 'political' experience due to their activity as students' representatives (Asta) of the Ruhr-University in Bochum. The works council also called the HBV union (trade-, finance-, insurance-sector) for help. The works council demanded the initiation of collective wage negotiations with the aim of making sure that the better working contracts in the 'old' call centres would also be valid in the new call centre. Soon it became obvious that the Citibank management would not enter in such negotiations. After the obligatory legal procedure - ballots etc. - the works council and the union organised three one-day-strikes, spread over several weeks. Confronted with a management unwilling to negotiate they also organised demonstrations and other public actions. On the other hand by this time the works council was already negotiating over a redundancy payments scheme and the symbolic actions (e.g. demonstration in front of the head-quarters) were only contributing to the feeling of powerlessness amongst the workers. In summer 1999 the 'old' call centres were closed down and only a few workers were re-contracted. Here is an extract from a report based on conversations and interviews with workers of Citibank:
The fact that seventy percent of the workers worked part-time produced communication problems during the strike, e.g. due to being part-time, not all workers could participate in the company assemblies. Therefore a lot of people got to know very late, or even just on the strike-days, about the planned actions. During the strikes the workers stood in front of the company building, which was protected by security guards, while the scabs kept on working inside. The time during the actions was used to inform each other about the stage of negotiations etc. Then the works council and the unions respectively also called for actions in the shopping streets (handing out of post-cards, demanding the boycott of Citibank etc.). The atmosphere varied between euphoria, aggression and disappointment. Euphoria because something happened which interrupted the normality of daily work. Aggression due to the reaction of the management who organised parties for the scabs. Disappointment when it became clear that the actions would not prevent the closure and when the participation dropped considerably on the third strike-day. Also discontent with the strategies of union and works council became acute: the strike-days were mainly organised on Saturdays when less workers had to work. Only a few demanded to go on strike for a whole week or during times when more calls come in. A unified answer of the workers was also impeded by the different expectations amongst them: many were students who saw the job just as a temporarily annoyance, while for others it was their 'work-place', which has to serve to make a living now and in the future. A lot of the 'students' were more combative, because they apparently had less to loose. When it became obvious that nobody was going to get a new contract the frustration of getting nowhere with the (strike-)actions was already predominant. [hotlines-website, 25h of June 2001]
At this point some contradictions had already become clearer:
* The workers in struggle had different aims. Whereas some really were looking forward to getting a job in the new call centre with the same working-conditions, for others it was already clear that they wouldn't be re-employed or that they wouldn't start another job for Citibank. So some were aiming for a good severance payment and others for new jobs.
* Although the strike actions made the workers feel stronger ('Finally we can show them what's what'), they did not lead to the workers taking over control of the struggle. The organising of the strike and the demonstrations remained in the control of the works council.
* Citibank was determined to close down the call centre. There was little chance of the strike being 'successful'.
* The workers did not manage to use the strike as a very effective weapon. It does not lead very far if you just strike for a day and announce it in advance so that the management has a chance to prepare their reaction. This fact cannot be explained just by the soothing influence of the works council (and the HBV union), which was eager to obey the legal procedures. The workers were lacking in strike experience and they hesitated taking over the initiative and walking out spontaneously when it would have hit the company hardest, e.g. when there are a lot of calls in the queue. Due to the pre-announcement of the strikes, Citibank had plenty of time to organise scab-work:
The management took various steps to break the strike or to weaken its outcome. Firstly they re-routed a lot of calls from Bochum to the direct-bank in Aachen, meaning that the workers in Aachen had to deal with a lot of more calls which were originally destined for the call centre in Bochum. On a daily level the workers in Aachen and Bochum are in contact, because the work-process requires it (i.e. transferring customers). So after the strike-days the workers of both call centres could exchange some comments on the walk out which ranged from disapproval ('You and your shitty walk-out, we had a bloody stress-out receiving your calls') to verbal expressions of solidarity. A lot of customers, who were informed about the strike by the media, were surprisingly supportive (against all ideologies of the 'total service') and besides information about their bank account they also asked the workers to 'keep on fighting'.
Secondly the management organised an additional 'improvised' department in Duisburg. During the strike in this department team leaders from Bochum trained and supervised workers who were hired on the basis of already deteriorated conditions. They had to perform the same tasks as the workers in Bochum and they got the verbal promise of being contracted for the new call centre in Duisburg. We don't know if the workers of this department were aware of the strike and of the fact that they were used as scabs by receiving calls during the strike-days or by compensating for the sabotage of the workers in Bochum (kicking calls out of the line etc.).
Thirdly the management hired about 40 people from temp-agencies (Manpower...) who were employed in the call centre in Bochum. They were trained by strike-breaking team leaders or workers, which was only possible given the simplicity of the work. [hotlines-website, 25th of June 2001].
The undermining of a strike by re-routing the calls to other call centres will re-appear in other strikes. Already here we can see the weakening effect of the divisions between the workers of different call centres, departments or contracts (part-time, temp work...).
British Telecom 1999:
These divisions were one of the starting-points of the strike at British Telecom:
Before Xmas, workers at BT went on strike 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 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. [Undercurrent Nr.8, Brighton, Summer 2000]
About 4.000 workers of 37 call centres took part in the walkout. The temp-workers did not go on strike, which was partly because of their insecure legal status: British Telecom can send them home from one day to the next. As well as that, the temp agency can sack them immediately if the customer (i.e. British Telecom) doesn't need or want them anymore. Also in this case the workers were only on strike for a short time and achieved next to nothing. On one hand the strike has shown that it is possible to fight, even in these taylorised telephone-factories, that's why it has met - like the strike at Citibank - with a considerable response in the (lefty) media. Again the union has just used the strike, to be accepted as a representative partner at the negotiating table. There were no independent tendencies or cores amongst the workers, which could have taken over the initiative or could have given a more offensive impulse to the strike. So the actions could not really do much harm to the exploiters. Here too the divisions between workers of different call centres and contracts plays its weakening part. The workers did not find ways of counteracting this weakness.
In terms of results, the strike of the workers at Verizon was more successful - under different circumstances. Over 86.000 workers - call-centre workers, technicians... - in several states of the US went on strike after the old negotiated contract ran out. Most of the workers were organised in one of the two big unions of the sector, the majority in the Communications Workers Union (72.000), the rest in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (14.000). The official aim of the strike was to achieve the right for the union to organise the workers in the new 'boom'-sectors such as mobile-communications and internet-service. Verizon imposed deteriorated conditions in these sectors and tried to impose the inferior conditions on other workers by shifting them from one sector to the other. During the 15 days of walk out, hundreds of picket lines were organised every day.
The high level of participation can be put down to the fact that the strike was also directed against the shitty working-conditions in general: the obligation to do a lot of overtime, stress due to a high work intensity...
During the strike the telephone-communication was not affected, because 98 percent of all calls are distributed automatically. Some workers took action to solve this problem and destroyed relay stations, mainly in New York:
A university-professors comments on these actions: 'Verizon-workers possess a very effective weapon which is their knowledge about the complicated electronic connections of New York - and their security that the interruption of these connections will have an immense impact on the public. They know the infrastructure because they have constructed it'. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
The employment of about 30.000 scabs recruited from the lower and middle management was meant to guarantee a minimal service, but this often failed, due to their incompetence.
In Directory Inquiries, where a worker usually gives out information to 1.000 to 1.200 customers a day, the strike-breaking tie-heroes managed just a quarter of that... tens of thousands were waiting for a new telephone-connection, repair works were not done, there were long call-queues and loads of break-downs in the call centres. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
This strike also had its contradictions: the workers in the mobile-communication sector did not walk out, also the 'Verizon-workers' of other sectors, where the negotiated contract was not valid, did not participate. The unions also used this strike to secure their position as negotiation-leaders and partners of a new bargaining contract. The agreement after two weeks of strike consisted in a wage rise and increased performance-bonuses, the limitation of over-time and the right for the unions to sign-up workers in the mobile communication and internet-sector.
The comment of the CWU-chairman Morton Bahr on the agreement: 'The contract secures the future of our members in this company and also helps Verizon to increase its competitiveness'. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
Telecom Italia 2001:
For some time another form of confrontation has been taking place at Telecom Italia. Supported by base unions, workers organise short walkouts against the intensification of work, outsourcing, dismissals and low wages. For example the Flmu-Cub in Florence, Italy calls for monthly strikes at certain days, refusing amongst other things the night- and weekend-shifts. Sometimes hundreds of workers participate in these actions . Quoting from a Flmu-leaflet:
Telecom Italia is pushing ahead with dismissals of many workers or shifting them to other work places. New working times and a new organisation of work are also being introduced, especially in the online-sector, which is really an attack on the 'dignity' of the workers, subjecting them to the technological control and the arbitrariness of the 'responsible person' (bosses and their helping hands), etc.. All this is meant to cut down the number of work places and to use an ever more precarious and flexible workforce. (...) In order to oppose these attacks the Flmu-Cub calls upon all workers (...) to go on strike on the 15th of October:
* against the introduction of precarious and flexible working conditions
* against the shifting and outsourcing of work and workers
* against new working time schedules and the work-organisation 'a la call centre'
* for the maintening of work places on a local level
* for more human working-conditions and retention of the possibility of shift swapping
* for adherence to health and safety-standards.
[leaflet of the Flmu-Cub, Florence, October 2001]
It is difficult to assess what kind of impact these short and regularly organised strikes have. It seems that, to a certain extent, they are accepted by the capitalists as a form of expressing the discontent and easing the pressure a bit. In Italy the strike-law prescribes that the unions have to announce a strike on a local level ten days in advance. For the workers this means they cannot be sacked - unless they are on probation - but also that they will lose the money for the hours on strike. Telecom Italia at the same time relies on two strategies to limit the impact of the strikes:
* As an immediate reaction they re-route the calls to other call centres. Being confronted with this the militants of the Flmu-Cub have drawn the following conclusions:
We have to adjust our forms of struggle to the changes of the organisation of work: if today the workers of the 187 (technical support / Telecom Italia) in Tuscany go on strike, even with a high grade of participation, the strike will hardly have any impact on the company, because the strike is compensated for by the work of the 187 in Liguria. The same with other call centres. [leaflet of the Flmu-Cub, Florence, December 2001]
* In the long run they divide the call centres in ever smaller and spatially separated units, outsource some parts or allocate the work to another company. Here are the activists again:
Another reason for why strikes lose their power is the fact that the work is also allocated to other companies: at the 187 the calls are re-routed to Atesia. The logical consequence is to extend the strike to all call centres of a company in order to achieve some impact. And not just to the call centres of a single company, also the connected companies like Atesia have to be included in the struggle. [leaflet of the Flmu-Cub, Florence, December 2001]
Another example: Blu (mobile-communications) in Florence. After the call centre opening two years ago, accompanied by a great public fuss and subsidized by the state, now the main share-holders (amongst others: Benetton) want to sell the whole company, meaning the possible closure of the call centre. Since February 2002 the people with a so-called 'apprenticeship contract', which is limited to two years, are being sacked one by one. Here is part of an interview:
When they told us on the 13th [of February] that no contract would be prolonged it was a shock. Not just for the 24 workers who were affected that day, but for all the others with the same kind of contracts. When the news kicked in, everybody stopped phoning immediately. Most of the managers kept out of sight that day. Some of the team leaders were also affected themselves. The ones that remained were more or less passive. Some angry discussions started. The people felt betrayed. They thought of themselves as the 'good agents', the experienced ones, some of them have already been promoted...and now this. Especially the people sacked that day that had personal relationships with the management, originating from the time when the call centre was opened and there were only a few people working there. The discussions lasted for some hours. The calls for the private customer hotline were re-routed to the second Blu call centre, located in Palermo. Probably resulting in an over-flow there. The situation in the commercial customer hotline became more and more critical. Because these calls could not be re-routed - and because the commercial customers are much more important, of course - the managers tried to get the people back on the lines. The people refused and heavy disputes surged up again. Late afternoon people were phoning again, although most of the workers of the day-shift had already headed home. The next day (14th of February) the union representatives of the Cgil and Uil organised a company assembly, during which they backed up the manager of the commercial customer hotline and his insults the day before, despite of the fact that he had already threatened workers who were opposing him with 'consequences'. During the assembly the unionists were fiercely attacked for this protection of the management.
But at this point the atmosphere had already changed. At the day of the wildcat hardly anybody had thought about the consequences. The next day they did. Most of the people hadn't had experience of these kinds of confrontations. On the 15th of February, a day later, a national wide strike was announced by the base unions. When about twenty people, some Blu workers and people of the base union, arrived at the company building the previously informed press were already there. The workers inside the call centres noticed the arrival of the small group of people. Out of the two hundred workers a hundred came out to participate in the demonstration, which made a brilliant atmosphere.
The representatives of the Cgil and Uil also appeared and called the workers back to work because the strike was not 'authorized'. Most of the workers did go back, but not before the end of the demonstration, an hour later. The representatives of the Cgil and Uil kept on trying to sabotage the actions of the workers, for example by calling an assembly at the same time when other actions were taking place... [from a summary of an interview with a striker, April 2002]
After another demonstration of Blu- and Telecom Italia-workers on the 19th of March, not much more was happening at Blu. By now all temp-workers have been kicked out and one hundred other workers have been sacked, most of whom found another job immediately. The remaining 150 workers don't work their asses off because most of their contracts run out in a few months and the future of the call centre is still unclear.
What is interesting about the conflict at Blu is the fact that before the wildcat on the 13th of February there were no open confrontations. The workers had kept quiet for two years, hoping for a permanent contract or a promotion to a different job - to escape from the phones. The union representatives of the Cgil and Uil openly played their role as de-escalators and helping hands of the bosses, trying to guarantee the 'company-harmony' and to control the workers actions.
These are two sides of the same coin: we have seen how the unions use strikes to set themselves up as the representatives of the 'workers' interests' to the capitalists. They can only play this representative role if they are at the same time able to prevent wildcat strikes, which get out of their control - as in the case of Blu.
We have only addressed some strikes here. We know of others in France, Italy, Spain, South Korea and Britain.
The strikes we looked at were confined to individual companies. Nearly all of them took place in one sector which has seen drastic changes over the past few years: telecommunications.
At Telecom Italia, British Telecom, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom and other trusts that emerged from the former state-run telephone companies there has been a restructuring for years. Many administrative and service task were and still are being organised after the 'call center model'. We witnessed a taylorisation of work, a dequalification of the employees, an extension of shift work, outsourcing of whole company departments... The fact that in some of the call centres in this sector the resistance seems to be bigger than in other sectors has to do with a certain tradition of struggles and union organisations there - at least in countries like Italy, Britain and the USA. The unions legitimize themselves as defenders of the existing conditions - if necessary with an escalation of the confrontations up to a strike. That also means that the unions straight away take the given route of corporatist partnership with employers.
In the 'new' sectors the unions don't play that role yet. Due to the legal monopoly of the unions for official strikes there are hardly any experiences with these kind of 'open struggles'. The question is whether the missing union rituals of the 'defense of the conditions' against the capitalists' attacks gives room for 'uncontrolled' forms of struggle?
But in some places without any union structures - which could have kept a strike in the limits of collective bargaining - initiatives were formed which at first tried to organise a struggle themselves. But they mostly ended up falling back on unions or union-like forms of organising (Citibank, Blu, Telecom Italia). Strikes can be periods of collective experiences in which workers develop unity and realise their power, but as long as they are not part of a broader movement they remain limited. The unions can use strikes as mere means of pressure in collective bargaining. They channel the conflicts into controlled strike mobilisations in order to get signatures for a contract and administer the continuing exploitation.
That's why we focus on stuggles and forms of behaviour that question and undermine this function of unions.
6.3 Forms of organising
In call centres and in connection with the hotlines-intervention we have had many discussions about the question of 'self-organising' and the setting up of 'works councils'. Workers who are fed up with the working-conditions are looking for a change. People from the unions with experiences collected in other sectors want to set up union groups or works councils in this 'new' sector. Left activists who are referring to the 'reality of exploitation' start initiatives in order to understand the conflicts and intervene... In this part we want to have a closer look at this matter and discuss the following examples:
a [Unions / Works councils]
b [Base unions]
c [Support initiatives]
Unions / Works councils
Works councils are elected institutions, which exist as representative organs of the workers on a company level settling company agreements with the bosses. In general they consist of union representatives. On a regional or national level the unions play this role of 'representation of interests'. The union functionaries negotiate with the organisations of the capitalists about 'collective agreements' and with the state about 'welfare-politics'... Works councils and unions try to take up the discontent of the workers, reduce it to concrete demands, negotiate and mediate in order to improve the conditions of the workers and to secure the 'social peace'.
On the basis of the conflicts in call centres we can see that the unions as organisations of representation are lagging behind the actual development and that they can only survive as bureaucracy. For a new generation of workers - contracted by temp agencies or just on short-term contracts, working in call centres... - who cannot find a future in a profession or a life-long work-place, this bureaucracy increasingly becomes a hindrance in the search for their own forms of struggle. The functionaries of the unions rely on cooperation with the bosses in order to secure their place at the negotiating table. They become - whether they want to or not - an instrument in the hand of the employers by keeping the conflicts within the secure boundaries of legality.
In order to be able to play the role of mediators between workers and bosses, including 'new' areas like call centres, the unions have to have the following two preconditions:
* They are dependent on getting workers to join their club in order to be able to then represent them. Therefore the service union 'ver.di', for example has appointed so called 'call centre representatives'; officials paid by the union who are meant to plan how to unionise the people in call centres. Ver.di also founds or supports various initiatives which refer to the working-conditions in call centres or other work-places of the New Economy (e.g. 'Callz' in Dortmund, connex.av...), create chat-rooms for call centre workers...
* In call centres, just as elsewhere, the unions have to establish themselves as a negotiation partner of the employers, a partner who is able to impose a fixed collective contract on the workers. Therefore the unions try to set up works councils, demand the implementation of 'minimum standards' and propose the initiation of collective negotiations.
Recently the union ver.di has been especially active. During a presentation of a research project titled 'Humanization of work in call centres' the second chairman declared: 'We want to develop standards for a employee-orientated design of the work in call centres, so-called social benchmarks.' Which would also mean 'an end of the hire-and-fire-mentality.' He was also announcing the foundation of a 'consulting-company for human call centres'. That fits in fine with the official presentation of the union as a modern service-company.
After the settlement of a collective contract for the call centre workers at Lufthansa in Berlin-Schoenefeld the negotiation leader of ver.di said: 'Strong works councils, a high rate of membership and - if necessary - the willingness to exercise industrial action is the only way out of a low-wage-sector... the only way to achieve a fair wage for this demanding work in the whole sector.' After signing a collective agreement for call centres, negotiated with the retailers' association in Hamburg, a ver.di official even went a step further: 'By introducing social standards the [public] image of the whole sector will be improved.' Another ver.di official and works council member announced: 'A good work climate and industrial peace also creates motivation and reliability'.
It's boring to blame the unions for their narrow-mindedness, but the afore-mentioned officials want to make us work, they disguise exploitation by bullshitting about 'fair wages', they want to reduce the anger and resistance of the workers to pleas for 'social benchmarks'. In the call centres they are met with scepticism, but they try to get a foot in the door by giving themselves a 'modern' or 'rank-and-file oriented' touch. They shove themselves between workers and bosses, mediating, de-escalating, peace-making... so that exploitation carries on, just a bit more 'social'.
The bosses of companies where works councils exist appreciate their function as conflict- barometers ('Before starting trouble, why don't you go to the works council, they will take care of your problem!'). The companies might have to spend a bit on smokers-corners, night-shift bonus or Christmas parties because the works council wants them to fulfil this patriarchal role, but that's a good investment given the fact that a works council provides them with a mediating institution which scans the problems within the work-force for them, turns them into something negotiable and approaches the management in a decent and legally pre-determined way.
The experiences in companies where workers participation [Mitbestimmung] exists show that works councils are not creating conflicts, in contrary: due to their legitimation by the staff and their clearly defined legal status they are in a position to contribute to a civilized solution of conflicts... The growth of companies and the differentiation of the organisation of work and the coordination within the company requires a professionally acting management that is able to divide its tasks according to the new needs. If the traditional paternalistic management style is maintained in this situation it will result in re-appearing blockades within the management and in confrontations with single sections of the staff.
... At this point a mediating and conflict resolving 'new force within the company' is strongly needed. Works councils fulfil this function... [Wolfram Wassermann, Die Angst des Unternehmers vor dem Gewerkschafter, Frankfurter Rundschau, 1th of February 2001] 
But that is not really our problem. Unions have got this function, unions and works councils always play this role. More problematic for us is the fact, that even in call centres and hi-tech workplaces of the (now rather old looking) New Economy, sharp and rebellious workers see forming a works council as holding the possibility of improving their conditions within an ongoing conflict. A works council provides a legal base that appears to reduce the danger of being sacked...but let's have a look at the experiences of the workers.
At Hotline GmbH (a provider of call centre services) in Berlin at the end of 2000 over fifty people were sacked after a customer cancelled the contract. Some people thought that forming a works council could prevent such dismissals in the future. When the bosses (some ex-lefties who assumed that as exploiters they were now sitting pretty) became aware of what was going on, they immediately sacked twenty people who they assumed were behind the works council plans. Later on, an election of a works council was organised which consisted mainly of team leaders and people of the personnel department. Now this works council is meant to secure a smooth tele-work process.
At Medion in Muelheim at the end of 2000 the workers discussed the bad conditions and the stress during the Aldi-sales-campaigns. As a reaction the HBV union (today part of ver.di) initiated the preparation of a works council election. During the general assembly the management succeeded in nominating people from the administration, shift leaders and team leaders onto the ballot-list. The whole thing resulted in a works council that assured that in 2001 the working-conditions during the Aldi-Christmas-sales-campaign were as shitty as the previous year.
Another example shows how easy it is to get caught in the red tape of laws and legal procedures, which are a crucial part of the works councils' reality. The following is extracted from a conversation with workers of Frontline (order-service for skateboard-stuff) in Hannover, where a lot of students work:
The working conditions were already shitty when they tried to intensify the work without increasing the pay. Discussions amongst work-mates started about what could be done. First of all we wanted a works council in order to be protected against dismissals. We went to the union (ver.di), which then called a company assembly. For weeks we collected information concerning our rights as students, as a works council... First of all we wanted to impose holiday-pay and sick-pay. The union organised a kind of training (for the works council). The bosses also wanted to cooperate. It then turned out that a works council can't do much. It can demand adherence to the right for 'screen breaks' from the computers or try to impose the continued payments by legal procedures... but according to Industrial Law [Betriebsverfassungsgesetz, BverfG ruling no. 6] the works council has to accomplish a balancing act: it is obliged to look after the well-being of the staff and the company. The works council has to balance this contradiction. According to BVerfG ruling no. 74 it has to strive for the settlement of conflicts, it is not allowed to call up for industrial action, because its main aim is industrial peace. Even if it is necessary, the works council cannot call up for strike. That would be illegal. So you fiddle around without any real means of imposing anything. The works council is meant to disguise the contradiction between workers and bosses. If you succeed in forming a works council you will achieve concrete results within few weeks (small improvements, information). But in order to improve the working conditions in the long run and permanently you are lacking of any means of putting pressure on the bosses. You are allowed to settle some shop agreements [Beriebsvereinbarungen], but you have no right to enforce them. So you are constantly negotiating and haggling, giving up something in order to gain something else, giving your approval to deteriorations (e.g. the introduction of new software that intensifies work) in order to achieve some improvements (a better holiday-plan). It is not true that the works council makes everything better.
Finally the works council at Frontline was formed mainly by permanent workers. Just one of the students, who started the whole thing off to impose some stuff, made it into the council. Later on, the works council agreed to many dismissals... [Summary of a discussion with Frontline-Workers, December 2001].
It becomes apparent how limited the possibilities are even if people have the will and commitment to change something by forming a works council. The aim of changing the working conditions by 'participation' and 'representing the interests of the staff' ends up in a legitimation of the bosses' actions while the conditions barely change - not to mention the exploitation in its totality.
It's not our intention to place the works councils at the centre of the critique, although in actual conflicts, situations often evolve where we have to criticise and attack the role they play. For example when works councils or unions prevent or confine workers activity, when they actively denounce people or try to undermine struggles by making deals with the employers. In the best case works councils provide a legal protection for short-term and selective improvements, but that's it. They become an obstacle, a trap, when we want to go a step further, looking for the development of workers power. In the discussions with other workers this was a central and re-emerging point, so we formulated some conclusions:
* Works councils and unions as institutions haven't got any intrinsic power, no power they could develop out of themselves. This power can only be found in the possible or actual combativeness of the workers they represent. Without the possibility of the workers fighting back and refusing work the institutions are mere paper tigers. Only by threatening the actions of the workers they represent can they impose themselves on their negotiation partners.
* Both works councils and unions are counteracting the development of self-confidence and power of the workers. Works councils are tied to the law in order to secure the industrial peace. Unions settle contracts, which they later on have to impose on the workers. The 'representation' is founded on the passivity of the 'represented'. Spontaneous conflicts and the chance for the development of a collective self-confidence are often choked by the 'representatives' and their fetish-like commitment to paragraphs, industrial law and negotiation procedures. In addition to that, their organisational structure, based on a single profession or limited to a single company, is deepening the already existing divisions amongst the workers - and also results in the incapability of the representing bodies to catch up with the mobility of a lot of workers (in call centres) who do not refer to or identify with their 'profession' or their company.
* Unions and works councils develop their own interests, separate from those of the workers. They want to maintain their existence as institutions, which is only possible through recognition by the bosses. To achieve that they have to prove themselves: in front of the workers by presenting improvements, in front of the employers by proving that they can impose settled agreements on their members, meaning that they have to keep the conflicts under (their) control.
* The bosses appreciate this controlling function of unions and works councils. The representatives relate to the anger of the workers by trying to turn it into negotiable problems. The works council turns the fact that workers want to and try to escape from the eye-torturing screen-work, into the demand to obey the EU-norms for screen radiation. The unions turn the proletarian experience of the senselessness of call-after-call and of the alienation of having 'customer relations' into campaigns for 'professional training' for the workers.
* Even 'left' unionists, who sincerely exert themselves for the 'workers interests', also fulfil the conflict-regulating function once they act within the boundaries of the bourgeoisie laws. Their relation to the other workers then changes: they are seen in their representing function ceasing to be the 'work-mate' with whom one faces the same problems of struggle. In times of rare collective initiatives of the workers themselves, this dynamic of discontent and the reflex of representation can be hard to break out of. This will only be possible in struggles that create new forms of communication and collective action. That's not where we are (at the moment).
But that leads us to the next point: Some militant activists try to anticipate or simulate these new structures of collective action, given the fact that there are no struggles. Doing this their starting points are not so different from ours: How can we get out of the defensive? How can we support people who fight back the capitalist attacks?... Let's discuss this question by looking at two different initiatives: base unions and support groups.
Recently we have been in discussion with some activists of base unions in Italy, exchanged information, organised meetings. They also work in call centres and try to understand the conflicts and intervene. Here some points about their activities. We want a rigorous discussion with them and all comrades who share their concepts of organising and mobilisation.
The base unions were founded by militant workers mainly in branches of the 'public sector' (railway, education...) in the late 80s, early 90s. They united activists of the different strike-mobilisations of the 80s, some of whom were already active in the movement of the 70s, trying to bring together a radical critique of the capitalist relations with the rank-and-file organising of workers. Discontented - or excluded - members of the Cgil-Csil-Uil (Confederali) also joined the base unions, frustrated by the compromise seeking attitude of these established unions in front of capital and state. Rank-and-file groups emerged on the shop floor - partly as an attempt to hold together the different strike committees or movements - which then united in several unions: Cobas, Cub... These unions partly differ in their positions and attitudes, for example concerning the question of whether to sign collective workplace agreements or not.
Snater and Flmu-Cub are two of these base unions. Snater, originally founded as an 'independent' union at the state-owned television company RAI, extended to the whole communication sector in the mid 80s. As a starting point Snater criticise the agreements between employers and confederali (Cgil-Csil-Uil):
Again and again we noticed that many of these agreements increasingly deteriorated the collectively bargained conditions of the workers and resulted in considerable reductions of their rights. So it was made possible for a situation to develop, which is characterized by lower incomes, de-qualification of work, different forms of flexibilisation and above all, attacks on workers rights. [snater-website: [www.snatertlc.it]]
The Flmu-Cub organises workers in the metal, telecommunication and energy sectors. It is part of the base union Cub (Confederazione Unitaria de Base). Amongst other things the Cub, founded in 1992, has as its aims:
The protection and extension of employment by reducing the work-time to 32 hours per week, including wage compensation. The creation of socially sensible work-places; the protection and increase of wages... the reduction of taxes which drag on the wages; the guarantee of health and safety standards at the work-place, which can not be subjected to the logic of profitability... the right for the workers to decide independently about contracts and delegations in the case of negotiations and the right to democratic elections of the union representation... the protection of the right to strike. [cub-website: [www.cub.it]]
This focus on the representation of the workers 'interests' in workplace conflicts and negotiations and the opposition to the 'confederali', who have betrayed these 'interests' and are now in cahoots with the employers, characterizes the activity of all base unions.
In many ways, taken the representation of the workers 'interests', the participation in elections on the shop-floor-level, the claiming for better working conditions, base unions form a version of unionism which just appears to be 'more radical'.
We don't want to go on about the officials, we are more interested in the comrades who think that they could use the base unions to support the development of a new self-confidence of the workers here and now in order to contribute to a new class movement in the long run. The activists we discussed with had not taken part in the inception of the base unions. They joined later, as workers in call centres in Firenze [Florence] and Bologna, at Telecom Italia and the mobile-communication subsidiary TIM respectively. They are very actively involved in the conflicts - often alone or with a few other comrades - trying to get people to join the union, collecting information about the strategies of the management, supporting the workers with legal advice. They publish leaflets about recent conflicts and newsletters (like Bip Bip, which has come out monthly for the last five years in Firenze or Frontline in Bologna, which also published the Italian translations of the hotlines-leaflets). They also take part in the election of the union representation on the shop-floor (RSU). Primarily they organise regular strikes of one or more hours against night-work, increasing work-stress, non-compliance of health standards, cuts in wages, dismissals or the relocation of work-places...
The activists see the (base)-unionist organisation as a chance to focus on these conflicts at the work place and to organise the people. They want to overcome the lethargy of the workers and the feeling of powerlessness. They search for a way to unite workers with 'precarious' working-conditions (temp-work, temp-contracts...) with permanent workers. They want to undermine the wheeling and dealing of the 'confederali' which sabotage the self-activity of the workers.
Although they are aware of their activities' limitations they see some advantages that the union practice provides (compared to a non-unionist intervention):
* The recognition as a union allows them to call up for strikes legally.
* They can act openly in front of the workers (in contrast to a 'clandestine' form of organising) and they can try to get people involved as union members.
* As a union they can take part in legal confrontations, for example in front of an industrial tribunal.
* By participating in the RSU-elections (shop-floor representation) they can get hold of information and expose the collaboration of the confederali with the bosses.
* In front of the press and other media they have a greater impact when they can present themselves as a union.
* Although there is a nation-wide structure in case of the Flmu-Cub, the union groups can act independently on a local level. In contrast to the hierarchically organised 'confederali' there is no political line they have to follow. The local activists can do their stuff without getting into much trouble with the union headquarters, due to being too 'radical'.
Nevertheless problems appear which are similar to those relating to the practice of works councils, problems we want to continue discussing with comrades:
* The activists of the base unions try to understand the conflicts from the 'perspective of the workers interests'. By doing this they are identifying with official aims, represented by the union leadership. This perspective remains reduced to an understanding of capitalism / class struggle as a struggle of distribution. They emphasize the claims of the workers, their rights, their dignity... and demand a higher income and more 'human' working conditions. They want a greater part of the 'wealth'. This neglects the fact that capitalism is a social relation which daily imposes the work-regime on the workers, a relation which has to be overthrown completely in order to abolish exploitation, the only way to find an answer to the question of 'wealth'.
* In the case of a more 'radical' approach of the base unions, there is still the impulse towards representation. A lot of 'members' or 'sympathizers' participate in the strikes (meaning that they don't go to work that day...), but rarely take part in the discussions. The problems are deferred to the base unions and they are then looking for a solution: going to the industrial tribunal, talking with the management, writing a leaflet with demands, calling a strike. The group of activists remain small. For the workers they become a kind of service-provider for the problems in the sphere of work. This is contradictory to the aim of the base-union activists to support the development of self-confidence and workers' power, and thus the use of strikes to interrupt the production process at any moment.
* The fact that the base unions spilt up the situation of exploitation into single, company- or sector- orientated conflicts, opens the door for negotiable compromises. The leaflets and communiqués of the base unions deal with the questions of health, over-time or wage as single issues, trying to formulate demands on the background of the workers' discussions: recognition of the health standards, no over-time, no Sunday-shifts, wage-increases, no temp-work, permanent contracts for all the workers...
Even if they don't sign any collective agreements (a lot of base-activists refuse to do this, but some still do it), by dividing the totality of exploitation into single issues they already determine the limits of confrontation: the working-conditions are bad, they have to become better. The social relation of exploitation as the main contradiction doesn't appear anymore, so the reason that conflicts emerge in the first place also gets left out. The sector-based (transport, telecommunications...) organisation of the base unions also reproduces the divisions between the workers in certain ways. Taking the 'belonging to a sector' as the base for agitation contributes to the defensive tendency of identification with your profession or of demanding 'qualifications' for the workers.
It's interesting to see that the workers have already gone beyond that notion: they don't want to work in the job for long, they don't care much about the 'quality of work', they try to get rid of control and confinement. They quit one job for the next if they can expect more money and less work. For many people 'work, profession, career' have ceased to be the centre of life, superseded by the importance of the group of friends, the partner, the holidays, the party, the general 'life experience'...
* Taking the legal frame-work (health and safety laws, legal security against dismissals etc.) as a main reference point, results in the legitimisation of the state as the guarantor of minimum standards. This reference-point also disguises the reason for why this legal framework exists: to secure the exploitation. One product of this attitude is a relation to the state that becomes a hindrance to self-activity: 'If I can not get my legally guaranteed holiday I will go to the court and the judge will sort it out for me' (instead of getting together with your mates and kicking it out the bosses). Practically, these legal procedures have the impact that the minimum standards become the main focus (rather than 'maximum' aims) and that the activists degenerate into jugglers of paragraphs who hardly have time for anything else...
* The wrangling about the representation of the workers on the shop-floor or sector level results in union competition, sometimes too grotesque to describe. The important criticism of the politics of the 'confederali' (which have denounced walk outs at Telecom Italia and TIM as 'illegal' and called on the workers to break the strike), gets lost in the self-adulation after a base-union victory in the shop-floor elections. After a strike the 'honour of the organisation' has to be defended by presenting the strike as a success, regardless of the actual weakness and limitations, the lacking participation or material possibilities to hit capital. In order to secure the future of the organisation or the efforts to organise, their 'own' organisation has to be shown to be successful and important.
These problems cannot be solved by a more 'radical' strategy. They are due to the passivity of the workers themselves which results in the above contradictions: given the lack of self-activity, even people who want to attack the capitalist power by supporting the self-organising of struggle often get into the whirl of representation and mobilisation.
In the last few years in Germany there have been attempts to build up support groups around concrete conflicts - either, as mentioned above, under union control, or in the form of self-organization.
We were pleased to hear about people in Berlin relating to the concrete class situation, in this case the conflicts in the call centres, by starting an inquiry. They set up the Call Center Offensive, an ironic reference to the Land Nordrhein Westfalen's initiative of the same name to promote the setting-up of call centres. This is how the Call Center Offensive introduced itself in a leaflet:
Some of the people who make up the Call Center Offensive work in call centres themselves. We try to support agents in their struggles against work or for the improvement of their working and payment conditions, through publicity or legal aid, for example. At the same time we want to set up a framework in which the experiences of such struggles and working conditions can be reflected collectively. [Invitation to a 'meeting of call centre agents', 14th of December 2000]
This initiative gained a certain dynamic when conflicts escalated in a number of call centres in Berlin and the Call Center Offensive people found themselves as supporters in the centre of these conflicts. They described in a discussion how their initiative developed. Here is a summary of a discussion with them:
Our point of departure was that casualisation is shit. Our approach wasn't clear and in a way we ended up in call centres by accident. We found the sector interesting - partly because the unions didn't play a significant role in it. We had also thought about doing something around street cleaning, but we didn't know anyone there, and we didn't want to represent other people. We had some contacts in call centres, one of us had already worked there. We focused on call centres as a sector because we didn't want to get stuck in a particular call centre. In any case, we wanted to act on a cross-company level. So we looked where we already had contacts. It was mainly these people who came to the first meetings. But also other people showed up and participated in the discussions; people who later on were involved in conflicts in call centres. In the first conflict at Audio Service, there were a number of problems:
* The relation between the people from the Call Center Offensive and the workers: At the first meeting it seemed that the workers were defending their working conditions - the rather relaxed work atmosphere etc. - while we were pointing out other problems against which they should struggle: that there is no holiday pay or sick pay etc.
* At the second meeting, the workers were much more radical in what they said. By that time, management had introduced daily work contracts, which stirred up some trouble. Our meetings with these workers and the introduction of day labourer contracts taken together led to the struggle. The management was clever enough to sack the workers one by one. Generally, we just tried things out, developing practice as we went along ('I mainly wanted to be active in the class struggle instead of just talking about it.') The outcome was not what we wanted. We never thought about what to do first and then actually did it. There were reflections, attempts by individuals, but there was neither a common position nor a theoretical discussion from which practice would proceed. Practice followed practical imperatives arising from the conflicts. Our main focus was support. That was the key concept in relation to the struggles. In the case of Hotline it was clear that people were organizing themselves but that we could help with publicity. Our influence wasn't too strong. We participated in the discussions individually. They saw us as supporters who can contribute information and they never criticized us.
However, people didn't seem to understand our position, since the only thing many of them could think of in terms of radical politics was anti-fascism (Antifa) and they hardly knew how to relate to conflicts at work politically. Besides, they also turned to the union. ('They thought that we would be some charity thing and were afraid we might take decisions for them...')
The case of Emnid was different: We wanted to learn from our experience at Audioservice and Hotline, where people came together, the conflicts escalated and led to sackings - and hence to the end of the struggles. We therefore wanted to come together and decide what exactly we should do. Some of us worked there. The impression was that nothing would come about. We decided to just observe and talk to people at first. We merely wanted to comment instead of coming up with demands. This didn't work out as some of us understood this agreement in a different way: immediately a leaflet was written attacking the miserable working conditions (because of the conflict at Emnid in Bielefeld) and calling for struggle. The idea of 'comment, go along with things, wait' didn't work out. At Emnid, things didn't go on any further because the workers turnover was quite high so after a few months completely different people work there. Emnid was the only place where the Call Center Offensive itself took the initiative and started something where nothing had been going on before; in all the other cases it was the workers themselves who started the struggles.
In leaflets and meetings the Call Center Offensive again and again underlined the importance of exchanging information on ways of resistance against management's policies ('Communication without management and telephones', 'Practice solidarity - make links and organize yourselves - exchange phone numbers and e-mail-addresses'). In this context the Call Center Offensive also published a list of reports about the working conditions in Berlin's call centres and leaflets containing legal information ('Got the sack? Advice when being dismissed'; 'Why you should never accept a severance pay of 300 marks'; 'Most demands are merely those for legal minimum standards: sick pay, holiday entitlement and a works council'; 'Limits and opportunities of shop stewards' work in call centres with mainly casual workers'). Here is more from the summary of the discussion:
We don't see the welfare state as merely a pacifying institution installed 'from above', but also as something people have struggled for. At least we want to point out the legally guaranteed standards to the workers. Our leaflets invite people to discuss. They don't come up with demands, but with information about the legal regulation of work relations. We don't come up with minimum standards, e.g. a minimum wage, but simply point out the existing ones.
That already sparks off discussions. A problem, however, is that people then tend to orient their demands around these minimum standards (for example at Hotline where people considering themselves as 'revolutionary' demanded a works council). People think of these demands as something that can be realized in contrast to a demand to take over the means of production. Holiday pay or sick pay promise an immediate improvement because they increase the individual wage. Besides, people know they can refer to the state.
For us, however, it's not about 'enlightenment' but about starting a discussion. It's about concrete, realisable things. We want to create and support a bit of a movement, a form of organising, neither to come up with a ready-made organisation nor to do nothing at all. We want to initiate self-reflection even where workers justify the whole shit ('great flexible working hours' etc.). In this way, the conflict around minimum standards at Audioservice and Hotline triggered off massive reactions on the side of the management (they fired workers) and so confrontations developed on which we could build. Struggles often develop from notions of 'justice', from the idea that one is 'entitled' to get something because one did good work etc. Although this isn't something we initiate, it happens anyway.
Through these conflicts people learn that they are situated in a relation of struggle. They leave behind the idea of 'good' and 'bad' capitalists. Yet we also want to actually improve the working conditions through these conflicts. In this context it's important that the Call Center Offensive is an alliance of several groups with different backgrounds. We also have different ideas about what goes beyond the support of struggles. We only agree that struggles have to develop. The point is the struggles, how people change through them, what kind of experience they make even if they're defeated. We don't play a major role in that, even if we have a clearer picture of the situation and the development of call centres. We can give support, but it's not our job to say what should be done. We can contribute experience from other struggles, for example, now we can advise people not to go for a works council (after our experiences at Hotline).
These positions and experience lead to some questions:
* the point of departure for the Call Center Offensive was casualisation, read: the break-up of what has so far been the normal work relation (35 or 40 hour week, permanent contracts) and the creation of so-called 'a-typical' work contracts (temp work, limited contracts, part-time, trainee-contracts, pseudo self-employment...) Even if those forms of work relations have been extended over the last few years, the 'struggle against casualisation' leads to the demand for 'guaranteed work', read: normal exploitation. That way, the main objective, the struggle against exploitation, can fall by the wayside.
* It is understandable that a group experiments and deals with things right away instead of getting stuck in fundamental discussions that don't have any concrete results. However, without having a precise discussion one ends up in the many blind alleys we seek to avoid: the improvement of working conditions through shop stewards and the unions; relating to the state as the guarantor of certain standards concerning wages, holidays etc. If we want to grasp the class reality and its revolutionary tendencies, we always need to discuss the theoretical questions related to that. The Call Center Offensive is an alliance of people from different backgrounds, and not all of them even want to discuss revolutionary perspectives. In that regard their 'volatile' practice was a result of this lack of agreement and a problematic theoretical basis of their practical attempts. At the same time it was only this lack of clarification of basic differences, which made collective practice possible.
* When it came to questions of works councils and the focus on legal frameworks, the Call Center Offensive's position was often not clear, which was again due to their composition and different political starting points. While some of them went for that focus, others had a clear critique of it. It is worth noting that after the experience with setting up the works council at Hotline, Call Center Offensive as a whole had a much more critical discussion on this point.
* Having a political approach to conflicts and struggles 'from outside' is always problematic. It can make the workers involved feel they're being 'used' or being the object of some kind of 'charity' or 'social work'. The key question here is how we can make our own exploitation the starting point for understanding and presenting the actual conflicts as a common struggle against exploitation. Important impulses for the Call Center Offensive hence came from call centre 'agents' who joined in during the conflicts at Audioservice, Hotline, ADM and Emnid. They were individual and often politically active comrades who made a living in the call centres, most of them as students working part-time. Apart from a few exceptions, they only came along to the meetings as long as the conflict was going on in 'their' firm. We experienced the same thing in other initiatives.
We have pointed out several times in our leaflets that we reject forms of representation as they constitute an obstacle to the self-activity and development of workers' power and help to divide, pacify or integrate struggles. Against that we set the concept of self-organization, because only direct action and direct forms of organising can open up a space for a movement against the relations of exploitation.
We need to stand up together against work stress and being forced to work. We can only do that by self-organizing and finding ways - together with other workers - of reacting against management measures and pushing 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. [hotlines no. 2, December 2000]
This process can be such a step, but will not necessarily be one. Workers come together during work and - especially in call centres - organise the labour process themselves to a certain degree. They discuss problems concerning machinery, clients, or team leaders. This in itself, however, is not subversive. Even if conflicts escalate and struggles develop, this doesn't necessarily involve a process of radicalisation or looking beyond individual working conditions or the individual firm. Quite the reverse, we have experienced that attempts of workers' self-organising remained on the level of protest or were limited to corporatist demands to improve working conditions, even if the unions were not pushing for such a line. We could see that in the initiatives in call centres in Berlin described above as well as with the call centre workers in Duesseldorf who collectively helped each other when they wanted to look for new jobs after they got the sack.
There is one attempt of self-organising we want to document in more detail. Here's the report of one participant:
The call centre is a computer-hotline. The hotline-department is divided in first and second level. The first level is divided into two shifts, the same people always work together. Most people work full-time, a few part-time, mostly students. One could say that the work is seasonal-work: there is a lot to do when they offer new computers and not so much if they don't. They were about to do the next sales-campaign and everybody had a lot to do. When the amount of calls dropped, some people came together and started to talk to each other. Not like before in two, but in bigger groups. These conversations had an open character, whoever wanted to was allowed to participate. Once some people had problems with one team-leader. After talking about it the team-leader was asked to come and everybody could say what he or she didn't like. Everybody thought that the new atmosphere was a success, and they wanted to preserve it. From this meeting the idea of a more frequent meeting was born. This idea came more from the feeling that a common approach had been found to deal with such problems, than from a perceived need to be organised. The first meeting took place in a restaurant. Twelve out of eighteen of us were there, four were off sick. We went there right after the shift and we gave ourselves an hour for the discussion, of course we needed two.
The days before there was a list, where people could sign what he or she wanted to discuss. The list was astonishing long: the atmosphere and the trust among each other, the upcoming elections for the workers-councils, the working instructions, communication with other departments, the lack of information about products, communication directions on the phone, holidays, pay slips, outgoing calls. Someone read out the points of the agenda and the person who wrote it down was asked to explain what was meant. After that we decided if the point was important, if we could clarify it quickly or if we should discuss it a little bit or if we had to leave the point all together. We were all surprised about how disciplined we had been. We didn't need a moderator, nor a list of speakers. Sometimes it got a little louder and chaotic, but not as emotional as the discussions at work.
The big problem was the question of pushing through the demands. Some people thought that you should give something before you can ask for something. Someone even suggested that we need to make a written list of how we can work better, including proposals for improvements. It was then argued that the everyday work does look different, anyway: we do much more than our working instructions demand and much more than we learnt in the training. What about our social and communication skills, the different languages we speak? Those skills don't come up in the pay checks nor in any other form of acknowledgment, but without it the work wouldn't function. Of course the management knows about it and it is clear that we could do the job better without them if they would let us. But that's not what anybody wants, fortunately. Basically there were three factions: those who were acting like managers, those who were strictly against this position and took up a 'workers-standpoint' and those who were undecided, sometimes they tended toward the one and sometimes toward the other position. When the 'managers' were talking they were talking about achieving something, to organise the work better, not to demand anything without doing a better job than before, relieving the team-leader, helping each other, but also controlling each other, sacrificing something, for example the brake-time to read the news in the intranet, and things like that. The 'workers' (noticeably only women) wanted to have an easier job, more holidays, they definitely wanted to make external phone calls, they couldn't see why they should work differently from before to prove themselves to anyone. They had the clear feeling that they were low down in the hierarchy and they often compared this job to the one they had before. The women are not ambitious to have a career, they don't want to be in the second level. They just want to have an easy job. They want to have their friends around them and they want fun, until something new comes up.
At the second meeting only eight people came. The discussion took a course of general statements about the election of the works council and information about new products. The power was gone. It was not possible to get the discussion onto a practical level, to get down to something concrete that we could have done together. And by the third meeting there were only three people there. At the moment it looks like the meetings are dead. And indeed these meetings don't really have any meaning anymore. We will come back to meeting during the work. And maybe the feeling that there is a possibility to come together outside of work without team-leaders and organisation will survive.
After all the meetings the question is left if it really made sense to keep the whole shift together. Maybe it would have been more exciting, if the 'workers' would have come together and would have started an action. This would have demanded a clear response from everybody and the 'managers' would have lost their whole position.
Here we can see that - self-organised or not - if the discussion is about the daily conflicts one can only talk about 'problems at work'. Without a clear confrontation with the bosses, without the understanding of everyday work as exploitation, without reference to the crises or the situation in other companies/sectors there was no radicalisation. The different factions - 'managers', 'work-refusers'... - neutralized each other. The 'managers' tried to put the meetings into order and to focus on the improvement of the work.
In such a situation - conflicts, rage, discussions - it seems to be better that those who want to do something against work, bosses and exploitation come together without being held back by those who represent the 'manager-position'. The other question is if it isn't better to escalate the conflicts 'at work' instead of transferring the discussion 'outside' of work. The problem is how one comes together with the resolute people without ending up isolated when you start actions. We can check which other workers don't accept the stress at work, moan, sabotage and treat other people with solidarity. We can speak to them, discuss with them, start actions. But we can not compensate for the weakness described in the situation above: obviously there were not enough resolute workers or they were not resolute enough to take the situation in their own hands, to start a struggle against in this workplace more than lousy conditions.
We have shown dynamics and restrictions concerning works councils, unions, support initiatives and attempts of self-organising. They are the frameworks within which - or rather in spite of which - the workers start to struggle.
These attempts at organising themselves are an expression of workers' attempts to struggle against exploitation and develop a perspective for a better life. As long as within the daily confrontations they see a possibility just in 'minor' improvements, and as long as their attempts don't lead to experiences of collective power which can overcome that limitation they will end up in 'union' mechanisms. There are certainly people who have an interest in this because their position as a paid bureaucrat or politician is in danger otherwise...
For us the most important point is how confrontations can overcome this point and break those limitations. The potential for self-activity and 'spontaneous' actions often develops in direct confrontations with team-leaders and supervisors. Most of the time it doesn't depend on 'rational' reflections whether this or that reaction to management measures will lead to concrete improvements. Often it is rather a minor event that gets things going. We want to know if and how workers experience exploitation as a basic contradiction, if and how they can turn their daily cooperation under capitals' command around and use it in a subversive sense.
In this situation it is important to underline which forms of struggle allow experiences of common power, show the weak points of capital and strike where it hurts. In an illegal sweatshop with three telephone workers the situation is really difficult. If you stand up against anything they fire you straight way and replace you with other proles. If you need the money to feed yourself and your kids it is easy to put you under pressure. If you work in a bigger company and you organise a special workers' meeting when there are hardly any calls it will create less pressure than if the red lamp is glowing and the pleasant colleagues happen to meet at the toilets. If you are working in a Telecom call centre and the whole department is on strike it can happen that the calls are routed to other departments or call centres and that's the end of it there. If the whole first level in another firm refuses to work this will quickly make the place close down because no more calls will be accepted. If you convince the company's technicians to let the ACD-system overflow there will be a overall break-down...
The outcome of struggles in call centres depends on the experiences and the unity of the workers, their ability to overcome the separations. Furthermore, it depends on:
* The role of the call centre in the company: Are there other call centres which can take and make phone calls? How important are the calls for the company? This determines whether the bosses can re-route the calls in case of struggles or do without their handling altogether.
* The role of the call centre in the valorisation process: If the call centre coordinates the fleet of a shipping agency an interruption can lead to the break down of the transportation which also has an impact on other departments. That can increase the strength of a strike considerably. If a call center is only dealing with the customer support for one company only that one is affected.
* The linking of individual struggles: The question is if and how struggling workers have immediate forms of communication and relate to each other. If struggles are only connected through media reports or union structures it is very hard to develop a common strength. But if the struggling call centre workers organise a march through other companies and invite students of nearby schools for a discussion the limitations and isolation of the struggles can be overcome which also opens new perspectives on the social relations of exploitation.
Without struggles that break out of these limitations the discussion about the organising of workers mean little. Attempts to bring people together through base unions, rank-and-file groups or support committees remain one-off actions and get trapped in 'minor' conflicts.
In this situation - given the lack of militant struggles in call centres to refer to - we need a discussion about the rise of workers' power which doesn't end up with petitions or the 'representation of workers' interests'. So far the workers in call centres have not found 'their' form of struggle, one that uses the possibilities that arise from the fact that call centres are centres of communication. Other workers - for example in car factories - needed a generation to learn to use the assembly line for the coordination of strikes and sabotage. Do we want to wait that long?
This raises some questions:
* How can we further develop forms of clandestine militancy that function without activists standing out publicly? This is necessary because - taken the precarious work relations - the active workers would otherwise get fired right away. Collective but 'secret' arrangements of slow-downs can be more effective.
* How can the experiences merge into a collective perspective where the workers use their daily cooperation in order to put pressure on the capitalists. Is it enough to organise the exchange of experiences through leaflets and other media?
* This opens up other questions regarding our role: How can relate to strikes and conflicts and thus support some kind of learning process? What kind of means do we need to be able to hear about the important developments? What can we learn within strikes and other struggles? How can we participate in the discussions of the workers?...
We can discuss, prepare and suggest. We need a broad exchange about these attempts with other people and groups who try out similar things (or want to).
84 For this part we have not only analysed the experiences in call centres in Ruhrgebiet but also the information and reports we got on other call centres in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Britain, USA, and France.
85 There are various concepts to distinguish different forms of call centres: the more general distinction of in- and outbound but also the distinction of different forms of work-flow: call centres of 'mass-service-work' (orders, information on the balance of bank accounts...), call centres of 'sales-work' (selling insurances...) and 'knowledge-work' (technical-hotlines...)... (see: Phil Taylor, Gareth Mulvey, Jeff Hyman, Peter Bain: Work organization, control and the experience of work in call centres, September 2000, p.3; you can find it at: [www.strath.ac.uk/Other/futureofwork]
86 In some instances we also can see an opposite tendency: for example at the beginning of 2002 Fiat, Milano has - after six years - 'in-sourced' the call centre of Europ Assistance and has also transferred other tasks to that call centre. In other places the management tries to counteract the high rate of turnover by giving permanent contracts, especially in call centres where a long training-period leads to high costs.
87 See also the report on Spectamind in Delhi on the hotlines website. More details in chapter 4: Call Centres.
88 More precisely: The rate of profit, meaning the ratio of profit to invested capital. It is not so much about the mass of profit (e.g. 10 million Euros) but rather about how much profit is gained when a capitalist invests a certain sum.
89 Comments and examples for both tendencies can be found in hotlines no.1 and no.2, which you can find in chapter 8: Appendix.
90 At the same time they try to extend the shops' opening hours by changing the law on that. So the attack on the working time is not only affecting the call centre workers.
91 Such conditions are quite common in the USA... not only in call centres.
92 'Workers still do overtime although past experiences show that overtime hours and supplements for work on Sundays only result in higher wages for a short period. When we have agreed to work longer hours on a regular basis, the wages quickly drop to a level just high enough for living and going to work.' [hotlines no.1, October 2000]
93 More on wages in chapter 4: Call Centres.
94 Il Manifesto, 5th of February 2002
95 Il Manifesto, 3rd of May 2002. This article also describes how Atesia uses the free lance contracts to get rid of unwanted workers: Atesia just does't extend their 'work-place rental agreement'.
96 But that's not the bottom limit: we have heard of jobs in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern where you get 4.50 Euro per hour and less. The situation in other sectors like restaurants, cleaning... is not better.
97 The situation at Telecom/TIM is the following: Incredible flexibilisation (shift-work in all forms, use of all sorts of a-typical work-contracts, increased possibilities of changing the daily work-flow) and vast deterioration of wages which reveals itself when we compare the wages of a recently hired worker (category 2) today and in 1990: 1990 1.729 thousand Lire, inflation 1990-2001 49,68 percent, theoretical wage today 2.599 thousand Lire, actual wage 2001 1.927 thousand Lire, difference in percent (wage cut): 25,5. [leaflet of the base union Flmu-Cub, Firenze, May 2001]
98 For more details see chapter 5. Everyday Working Life
99 The increase in productivity in call centres cannot be compared to the one in factories/production. By using machinery and by automating, big leaps forward can be achieved and so the production time for some goods tends to zero. The time for a call can be reduced - depending on the kind of call - to twenty seconds (verification of customer data, directory inquiries) but that's it. In other call centres the 'human' work plays a crucial role: people call because they want to talk (besides ordering stuff). This time can only be limited...
100 Not all call centres use these means of control in the same way or on the same scale. More details in chapter 5. Everyday Working Life, ACD-systems.
101 Also see above: 'intensification'. Here we have to make clear that the bosses want us to think that in call centres everything (!) is under control and that therefore struggling is impossible. The unions just repeat this bullshit and demand the control of the control. In contrary, our experience is that only certain aspects of the work-process can be controlled and that the workers find ways of evading the control.
102 This is not the case in some regions, like Wales, Sicilia or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. There the call batteries are often the only chance of 'finding work'.
103 Speaking of prisons, there is yet another bitter aspect: in Canada and the USA they have established 'call jails' where the 'inmates' of the prisons have to be on the line for crap wages [report on [www.theglobeandmail.com] 2nd of march 2001]
104 'Buongiorno Telecom Italia, sono Filippo, in cosa posso essereLe utile?' Pacific Bell is not bad either: 'Greetings. Thank you for calling Pacific Bell Internet. How can I provide you with excellent service?' That's how the brain is washed: before providing any 'service' you already bull-shit something about how 'excellent' it will be. So if you fuck it all up later it won't be that obvious. At Deutsche Bank 24 they tell you during the training period that there are no 'problems' and never will be... and that you are therefore not allowed to use that word on the phone. Instead there are only 'challenges'.
105 For more details see chapter 5: Everyday Working Life, machinery.
106 We can see this kind of 'becoming numb' also in other services where people are being handled like at the assembly line: patients, customers, guests...
107 There are also sexist comments, for instance: 'You are just a woman and you don't know anything'; or people talking rubbish about some stupid fantasies.
108 See also comments in chapter 5. Everyday Working Life on cooperation, interactive voice response...
109 See also the 'report from one of the shit holes' in chapter 5: Everyday Working Life. 'It's not about the food, it's about the whole fucking kitchen!'
110 Also see the following part about forms of organising... Someone commented to us that small conflicts surely can be the starting point of bigger troubles and workers' collective action. Just a little thing... and everyone starts kicking off because it's the straw that breaks the camels back.
111 The word 'sabotage' has its origins in French wooden shoes - the so-called 'sabot' - which every now and then were thrown into the machine in order to have an extra-break...
112 During the Verizon-strike this effective form of sabotage was used by technicians who were able to come close enough to service-trucks, telephone systems and relay stations. Here the importance of the concrete function of a particular task or job within the department or company becomes obvious.
113 According to the function of the state: industrial laws and minimum standards (of working time, wages, probations etc.) are meant to regulate the class conflict in which the state can present itself as the mediator and thereby contain and isolate the conflicts.
114 'Asta' is the name for the students representation body at German universities.
115 For two reasons: for them the job was just transitional and they could find something similar anyway; and it would have taken 30 minutes more to go to work.
116 It's important - as already mentioned above - that it was mainly the technicians who could put pressure on the bosses. Their refusal to maintain and repair the technical equipment was causing the main problems...
117 More on base unions in the following part about forms of organising.
118 Given the growing tension in Italy and an increase in small and medium-sized strikes, in June the government body responsible for certifying strikes decided to reconsider the permit for monthly strikes at Telecom Italia in Firenze, claiming that so far there hadn't been ten 'strike-free' days between each walk-out.
119 Together with the Csil, the Cgil and Uil are the established unions in Italy: For more details see the following part on base unions. See also footnote 128.
120 There are plans that TIM might take over the call centre but that doesn't necessarily mean that the call centre will be kept open instead of routing all calls to Palermo.
121 That's valid for Germany. Similar structures exist in most countries where the unions are taking part in the regulation of conflicts.
122 tageszeitung, 24th of February 2002
123 report on [www.verdi.de], May 2002
124 tageszeitung, 14th of November 2001
125 Some call centres of banks, insurances, telecommunication companies etc. have established a works council. Mainly the companies who have created in-house call centres within an already existing company structure.
126 One might sometimes loose sight of this function of unions and works councils, particularly when listening to the comments of bosses concerning call centres or start-up companies. An example: '[We have] talked about the New Economy, the digital capitalism etc. The people working in these sectors don't want the unions anymore. Why? Do you know what these people believe in? They do not just believe in participation [Mitbestimmung], they believe in self-management [Selbstbestimmung]. That is the point. Globalisation sends better concepts around the world than participation [Mitbestimmung] and unions. The people working in these sectors say: 'Leave me alone with this collective system. I know well enough how I can represent my interests'.' (Olaf Henkel, former chairman of the BDI [Confederation of German Industrialists], during a broadcast of Phoenix, 27th of June 2001) With this bullshit about the 'new work-relations' and 'independent employees' who don't want to be patronized by unions and works councils these buggers want to disguise that their aim is the isolation of the workers. Isolated, the workers can be better exploited.
127 We participated in this discussion and the one about sense and nonsense of the founding of a works councils and with hotlines-leaflets.
128 These main Italian unions form a bloc which for the last ten years has negotiated with the Italian government about reform projects and has taken part in the restructuring of the regime of exploitation. The official name for this cooperation is 'concertazione'. It's similar to the 'Buendnis fuer Arbeit' [alliance for work] in Germany.
129 In the RSU (Rappresentanze sindacali unitarie, united union representation) which is active on company level as a kind of mixture of works council and assembly of shop-stewards [Vertrauensleuteversammlung], one third of the seats are reserved for the 'confederali'. The other two thirds are elected which is the reason for a permanent conflict between the unions. In some companies the base unions gained enough votes to catch up with the 'confederali', e.g. this year in Firenze at Telecom Italia and in Bologna at TIM.
130 For more on the wheeling and dealing have a look at the report from Blu in the part on 'strikes'.
131 This becomes - as already mentioned - increasingly difficult, one reason why they are discussing the possibility of 'illegal strikes'.
132 A base union comrade commented on this question that the union would just be a name, a framework which one could use in conflicts. It would be important to remain flexible. No union or party would be worth identifying with. It would all be about the people, the militants, the workers. (Interview, Bologna, April 2002)
133 In the interviews of April 2002 they emphasised this point explicitly.
134 That's also an important criticism of the hotlines-leaflets: the reference to the situation in call centres partly remained mere description of the individual conflict. We referred to whole fields of conflict and put them in context to the relations of exploitation (whereas the base unions' leaflets often just refer to a single company or conflict). But addressing the fundamental contradiction in the hotlines-leaflets we didn't get beyond merely adding that aspect. Again, we couldn't make up for the lack of open struggles we had to refer to...
135 We, too, haven't emphasised enough in our leaflets that we don't refer to workers as 'call center agents', and we haven't addressed enough the fact that workers don't identify with their job - which could, at least, be the starting point for a discussion about a different form of society...
136 Because without state control the individual capitalist would squeeze the workers to the limit...
137 There are some other difficulties: only the permanent workers have this possibility to 'agitate' openly, the others will be sacked if they present themselves as unionists... at the latest when their contracts run out.
138 A mechanism we also see with SUD in France or CGT in Spain and which has to do with the formation of 'syndicalist organisations'. It is only if we act as 'participants' that we are able to support the development of struggles and their revolutionary tendencies and can criticise their weak points or failures. Then we are also able to describe the objective limitations of workers actions (crisis, dismissals, scabbing...) without having to worry about the 'good reputation' of our organisation.
139 Just to get it straight once more: inquiry and intervention which avoid the traps of representation cannot change the passivity of the workers either. But they can show the reasons why people aren't struggling and at what points that could change.
140 For a university and union focussed imitative see [www.callcenteragent.net]
141 In our region and elsewhere we see a left which has turned its back on class struggle and revolution while following ethnic ('anti-German') or nationalistic ('anti-imperialist') ideals, participating in state regulation (like the PDS), or cultivating their 'autonomous' ghetto (like most of the Antifas [anti fascist action groups]).
142 In a later invitation it sounded a bit more combative: 'We try to fight against stress, miserable wages and insecure living conditions. Besides the direct support of agents in struggles at work we want to offer a framework where experiences made in different conflicts can come together. The aim is to refer to individual discontent in order to become a collective force.' [invitation, 12th of April 2001]
143 This discussion took place with only some people of the Call Center Offensive, so it's not an 'official' statement. We think that the minutes provide some interesting questions for the future debates anyway. More infos and leaflets of the Call Center Offensive can be found on [www.callcenteroffensive.de]
144 A comrade from Call Center Offensive said that within the initiative there is also a controversial dicussion on some of these points.
145 The question of 'precarious working-conditions' wasn't a big issue in the hotlines-leaflets. Nevertheless we partly described the conditions in the call centres as especially shitty without saying that most of the workers in call centres think that the work places in call centres are relatively better than other workplaces. Besides, we think that we don't have to explain their own 'flexible' or 'insecure' work-places to them... some even see that as an advantage because they don't really want to get a permanent contract anyway.
146 We are aware of the fact that also for us - as a group which has collectively discussed class struggle, state, gender relations, our role... - it continued to be a challenge to carry on with this discussion and contribute it to the concrete confrontations during the call centre inquiry.
147 For the critique on works councils... see above.
148 The attempt to keep a mobilisation going through meetings, organisational structures or events will fail. That was also the experience of the Call Center Offensive during their series of discussion meetings in winter 2001. People from the Call Center Offensive mentioned that some other internal and external factors played a role here (which they should explain themselves).
149 See also the previous part on the Call Center Offensive or the part on 'lines of struggle': petitions.
150 We are still discussing this: 'Radicalisation' will not come from sly intervention from 'outside', so how does it arise? From the 'minor conflicts'? But these might stay fixated on the conditions instead of tackling the relations of exploitation. Or is the whole idea of 'radicalisation' wrong because it leads to the question of 'conciousness'? See also footnote 110.
7. Proposal: The Next Steps...
Revolutionary organising has to support the self-liberation of the exploited. It cannot take the form of mass organisations that go to demonstrations pretending to represent the demands of workers, students, etc. There cannot be a 'revolutionary policy' within union and political frameworks because it is not the 'issues' or 'leadership' of unions or political organisations that makes them reformist. The whole character of these representing bodies makes them reformist from the start. The attempt to overcome the divisions within capitalist production through 'grassroots organising of other workers', in 'all-encompassing' structures (neighbourhood centres, rank-and-file-groups, etc.) or under generalised demands, will, sooner or later, also end up in the politics of representation. The organising of the class can only be the result of the struggles within the capitalist organisation of work, in firms, universities and schools. Only in these attacks on the actual divisions can the organising be all encompassing. The organising of the class struggle only takes place through and within the actual collective struggles. All attempts to maintain it beyond that, end up as institutions. [kolinko, The Subversion of Everyday Life, 1999]
At the moment we do not see the dynamics in class struggle that could give us the opportunity to propose a concrete and common project of inquiry. Nevertheless, this is about a method that enables us to understand the current situation, to notice and recognise communist tendencies and to take part in struggles.
We cannot only focus on call centres because these - like any sector - can only be understood by looking at capitalist cooperation. Furthermore, when looking at the potential for struggles one has to take the whole working class into account - not just a small part of it. In order to understand the forms of struggle and organising we need to go inside the companies, schools, universities and other areas to investigate the conditions. The potential of a society without exploitation lies in the struggles taking place there... despite the divisions, problems or traps that open up. We can intervene, starting from our own rage against the capitalist relations that force us to work every day, and from the abilities we develop during inquiry and struggles.
We propose forming other nuclei in and around the sectors, companies, schools... which start inquiries and interventions in conflicts. These nuclei can then exchange their experiences through the nets of communication, write strike reports, criticise the struggles, expose divisions... We don't need a 'central' organisation, but rather a broad debate on the open questions and the potentials of a revolutionary class movement...
What should be investigated?
Inquiry and intervention can mean looking at a current conflict, a wave of struggles, a company or a sector, talking to the workers, taking part in struggles and criticising. It could be the worldwide strikes in aviation, the struggle of the bus drivers in Duesseldorf, the methods the job-centre in Koeln use to force people to take jobs or the blockade of the universities by students. We want to get away from the self-righteous reflex of the 'radical' left that judges struggles after having read reports in the Frankfurter Rundschau [German liberal-lefty daily paper]. Go there, talk to the people, tackle their and your contradictions and weaknesses!
The area should be chosen carefully. What do we expect from the inquiry? Do we already have theses that we want to examine, confirm, reject?
Is there the chance to intervene in struggles?... We suggest discussing a few questions before starting an inquiry and intervention:
* Where are the struggles (or is there a struggle) taking place? This is the central question because the existing conditions or relations can only break open within struggles. Is it possible to take part and if so, how: by supporting the struggle, interviewing people, by criticising the role of the union, etc.
* Which sectors are central in your region due to either their importance for the accumulation of capital (cars, energy...) or because many people work there (restaurants/catering, call centres...)? 
* Are there certain groups of workers who are particularly militant, who have found their own forms of struggles, and who have - based on their conditions - developed a radical critique of the current situation? Are they able to carry others along with their momentum? This could be assembly-line workers, migrating construction-workers or radical students. At the moment we do not see such a composition.
* Which worldwide developments are happening and what effects do they have in the region (restructuring of the welfare state, migration...)? This is mainly about realizing the actual changes and putting them into a context. How does the crisis reveal itself in your region, in the work places, dole offices or job centres? This is the only way we can understand how workers are confronted by 'world-wide phenomena'.
* Where are you at the moment and what is happening there? In programming-jobs, through a temp-agency-slave-trader in a factory, on construction-sites, at the social security-office. However, we are sceptical as to the usefulness of this approach: Where you are at the moment is mainly by chance and it does not make much sense to hang around in some sector where nothing is happening or where there are no conflicts.
* Taking up struggles in other regions, like the actions of fast-food and hotel-workers in France... Who is working in that sector in our region? Are there similarities or chances to intervene?
How can an inquiry be organised?
There are some things that we have tried which wouldn't be feasible in every situation. There are also some things could have done but didn't. The following comments - based on our experiences - can be reference points for the discussion of future projects of inquiry:
Time-frame: We have thrown ourselves into this thing for three years because we could find jobs there, because there were no (other) struggles, because call centres were and are important in our region. Nevertheless, inquiry and intervention can also be something for a few weeks, for instance, if you try to understand the struggle of migrant workers in the region's cleaning sector. Go there, do interviews, analyse the information, write and distribute a leaflet on the struggle...
Working: For the inquiry in call centres it was easy to get a job because call centres were hiring lots of unskilled workers. This could also be possible in other sectors: recycling, factories, construction, restaurants. It's more difficult in sectors that aren't hiring people or only those with a qualification. In case you want to start working the question is: in one company or several? This depends on whether there are a few of you who will be finding work, or if there is a particular struggle etc.
Interviews: We realised that we need several questionnaires for interviewing ourselves and other workers:
* one for the facts and an overview, used at the beginning;
* one for the continuous discussion and agitation of workers;
* one for information and exchange on struggles here and elsewhere.
Most important here is that interviews don't remain a one-sided thing but become a joint discussion and even a 'self-inquiry' where others use the questionnaires in their sectors and exchange the results of the discussions.
Collecting information: We definitely need a list of questions for going through newspapers, books and websites. Questionnaires and interviews aren't enough to understand reality... Still, in our experience, we don't need to collect and analyse for a year before intervening in conflicts. If we hear about conflicts and it seems sensible to intervene immediately, we should do so.
Theoretical discussion: We see the theoretical discussion as an important precondition for a well-aimed intervention because we have seen for ourselves how the daily experiences can start to mess with your head. Therefore, we need a discussion on the relations of exploitation, the development of the productive forces, crisis, the role of the state and the unions...
Intervention: We are still discussing this one. We know on one hand that we cannot initiate struggles or a movement. On the other hand do we intervene in conflicts and so play a role in their development? In the discussion with other workers, in the conflicts with team leaders or during a strike, we need some common points of reference. These could include:
* We need forms of clandestine communication and action so the bosses don't realize what's happening;
* We urge for forms of resistance that disturb or interrupt the process of production effectively;
* We don't turn up as the 'workers' voice' or their organisers;
* We don't go for negotiation, mediation or settlements.
* On the contrary, we want to underline the forms of struggles and moments that express the basic class contradiction and the actual power of the workers;
* we see our role in supporting workers' self-reflection and their discussion through leaflets, interviews and other forms of intervention and in making proposals.
Leaflets: We have used leaflets and will continue to do so. They were useful for describing the situation in call centres in detail and for circulating information on the experiences with certain management measures or experiences of struggles. Together with the website, the leaflets were a reference point for call centre workers and comrades in our region and beyond. However, that has had its limits: We did not make clear enough how the whole relation of exploitation turns up in single conflicts and how it is being (or can be) attacked. We got stuck with the (long) texts, only made a few stickers and didn't try other forms of action (videos, posters, rallies...). That was a short-coming because we only focussed on those who were prepared to read the texts; and because we set limits on our own creativity and forms of expressing our rage against the conditions. We will keep this in mind for our next projects...
All the above are important points for inquiries and interventions that we can start in local groups. In addition, we need to communicate with people and groups who try out similar things. We propose two levels of discussion: regional proletarian meetings and the worldwide exchange of experiences.
Regional proletarian meetings:
In our region (Rhein-Ruhr/Germany) we are trying to organise the debate on struggles and conflicts with other groups and individuals and to intervene together. We want to sharpen our views on our situation and that of other exploited people and to initiate a process of inquiry and intervention. At the moment people attending the meeting are discussing - besides the call centre-project -the situation at the jobcentres and common leaflets on concrete struggles. We have decided to write more accurate questionnaires and to define criteria for the reports we are writing on the sectors where we work, study or claim welfare. We need these criteria in order to compare experiences and draw conclusions from them...
In the medium term this can be the basis for regional meetings focussed on the inquiry of class reality that tries to understand the different facets of exploitation in the region and to intervene there: What's the current structure of capital in the region? Where are new investments being made, where are they cutting back? How is the labour market changing through migration, new working models, etc.? How do the workers react to the changes; in the companies, at the universities and in the schools?
One task of such a local cooperation is circulating information on the struggles in the region and beyond. This is also about showing the possibilities and limits of struggles and emphasising the experiences that show something revolutionary: overcoming the limits set by the social division of labour, taking control of organising struggles...
A 'workers' net' or a forum for exchanging information and opinions on different conditions of exploitation, can only ever be a start. Political discussion and intervention are crucial.
We want to exchange experiences with similar 'cooperations' in other regions. This has to be at a worldwide level, rather than being limited to Europe.
When considering the current struggles - the general strike in South Korea, the uprisings in Argentina, the wave of strikes in China, as well as a spread of strikes in Central Europe - the question is whether these experiences are already leading to a world-wide dynamic. We can witness a globalised capitalist crisis but does that mean that the struggles in the different regions are relating to this worldwide context? Can struggles elsewhere be used as a point of reference here because they are happening under similar circumstances?
We can only find that out by making sure that the struggles and those involved hear about each other. But doing that, we should not - as many lefties do at the moment - moan about the effects of the crisis (redundancies, pressure on the wages...) with the intention of 'making them fight' by showing people the terrible situations they are in. That only results in showing them their own weakness: 'You are standing with your back against the wall!'
Instead we should try to understand two things better and contribute the results to the workers' discussions:
* Despite the crisis, what power can workers develop in the struggles? Which forms of action overcome the control by (union) apparatus and representation? What aspects of a struggle can be used as an example for other class conflicts?
* How does the worldwide situation show itself in single instances of struggle? What actual points of reference are there when comparing it with experiences of struggles in other regions? Where do struggles already relate to the global situation?
Our references to crisis should make clear that we are not dealing with 'sectoral' or 'regional' problems that can be solved by state intervention. The crisis and its effects are the result of a worldwide relation of production, which is not controlled by the producers.
For the necessary exchange on these points we need a (world-wide) network. Through the call centre-project we have made some new contacts here and all over the world, other connections have grown stronger through the discussion of our experiences. Now we need to create a common framework to be able to circulate reports on experiences, theoretical contributions and information. As it is this happens mostly on a regional level and rather coincidentally. The next step depends on putting it on a more organised level, opening the process for others to get involved, and starting a political discussion based on the questions we have on struggles.
We suggest starting the exchange immediately. You can find a draft of a list of questions on struggles in the appendix. We want to discuss this as a 'structure' for reports. You can also find it - like all other things we are preparing in this context - on the website [www.prol-position.net] We want to use the website as a medium for the exchange. This is not about publishing all reports on struggles, the three-line news from the local newspaper or the last (necessary) discussion paper on the current state of the crisis. There are enough platforms for that, and most groups have their own websites anyway.
This is rather about creating a platform for detailed reports and analyses, with references, inquiries, critiques... This site has a concrete aim: exchange on the conditions of exploitation and the possibilities for struggles using the list of common questions.
This is a proposal. We will start doing it - according to our energy and abilities - and do the editorial job. We can manage the site in these languages: English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. It would be good if everybody does translations of their own contributions - above all, into English - but that is no precondition. As well as the website, there is a mailing-list for sending around the published reports.
As a suggestion and a start we have already put some reports on the website: the bin men struggle with the support of direct-action-activists in Brighton; migrant workers' strike in a metal-sweatshop in Nordrhein-Westfalen; precarious McDonald's-workers find the support of unions, leftist parties and activists in Paris; Nokia-workers in Milano occupy the factory; the railways' cleaning workers in Italy block the rails and get ripped off by the unions; call centre-workers in Firenze (Florence) strike spontaneously and then run out of steam... We have also put reports on the site, that do not concern an actual struggle but rather the everyday drudgery at work: a precarious postal worker in Duesseldorf; a call centre-worker in Milano; a worker in a glass-factory in the Ruhr; a migrant worker in an Irish pub in Ruhr; a worker at McDonald's...
If you want to discuss this with us, write to us! [contact]
Here is the farewell letter
of a call centre-worker to Blu in Florence, Italy:
regards to the virtual and direct controls,
to the controllers and the monitoring;
regards to the corporate language...
regards to the call times, the welcome phrases, the scripts;
to the bureaucracy and the procedures;
regards to the partition walls, the air-conditioning, the workplaces;
to the revolving doors, the badge, the barriers;
regards to impersonality, standardisation, the bluish grey;
regards to the mission (!) and to the values (uh!);
informal regards to the informal atmosphere,
which connects those who have difficulties paying the rent
with those who earn thousands every month...
regards to the false promises and to those who made them...
angry regards to those who preached peace, the leaden feet, obedience;
regards to the indispensable firemen, regards to the unionists...
regards, without envy, to all the bootlickers on every level;
kind regards to all those who kept their dignity...
warm regards to all the friends I found and who found me...
151 There are already a few groups doing something similar, for instance on migration or struggles in their region.
152 That was our starting point for the inquiry in call centres. The weakness thereafter was due the fact that after the strike at Citibank there were no more struggles we could refer to.
153 We have, for instance, written leaflets on the actions of McDonald's- and cleaning-workers in Paris... and we have used them to take a look at those sectors.
154 You can find more (in detail) in chapter 3. Evaluation: Three years in call centres. Here we pick up some of the results and questions.
155 See also the paragraph on 'interviews' in chapter 3. Evaluation: Three years in call centres, and the questionnaires under 8. Appendix.
156 We listed more questions on these issues in one of our leaflets: 'We cannot present general proposals of how to get out of the defensive situation. But we can - starting from previous struggles - ask questions which can help us: * Which forms of struggle correspond to our immediate abilities and needs e.g. collective 'work-to-rule', other forms of sabotage, open strikes...? * Where can we hit the bosses hard: when lots of callers are in the queue, during test-phases of new technologies...? * How can we overcome the company-walls in order to undermine the bosses' attempts to use workers in other call centres as scabs? * How can we establish connections to workers struggles in other sectors and learn from each other - e.g. because we are fighting against similar conditions? * How can we do all this without putting our fate in the hands of a union- or other apparatus?' [hotlines no. 4, July 2001]
157 For instance on the exploitation in the cleaning sector (kicked off by the struggles of cleaning-workers at the railways' in Italy and in hotels in Paris). See on: [www.prol-position.net]
158 As further encouragement we circulated some ideas on possible projects: A. plans a travelling open meeting through the Ruhr's railway stations and cleaning-workers canteens and wants to invite B. who has participated in a strike of the railways' cleaning workers in Italy; C. hates the leaflets that were posted in her neighbourhood by a civic action group against the local red-light district and wants to interview the prostitutes to find out what they can do together against them; E. is supposed to sort out scrap-metal as part of the new 'job-active'-program of the job-centre in Rheinhausen. That does not suit him at all and he called for a meeting with people on social welfare who were asked to shovel out a section of the Rhein-Herne-canal; F. cannot come to the meeting due to the overtime-schedule of her metal-sweatshop and has suggested continuing the meeting at her metal-lathe...
159 People with experiences in political discussions of the 'revolutionary' left will know this: In such situations 'officials' of parties and unions will also turn up, with the danger of suffocating the discussion and exchange. We want an open discussion but don't want people as 'representatives' of parties or unions. Moreover, we suggest a basis consensus: This is about the immediate experiences in the sphere of exploitation, about the support of the workers' self-consciousness and ability to struggle; attempts of representation and mediation have no space here.
160 As platforms there are for instance [www.ainfos.ca] or [www.indymedia.org]. Other websites with interesting contributions can be linked on the prol-position site.
161 Just to emphasize it again: We don't think that political discussions on crisis and revolutionary strategy are in any way irrelevant, but we see the necessity of getting down to an inquiry of struggles. The results can be used for the political discussions that we have with the (other) workers, too...
162 If you want to subscribe, see on [www.prol-position.net] and send us a mail.
163 The list of questions was not used for some of these reports. So some points don't turn up.
"Interviews as part of revolutionary inquiry are not an interrogation of workers in order to collect facts. The questionnaire should be criticized and developed further together with the workers. Our aim is that the interview will become a discussion in which the daily myths of the capitalist production process are destroyed and the development of society is put into question. The inquiry will become part of the revolutionary process when it manages to support the debate on capitalism, class struggle and communism within the field of exploitation and when it becomes the beginning of political self-organizing itself!"
[kolinko, questionnaire for call centre-workers, November 1999]
Questions 1 - Facts + Overview
We have not changed it much, even though the interviews have shown that it is too long. It hast helped to formulate the important question more precisely, to understand the organisation of work, the machinery, the co-operation...
For further projects of inquiry it has to be adjusted to the area (factory, construction, university, housework etc.). It can be a first step to collect facts and get an overview. Here it is:
1. Which company do you work for?
2. To what sector does the company belong?
3. To which bigger trust does the company belong?
4. What is produced there or what kind of services are offered?
5. What function does the call centre have in the company?
6. In which call centre department are you working?
7. What other call centre departments are there in the company?
8. When was the call centre set up?
9. Did the company get state subsidies?
10. How many people are working altogether at the location or for the company?
11. Is the call centre out-sourced or has it just been set up?
12. Were already existing call centre joined together?
13. What has changed through that, concerning work conditions?
14. Was the same work you are doing in the call centre done in other ways before?
15. Which work routines or technologies have changed through the set up of the call centre?
16. Why do you think does this call centre exists?
17. What explanation does the management give on the question of why the call centre exists?
18. Are there many call centre in your region?
19. What sectors do they operate in?
20. Why are they concentrated in your region?
21. What do managers or politicians say about this?
22. Is there a training scheme for call centre agents offered in your region?
23. Who offers these schemes?
24. Is the state employment office or social service agency putting pressure on people to work in call centre or take part in the training scheme?
25. How many people work in the call centre?
26. How many are female, how many are male?
27. How many immigrants work there?
28. Where do they come from?
29. How many are part-time workers, how many are full-time?
30. Has the proportion of part-timers and full-timers changed?
31. What various working time models exist there?
32. In your opinion, what kind of people start working in call centre?
33. Why do they start working there?
34. Do you think people in the call centre come from similar backgrounds and get along well, or do they differ from each other very much?
Job or profession
35. How long have you / the others worked there so far?
36. Did you / the others already work in other call centres?
37. Why did you / the others stop working there?
38. What did you / the others do or where did you work before that?
39. How did you find the call centre job?
40. Why did you / the others apply for the call centre job?
41. Do you / the others want to work there for a long time?
42. Do you want to have another job within the call centre? Which one and why?
43. What criteria did the management apply when hiring people?
44. What kind of job training or skill did you have before?
45. Does the management organise training to qualify workers?
46. How long does this training last?
47. What is taught or what have you learned there?
48. What do you think about the training now, where you are working?
49. Did you have the necessary skills before or did you learn them 'on the job', while working at the Call Centre?
50. In your opinion, which skills does a call centre worker need?
Methods of working
51. When working on the telephone, which actions do you perform?
52. Who is giving you direct orders?
53. Apart from those, who has a position superior to you?
54. With which technical devices are you working?
55. Which functions do these devices have?
56. Can you operate the devices properly?
57. Do you like working with the devices?
58. What do you like about this work in general?
59. What do you dislike about it?
60. Are you working together, co-operatively, with other workers?
61. In what way do you cooperate?
62. Do you have contact with other departments, branches or work sites?
63. Are these contacts important for the work?
64. How do you find the information you need to do your job?
65. Are you dealing with a call on you own or do you also put calls through to other departments?
Problems with the organisation of work
66. What kind of problems come up frequently concerning the organisation of work?
67. Are there frequent failures of the technical equipment?
68. If so, when there are problems, how do you deal with them?
69. What role does co-operation with your colleagues have in this context?
70. What role do the managers and supervisors have?
71. Is it enough to follow the official work routines in order to manage the work, or do you also have to fulfil other functions as well?
72. Have you been given additional work since you began?
73. How did you react to that?
74. In your opinion, who is organizing the work?
75. Is the organization of the work sensible?
76. Why not?
77. Why are there managers and supervisors?
78. In your opinion, why are there so many workers in one office in call centre?
79. How or what is determining the pace of work?
80. At what rhythm are you being called or are you calling up?
81. Is the rhythm of the calls and your work speed determined by the telephone equipment?
82. Is the rhythm of calls leaving you time for talking to colleagues about other things?
83. What do you talk with them about?
84. How do you manage to make the work easier or to have unofficial breaks?
85. Do you think the job is stressful? What exactly is stressful about it?
86. How do you feel after a working day?
87. Are you being controlled and how?
88. Who is controlling you?
89. Why are you being controlled?
90. Which criteria are being used in controlling you (amount of calls, duration, etc.)?
91. What happens if you are making serious mistakes or if you are not following orders?
92. Does that happen often?
93. Are you managing to get around the controls?
94. Does it happen that people do something wrong deliberately in order to have breaks or fool the supervisor?
95. How much do you earn?
96. Does everybody earn the same?
97. Why not?
98. Is there a wage scale or are there wage groups?
99. What criteria are used to get a pay raise?
100. Does the wage depend on performance?
101. Are you getting additional payments for certain working hours (at night, on weekends...)?
102. How does management justify the wage differences?
103. What do your colleagues have to say concerning wages?
104. What does your contract say about your working hours?
105. Are you working overtime, special shifts, etc.?
106. How long does it take to get to work and back home?
107. What time does the Call Centre open and close daily and how long do people call up?
108. Is the Call Centre open on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays?
109. What kind of shift patterns exist (e.g., variable shifts or always on early / night shift etc.)?
110. How is the shift schedule made?
111. Do you have a say in the matter?
112. Are there work time accounts where you can (are forced to) accumulate working hours and take time off later?
113. When do you have breaks?
114. Do the workers have breaks together?
115. Do you have additional breaks due to the fact that you are working in front of computer screens?
116. How many days holiday do you have?
117. Are you satisfied with the working hours, the shift system etc.?
118. What is not satisfying to you about all that?
119. Is there a negotiated collective agreement?
120. Does that cover only the location, the whole company or the sector?
121. What exactly is regulated there?
122. Who has signed it with management?
123. Is there a works council (official worker representation body on the company level)?
124. What is it doing?
125. Which union is active within the call centre?
126. What is it doing?
127. What do you / the other workers think about the union and/or the works council?
128. What do you expect of the union or the works council?
129. What exactly is your service?
130. Why is this service getting 'produced'?
131. Who has an interest in it?
132. What significance does friendliness, customer oriented service etc. have?
133. Do you consider your job as necessary for society?
134. What does the management have to say about that?
135. What do the other workers say about that?
136. While working, do you talk a lot about the problems in the call centre?
137. What are you talking about exactly?
138. Are / were there conflicts among the workers?
139. What was the problem and what happened?
140. Are / were there any bigger conflicts with the management?
141. What happened exactly?
142. Will there be (more) conflicts around the situation on the job?
143. Have you already been threatened with out-sourcing or closure of the call centre?
144. What do you think about this threat?
145. What is the difference between work in a call centre and work in a factory, other offices or in a hospital?
146. In the future, will more people work under conditions similar to call centres?
147. Will there still be Call Centres in a few years?
148. What will change about the work conditions?
149. How do you imagine work and life will be in ten or twenty years?
150. Who will determine how the situation will be in ten or twenty years?
151. What do you think about the possibility of organising with other people for an improvement of the situation?
152. With whom would you organise?
153. What could you do to put through your demands?
154. What do you want to put through or change?
155. What do you think about this questionnaire?
156. How can it be improved?
[i] Questions 2 - Discussion + Agitation [/i]
During the call center inquiry kolinko did not have a questionnaire they could also use spontaneously for discussions at work. This is not about a prompt sheet so we don't forget a single question but rather about the way to contribute to the discussions. During the every day work routine we grind through the work process, the team-leaders newest changes in the seating arrangement get on our nerves, we find ourselves wedged between petty hassles and gossip... Meanwhile, we lose track and above all the openness and precision during discussions on conflicts and (possible) struggles. The questionnaire is also a support while confronting the workers with their behaviour, while searching for the break-up points and rebellious moments...
1. What kinds of problems exist? (organization of work, sick leave rate, increase of work...)
2. What were the most recent actions of the bosses? (changes in the technology, redundancies...)
3. Why are they going ahead with that? (reduction of breaks, ensuring peace...)
4. How do the workers react? (discussion, ignorance, action...)
5. How have the conflicts between the workers changed (arguments...)
6. What have the unions and workers representatives done recently? (notice boards...)
7. What do the workers discuss regarding that? (interest, indifference, curiosity...)
8. What can the workers do themselves to change the situation?
9. What political discussions take place? (crisis, war, sick pay...)
[i] Questions 3 - Struggles [/i]
We have written this questionnaire for the exchange about struggles. The aim is to use it to either
* write reports on struggles in which we take part ourselves, or (better!) to
* ask comrades to interview us in order to provoke a discussion, or to
* turn up at picket lines, blockades… to interview the people right there, or to
* take the questions in order to write reports on other struggles with all the important information.
Interviews and reports can then be circulated and used for further discussions. It is undeniably difficult to write a questionnaire that fits all situations. This one puts emphasis on the struggle in work places but if you want to use it at the university or in the neighbourhood, just change it a bit. Here it is:
The person being interviewed
1. What's your job in the work place?
2. Do you have a position in the workers representation body (works council...) or the union? If yes, which?
3. What was the starting point of the struggle? (management measures…)
4. What happened just before this? (atmosphere amongst the workers, changes to the organisation of work…)
5. What other struggles happened earlier? (in the same company, in others, after state measures…)
6. What are the official demands?
7. Who has made them or put them forward?
8. Where exactly does the struggle take place? (company, department…)
9. How important is the company for the capitalist, the region…?
10. What kind of connections are there to other areas? (suppliers…)
11. Who is working in the company? (where are they from, which countries…)
12. What kinds of work contracts exist? (part time, temp work…)
13. How do peoples nationalities, work contracts etc. influence the struggle?
14. Who took the initiative in the struggle? (workers, the union…)
15. How is the conflict spreading? (within the company and beyond…)
16. What kind of influence do single workers have on the struggle? (debates, assemblies…)
17. What are the proposals for the forms of struggle? (strikes, blockades…)
18. Who puts the suggestions forward?
19. Who gets their own way here and how?
20. Which kinds of attempts are made in order to include other people beyond the department or company? (rallies, demos…)
21. Are the means of production being used during the strike? (excavator, computer…)
22. What role do the relations among the workers, based on the work organisation, play? (cooperation, including with other departments…)
23. What kinds of attempts exist to undermine or disturb the struggle? (scabbing…)
24. What role do organisations from outside play? (unions, parties, supporters…)
25. What do these organisations do exactly? (money, leaflets, assemblies…)
26. What do the workers say about these organisations?
27. What kinds of organising have the workers tried out? (committees…)
28. What kinds of problems did they have with that?
29. What are the effects of the struggle? (production stops, disturbance of the work in other areas…)
30. What do the workers have to say about the effects? (on other workers, clients, patients…)
31. What does the media say about the struggle? (newspapers, television…)
The course of the struggle
32. How can the struggle develop further? (actions, extending the struggle…)
33. What is the mood of the workers?
34. What kind of conflicts are there between the workers? (different positions, divisions based on origin or gender…)
35. How do people deal with that? (discussions, arguments…)
36. How have the conflicts between each other changed during the course of the struggle?
37. What's the reaction of the bosses? (redundancies, lockouts, pressure…)
38. What do the workers say about that?
39. What kinds of attempts of mediation and negotiation are there? (strike committee, works council, union…)
40. Is the end of the struggle already in sight?
41. What will or has happen(ed) afterwards? (return to work, more bosses' measures, new struggles…)
42. What do the workers have to say about the experiences they are having? (strength, weaknesses…)
43. What can be done better or differently next time?
44. What connections do the workers see between their struggle and the general situation of society?
45. What connections do the workers see between struggles in other sectors?
46. Where should reports on the struggle be distributed so people can learn from it?
47. How and where was the interview done or the report written? (place, sources of information…)
48. How do you see the experiences, strengths and weaknesses of the struggle?
49. How have you benefited from the interview or the writing of the report?
Here we only document the longer leaflets which we have done as a series and which we have distributed in and in front of call centres in our region, the Ruhrgebiet/Germany, and beyond. You can find the other leaflets on the website:
8.2.1 hotlines-leaflet: Extension of working hours
(October 2000) We are call centre agents and other workers. With this and the following leaflets we want to give out information on the problems and conflicts in call centres here and in other countries. We will distribute leaflets on the following subjects in the next weeks and months in front of and inside call centres: 1. Good times, bad times... Against the flexible extension of working hours in call centres; 2. Call by call... Intensification of work and the worker's answer; 3. Always at your service... On the sense and nonsense of work; 4. Happy online... Possibilities and experiences of worker's resistance in call centres. All leaflets are published - together with further information - on this website: [www.motkraft.net/hotlines]. Take part in the discussion! Send your ideas, critique and reports from 'your' call centres to this email-address: [[email protected]]
In the Ruhrgebiet, Glasgow, Paris, Milano or Berlin... call centres have been opening up for years in many cities and regions. Already hundreds of thousands of people work in call centres in the banking and insurance industry, in technical support-hotlines, in sales and marketing, in order services... As workers in call centres we call people up (outbound) or answer their calls (inbound) using integrated telephone- and computer technology. Many of us work in shifts. The work is divided in short, precisely defined work steps. And we are controlled by team-leaders.
Lots of us work in call centres, because in some areas it is the easiest way of getting a job. Sometimes these jobs are better paid than those in factories, in cleaning or shops. But while bosses and politicians present call centres to us in their PR-brochures as a 'modern form of work', in fact, they have made us the proletariat of their 'service and information society'!
Call Centres were and are an attack on the refusal of many office workers to accept a deterioration of their conditions (in banks, insurances, the post office, telecom and other offices). For many workers call centres mean longer working hours, forced shift work, constant control and intensification of work. Working in call centres sometimes means stress, sometimes boredom, the obligation to be friendly and customer fobbing, not enough money and too many hours on the job. Nevertheless, it depends on us, the workers, which conditions we will work under in the next few years. Our behaviour and our struggles determine whether the bosses can speed up the work rhythm and force us to work overtime - or whether we take the initiative and set our own agenda!
Some conditions are in our favour: the newspapers are full of job offers and the bosses start campaigns and make announcements in football stadiums, because they can't find enough people who want to do their work or who stay 'call centre agents' for long enough. In such times we can push things through because they cannot afford to just sack people. And even if they do: We can quickly find another job.
Furthermore, often we work under similar or equal conditions together with hundreds of workers in one department. Many workers have also worked in other call centres and bring along experiences and contacts. So we are not isolated at the work place, but can organize with others against the shitty working conditions.
We do not have to put up with anything!
For collective actions against overtime and work stress!
[i] Good times, bad times...
Against the flexible extension of working hours in call centres [/i]
End of shift. The phones do not stop ringing... and you can already see the team-leader coming over: 'Can you stay another hour?!' Shit! You had planned to go out for the cinema with your friend but that won't happen as usual. And on Saturday you won't have time either because of the compulsory extra shift. Sound familiar?
The interests of the call bosses-bosses is clear: they want to make big money with in- and outbound-calls. Therefore, on one hand they try to make us work longer: more hours a day, more days a week and as flexible as possible and 'on call'. On the other hand they want us to take as many calls an hour as possible and to avoid everything that could lower productivity.
In this leaflet we are writing against the bosses' attempts to extend our working day.
Time is money for some...
The phone wires and our ears heat up, but despite the fact that in a short time we phone in the equivalent of our wage for our boss we cannot go home afterwards. The working day lasts longer, but the rest of the time we work for the balance sheet of the company. The bosses want to extend this unpaid labour by forcing workers to work more hours, that is more than 40 hours a week, or if doing part-time, more than the previously agreed working hours. In many cases the previous working hours in branches and offices were extended with the introduction of call centres (for instance in the banking sector). Often this happened with the outsourcing of parts of companies and the usage of temporary agencies.
Furthermore, we face constant overtime and extra shifts, for instance in technical hotlines (Medion/Duisburg...) and order services (Client Logic/Duisburg...), during marketing campaigns or seasonal business. And in many call centres workers have to work longer hours because the training times do not get paid, or like at Quelle /Essen, where workers are asked to come earlier so they can read their new instructions (on the intranet)! Some call centres even send workers home without payment when computers break down or there are only few calls (Client Logic/Duisburg). When this happens, the workers often depend on the lost wage, so they have to make up for the missed hours another day!
The bosses also extend the total working hours: the councils of many German regions were keen to allow work on Sundays, which has been introduced in many call centres. The same with work on public holidays. Sunday- and public holiday-work take place for instance in direct-banks (Citibank and Deutsche Bank 24/both in Duisburg...). Night work is a given.
Many call centre bosses do not pay any supplements for work on Sundays or overtime. Workers still do overtime although past experiences show that overtime hours and supplements for work on Sundays only result in higher wages for a short period. When we have agreed to work longer hours on a regular basis, the wages quickly drop to a level just high enough for living and going to work. This attack, the attempt to extend the working hours, not only happens in call centres, but also in other offices, in shops and factories. Call centres are part of this society in which profit - and not the needs of the workers - decide about work, working methods and products. Therefore, the usage of more productive technologies (like automation- and information-technologies) does not lead to more convenient or less work. On the contrary: many workers in factories and offices have to do extra shifts and overtime. Thanks to flexible working hours, some people - between times of unemployment - are able to survive on three part-time jobs.
...and stress between working rhythm and working schedule for us!
But why do the bosses try to extend the working day and the total working hours? Why do they try to tie us up to the telephones 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? They go on about 'customer service'. But what is important is: As long as the machines, that is computers, telephone systems etc., are used night and day, they get back their investments quicker and can make profits! And why overtime and extra shifts? We all know this: in inbound you sometimes have lots of calls, sometimes few. In outbound the amount of calls varies less, but instead there are sometimes many contractor's orders, sometimes not. The management tries to even out the fluctuation of calls and orders by trying to making the agents work overtime and extra shifts in the times of a high call volume, and in less busy times they want them to stay home or just work the regular shifts.
So this is what is behind it: We are supposed to work flexibly and always turn up for work when the bosses blow the whistle so they do not have to hire more people. That would cost money and lower their profits!
The conflict about the length of the working day is a crucial struggle between workers and bosses. There were, for instance, struggles on the 8-hour-day and the 40-hour-week. But it was the immediate pressure of the workers - rather than the public union campaigns (as the one on the 35 hour week in the 80s) that lead to the reduction of working hours. At the moment we are under pressure and find rather defensive answers to the extension of working hours and their 'flexibilisation': calling in sick rather than doing the weekend shift or the extended toilet break when the job is stressful. And sometimes we take care of other workers phones, so they can finally take a break and talk to other workers.
For sure, these unofficial ways of reducing working hours are okay. But this is a weak base as long as we accept twice the amount of calls when there are not enough people on the phone in our team. If we want to have more time for the nice things in life in the long run, and sacrifice less hours for work, we have to push that through together! We do not need to wait till the last person in the team has understood that we should not take the shit anymore. We can start now by standing up with other workers in our department!
No extra shifts!
Every hour overtime is 60 minutes too much work!
Stop shift work altogether!
Deutsche Bank 24: Lousy shifts
The Deutsche Bank 24 has call centres in Duisburg, Bonn and Berlin. In September 1999 the Deutsche Bank was taken over by the Bank 24. This is true: in order to prevent the employees of Bank 24 falling under the collective agreement for the old Deutsche Bank, the daughter Bank 24 swallowed the mother Deutsche Bank.
The conditions in the call centres are: 40 hour-week for full time employees, shift work (partly 24 hours, partly between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.) with constantly changing shifts, wages in inbound (bank accounts...) around 20 DM an hour and in outbound (customer attraction, marketing...) a bit more. In inbound calls are put straight through to the headset (without the agent pressing a button to accept it) so that you have to be alert all the time. Sometimes there is one call after the other, like doing piecework, always the same, monotonous and awful. Early and late you might sit around bored because not a soul is calling in. Due to the shift work sometimes you start working at 7 a.m., sometimes at 10 a.m. or at 1 p.m. It can happen that you have less than 11 hours between shifts. It is draining. There is a works council, which fiddles around with management (for instance on the hourly breaks for working on computer screens). But what can the work council really get through? We have to take things into our own hands. That is difficult, because lots of people only work there for a short period. People who have had enough look for another job. It is time for the unsatisfied to get together and do something against the work stress!
We work in the Citibank Call Centre in Duisburg. In Summer 1999 most Citibank call centres and several other administrative departments were concentrated in Duisburg - despite worker's resistance and strikes against the closure of the previous call centres and the deterioration of conditions (for instance in Bochum). Today there are among others the Phonebanking (balances, transfers...) and Branchphone (calls for the branches). Workers in Phonebanking earn about 19 to 20 DM [9.50 to 10 Euros] an hours before tax and work 40 hours, in Branchphone workers get about 23 DM [11.50 Euros] an hour. Through the concentration of many tasks and the opening of the Citibank GmbH in Duisburg the bosses have managed to extend our working hours and those of many other workers in other departments. The workers in Phonebanking have to be prepared to work any time, night and day, on all days of the week. So we work in shifts with ever changing starting times which wipes you out after a while. When Phonebanking was still in Bochum the paid break-time was 60 minutes for an 8-hour-day. One month after the opening of the department in Duisburg the paid break-time was reduced by half! The breaks start at different times, just like the shifts. For many workers who were hired under the conditions of the collective agreement for banks (before they were moved to Duisburg), the transfer into the newly founded Citibank GmbH meant an extension of their working hours. After the expiration of a special agreement (Sozialplan) in two years time, they will have to work 40 hours instead of 39. And they will earn a lot less, too. Their holidays will be reduced to 25 days a year.
Now the management is also trying to push through an extension of working hours in the branches. The workers in the branches will work longer during the week and on Saturdays, too. In some cities this is happening already. And that is why in Branchphone they have started to work extra shifts. The fact that there are no actions against the extension of the exploitation time, is also connected to the situation before the transfer to Duisburg: Many of those who fought against the closure of Citibank call centres and went on strike in November 1998 had been fired before Duisburg was opened. In Duisburg many felt insecure at first and most people did not know each other. Meanwhile, that has changed and we can push through common demands. The situation is good, because the management cannot find enough people to do their jobs or to stay at Citibank for long. The time is right, let's start the fight!
Quelle: Swelling Working Hours
I work in the order department of the Quelle GmbH call centre in Essen, with about 300 other workers. Others people work in customer services (complaints, accounts, exchange). The call centre is open from Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. till 10 p.m., like those in Koeln, Mainz, Padborg and the main one in Nuremberg-Fuerth. The workers in Leipzig, Magdeburg, Chemnitz and Cottbus (eastern Germany) also work night shifts. They earn even less than us. We get 15,40 DM [7.70 Euro] before tax as full timers and 14,40 DM [7.20 Euro] as part timers - apart from those who have contracts with the old Quelle AG. They get about one third more. Or shift times are constantly changing. Sometimes we have to work to 10 p.m. and are then supposed to be friendly again at 8 a.m. the next morning. With a smile on our faces, while we are up to our ears in work. Overtime is the norm, without bonuses! And about 150 lucky workers have to turn up Saturdays - again without bonuses. We do not get a penny for our lunch break either. And in order to take a paid break from screen work we have to hunt for the ladybird: each team has one ladybird and only with that in your hand are you allowed to take a break. Furthermore, we are asked to come half an hour before the shift starts in order to quickly read the new instructions on the intranet! Without payment. And they have not even paid us the whole wage for the training period! The management does not let us take holidays, the monitors are flickering, our backs hurt and we are asked to stay flexible and allow our ears to be chewed off. First of all we should fight for breaks, whenever we need them! Time to stand up at Quelle!
Client Logic: 8-Hour-Snapshot
I work for the call centre of Client Logic (formerly DTS). That is a call company-company which take over the calls for other firms or the overflow of their own call centres. In Duisburg about 500 workers are in the order department (Neckermann, Weltbild, Conrad) and in technical support (Premiere World, Tele2...). The call centre is open 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to 12 midnight. The weekend-supplements are getting cut all the time. The one for Saturdays has been wiped out completely. So far there have not been any actions against the wage cuts, which is partly due to the high turnover of staff. Very few stay long enough to notice how the wage cuts take place. Most work with 630 DM [315 Euro]-contracts or part-time. The 630 DM-workers get 12 or 13 DM [6 or 6.50 Euro] an hour, the full-timers 16 DM [8 Euro]. The working hours are regulated in contracts, but when there are few calls, some of the workers will be send home without payment! In order to have enough cash at the end of the month you need to make up for those hours another day!
The managements relies on our time flexibility and willingness to work overtime, in particular during the Christmas season and the introduction phases of new products. Client Logic is constantly looking for workers and cannot find enough. The company depends on us, on whether we are willing to work according to the actual call volume. That is our strength. We do not have to accept the changing shift times and the different and far too low wages. Especially now, just before the Christmas season, we can show them what's what!
Medion: Losing your mind in 50 hours
The workers at Medion Technologie Centre (Muelheim/Ruhr) do technical support and all kinds of services that Medion creates by selling computers, peripheral devices and electronic consumer goods. The wage in the first level (welcome desk) is about 17,50 DM, in the second level 20 DM an hour. End of last winter there was a promotion at Aldi (supermarket chain) and new people were hired. No holidays were permitted and everybody had to do extra shifts. We work 40 hours a week, which is asking a bit too much anyway. Every third week we have to work a 'compulsory Saturday', too. The Sundays are so to speak voluntary. For the promotion days (6 weeks!) the early shift was asked to work every Saturday and the late shift on Sundays - without any changes concerning the 'compulsory Saturday'!
Everybody had to work at least once for 13 days in a row, with just one day off afterwards. On top of that the call volume was a lot higher. The morale amongst the workers was bad but nobody suggested occupying the bosses' office or refusing working overtime. On the contrary, some of the 'older' workers told the others that during the last promotion they had worked 3 weeks without a day off, and 9 hours a day. We should be grateful that we would get a day off in between this time. Angry as we were, that took away the bit of courage we had. Feeling isolated, some chose the last escape and called in sick. Many people left the company after the promotion. But a unanimous action during the promotion could have changed the situation in our favour. At the moment the personnel department has difficulty finding enough people for the job. And the management would not have been able to quickly organise a call centre of scabs. Well, the next promotion will come soon...
8.2.2 hotlines-leaflet: Intensification of work
(December 2000) 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-organizing and finding ways - together with other workers - of reacting against management measures and pushing 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 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 protected]]
Quite a lot has happened since we distributed the first hotlines-leaflet (on the extension of working hours in call centres) in October. At Medion/Muelheim we gave out a leaflet on the planned work council elections, and another one at Quelle/Essen on the standard-phrases. Friends in Italy have also distributed a leaflet on call centres. You can find all that and some further contributions to the discussion on the website (address on the left). We keep on going.
[i] Call by Call - On the intensification of work [/i]
Just arrived at work, computer switched on, software started, logged in the telephone system. The team leader comes over: 'Here are your statistics for yesterday. Your break was one minute and 25 seconds over the limit!' I wish she would die right here in front of me, but she had just started: 'Furthermore, your not-ready-times are 10 percent longer than those of the other agents. And you have not met the average of 20 calls an hour. So you won't get a bonus again.' I look at her as bored as I can. Why doesn't she just leave me alone so I can get a coffee. But then it comes: 'We will give you some assistance. Tomorrow the trainer will listen to some of your calls. He can give you good advice!' The trainer, brilliant. He will go on again about the missing 'smile in my voice' and that I am using forbidden words like 'problem'. And then he will get all slimy and say how promising my attempts are but that there would be 'room for improvements'...
The first leaflet was on the attempts of the call centre bosses to extend the working day. This one is on their attempts to make us work 'effectively' and without breaks.
Division of work
There are two forms of stress at work: either it is monotonous because we do the same stuff over and over; or it is hectic because we get more and more tasks. Behind both forms of stress lies the attempt of the bosses to make our work as productive and profitable as possible. Therefore he divides the work process and allows each worker only certain operations. By measuring the time and observing the workers these single operations are analysed thoroughly and put in pre-arranged sequences. In call centres this is done by defining work flows for the call-handling and standard phrases for welcoming the callers (see report on Quelle). That way they want our work to become measurable and comparable - a precondition for defining and raising a certain call rhythm (for instance 20 calls an hour).
But what is supposed to increase productivity to create more profit for the bosses (more calls with less workers) often means two or three times more work for us. After splitting up work into single operations, responsibilities, etc. nobody really knows what is going on. In inbound-call centres for instance, calls are transferred from one department to another and back and it is hard to get the right information... We have to make up for that by ignoring the official responsibilities. But why do the bosses divide work in this way, even if it obstructs the smooth and productive cooperation? Because they do not see any other way of dividing us, controlling us and forcing us to work. Therefore they deny us certain information as well as planning and coordinating tasks. That leads to daily 'chaos' and more work. This contradiction cannot be solved: as long as there are bosses they will try to make us dependent on their 'information' and 'organisation'.
The bosses choose those machines which enable them to intensify work and control us at the same time. The connection of computer- and telephone devices allows a higher call rhythm and a strict control of the workers (through statistics on the call amount, breaks, etc.). The computer-software only allows us certain operations and a certain chronological order which we have to perform them in. The calls are automatically put through to our phones ('Automatic Call Distribution, ACD'), sometimes even without us picking up the phone - straight to the headset ('direct-to-ear'). That way they want to prevent us having any control over the amount of calls we accept. In outbound, after finishing one call, often the computer starts dialling up the next customer so we have no time to take a breath ('power dialler').
The employed machinery also shows how absurd work - and the whole society - is organised. As long as we are doing certain work cheaper than machines, we have to do it - as monotonous as it might be. If machines do it cheaper (for instance a computer which answers the calls: 'Interactive Voice Response, IVR') we get fired and have to look for another job. For those workers who stay in the company that often means that they have to work more. Because they get more tasks and have to make up for the machines' faulty operations. The possibility to substitute boring, stressful or unpleasant work with machines does not lead to more time for the nice things in life, but to more and intensified work!
In order to make us work and push through the intensification of work we are confronted with team leaders, supervisors etc. These people control whether we are answering enough calls per hour, check on our break times, whether we meet the quality standards, etc. They do not want us to see them just as watchdogs and spies and, therefore - aside from the controlling tasks - get other responsibilities in the organisation, information handling, etc. We are dependent on asking them for help if things do not work well or we need something - and at the same time they hold the call statistics against us.
In this way the team leaders gain information on the work process and pass that on to the management. That is using the information in order to intensify work even more. The team leaders as our 'contact persons' also play a role as a buffer: whenever there are problems and we are pissed off we are supposed to take that out on the team leaders instead of attacking the management directly. They want to keep conflicts small and confined that way. The team leaders have the task of forcing management's way through - against us. Depending on the type of conflicts and what they want to accomplish, the team leaders behave differently: rather 'like mates', something those who have been working on the telephones themselves before can do best; they get called by their first name and allegedly take care of all problems; or rather 'reserved' and authoritarian, which is done better by team leaders hired form outside; they keep the distance and push measures through against us (see the report on the Deutsche Bank 24).
In conflicts we have to stand up against the team leaders. They are our immediate superiors and, therefore, stand in the line of fire. But essentially all this is not about the team leaders but about the work stress and constraint to work altogether!
In most call centres workers are divided into teams. In some cases that is done by taking certain qualifications (languages, technical knowledge). But more often the teams are just a way to form smaller, 'easy-to-control' units out of the mass of workers. That way the management has less difficulties getting through measures to intensify work. Teams are formed to channel conflicts and, if possible, to sweep them under the carpet. Instead of using the team meeting for discussing and pushing through our interests, we are just allowed to unload our problems with cookies and coffee. We are supposed to think that someone is taking care of it all. We are supposed to feel like part of the team. The bosses try to play us off against each other through team-bonuses, which only get paid if the whole team meets the targets, and by waving call statistics (see reports on Hewlett Packard, TAS...). We are supposed to control each other and urge each other to work. And if the bonuses do not succeed in making us work harder they just threaten to sack us or close down the call centre. They want us to see other workers, teams, departments, locations or companies as competitors. But where does this competition lead to? If we undercut each other and make ourselves cheaper and cheaper, all workers will lose out in the end!
Work and work conditions are not our fate, even though at the moment we do not have any alternative but to sell our labour force for an income. One interest stands behind being forced to perform just a few operations, the use of standard phrases and the submission to the machine cycle as well as the commands of the team leaders: we are supposed to work more and in an intensified manner for those who take the profits. That is no natural process but a shitty way of producing the basis of our life!
We need to come together from the scattered call centres, factories and hospitals and put an end to all that. We have start at those places where we work together daily and are confronted with the interest of the bosses. We find many 'small' ways to avoid working hard - the extended lunch break, working slower, putting the phone on 'mute', calling in sick and the provoked computer break-down...
If we would not do all that, work would be unbearable and we could not do it for long. But real strength and mutual trust can only grow in joint action. That does not necessarily have to be an open confrontation. Here an example: at Hewlett Packard there was an order that workers should ask other agents, who are not having a call, to take call from the queue. The workers made fun of that and ignored the order. They did not want to spy on each other and make each other work!
Take action together against the work stress!
I work at Quelle and see every day, how they try to make our 8 hours as intense as possible. They introduced standard phrases in July 2000 and keep an eye on whether we use them word by word or not. [See the hotlines-leaflet on that on the website]. We do not just get external control calls, no, they even call us from inside the call centre to test whether we use them 100 percent. That is analysed on a group-level and documented in front of us everyday. They don't care that we feel like a tape cassette. And we are asked to show top quality, take time for the customers, create a good atmosphere in the conversation and get across the famous smile in the voice. Those are the criteria the quality managers are using to assess our performance. So we are supposed to use the standard phrases, show 'top quality' (as our boss always points out) and meet the average of 22 calls an hour. How could anyone not be stressed out?
The first hotline-leaflet made big waves at Medion. Everywhere in the company workers started discussing, even people who did not known each other before. A few days later the hbv (union for commerce, banking and insurance) distributed an invitation for an assembly in order to prepare for the works council elections. After that a special edition of hotlines was given out. It emphasised that workers should not have any illusions on works councils [see hotlines-leaflet on the website]. The opinions on the necessity of a works council were divided. At the moment you do not hear much about it. Probably they are preparing the bureaucratic part. The discussions have ebbed away. Medion started selling computers and other devices at Aldi [supermarket chain] again. For us workers that means special shifts. But different from the last time the management has set less tough regulations: the special shifts are limited to four weeks (instead of six), we work up to seven days in a row (instead of 13!) and 'only' 8 hours a day (instead of 9). Furthermore, the telephone system is being switched off every few minutes so that the welcome desk can handle a certain amount of customers and has a few seconds break after that. If the management would not have set less tough regulations at this time they would have taken a fairly high risk.
Deutsche Bank 24/Bonn
There are about 15 to 20 percent full timers at the Deutsche Bank 24 call centre in Bonn. The rest are part time, mostly students and single parents. The wages are about DM 19 [9.5 Euro] an hour with a scale up to DM 23,50 [11.75 Euro]. After the merger of Deutsche Bank and Bank 24 the departments were reorganised and the agents got more tasks... without extra payments! The 'account service' (transfers...) became the 'account- and securities-service'. The agents have to deal with trading securities whenever the securities department is blocked by too many calls. Later more tasks were added like loans, credit cards etc. The department that had dealt with that up to then ('banking service') was liquidated. Furthermore, the agents in the 'account- and securities-service' had to take the overflow of the 'online service' (dealing with questions on online-banking). All that without proper training. Many workers refused tasks and kept on transferring calls to other departments whenever possible. They are being put under pressure through quality control. Once a month a 'coach' listens to calls and rates the 'professional performance'. And once a month a 'supervisor' listens in as well and judges your verbal performance: he tells you that you are using to many negative expressions, should avoid conditional clauses and that the WPAs are missing (words of personal appreciation, for instance 'Well done...'). The supervisor decides whether an agent gets promoted onto a higher wage level or not. If the supervisor does not like you... well, tough luck! Those in the 'accounts- and securities-service' get statistics on the amount of calls, call-times, not-ready-times, breaks, etc. With comments that the not-ready-times are too long and that someone has extended the break by 25 seconds for three times! After the merger the seating arrangement was changed as well. Before there were open rooms, tables without dividing walls and free choice of seats. So the workers could sit with their friends and gossip. Then tables for four were introduced with dividing walls and the agents were asked to sit together in pre-arranged teams. Apparently the aim was to prevent workers having fun together. The workers keep on taking out the dividing walls... and at night someone puts them back. The full timers cannot do the job for more than two or three years. Either you leave or you become a team leader. Now none of the full timers are made team leaders anymore. They come from outside. Up to now the team leaders where called by their first name, now they insist on their surname. Apparently they want to replace the old and softer regime or the old Bank 24-days with a new and tougher one. The way the work is organised, with many calls, direct-to-ear, with few, strictly defined operations, dictated phrases and strict rules the agents are really just the second-best solution. A machine could do that better. You are being used, a number in the statistics. You are being controlled and put under pressure whenever you are allegedly too slow.
I work for TAS. We are handling out- and inbound projects for other companies and get DM 15 [7.50 Euro] plus bonus. The bonus depends on the quota (calls per hour, call targets, for instance sending out information, appointments) and on quality (how are you talking on the phone?). The quotas for each agent for days, weeks and months are put up on the wall so that anybody has the information on his or her current performance and that of the others. Monthly call analyses and 'training on the job' (where a quality manager sits behind you and listens to your calls) are used to control whether your are actually handling the calls to a 'high standard' and therefore deserve the bonus. Again, everybody has access to the information who has got the 'quality' and who has not. The bonus itself depends on the whole team. That means you are not working for your own bonus but for the whole team. Put into positive words, that is supposed to create additional motivation. But in fact, it makes us put pressure on each other to work harder. Thanks to modern technology we do not have to remember the quota by heart - no, it is permanently displayed in front of us in a small on-screen-window. So everyday we hear a version of 'Sing the song of the quota', sometimes as a dark-sounding blues whenever you do not accomplish anything on the phone and the quota hits the ground, sometimes as a happy-end-music. Somehow everybody has accepted that, it is part of the game. Whenever things do not work well, team leaders, trainers and quality managers try to get them back on the bosses' track through trainings and workshops. Most agents really like to take part in those events. They say: Anything is better than being on the phone! But it is shocking how that 'Now you can tell me all about your problems'-talk leads agents to reveal others' tricks, how they make work easier. Although we are fed up with a lot of things, things that cannot be solved in any team-meeting in the whole world, we are not able to speak up but on the phone. The reason for that lies in the way the management justifies the quota, control, etc.: '...otherwise we could lose a customer, and you could lose the job.' The roles are clear: the understanding employer and the niggling customer. But who gives a shit?
Hewlett Packard (HP) has one central call centre for Europe in Amsterdam. There are smaller call centres in several European countries, for instance in Ratingen (near Ruhrgebiet). The support for cheaper and older models was outsourced to external call centres, for instance to the call centre companies Sykes, Stream and Sitel. About 600 people work in Amsterdam, but only about a third on the telephones. HP hires the agents for two years through temporary agencies (Kellys, Randstad, Content). The wage for newly hired is about 22,30 guilders (about 10 Euro) an hour (before tax). The agents at Sykes get about 16,50 guilders (7,50 Euros). HP recalculates its support concept on a regular basis and changes it constantly. Call centre departments get re-organised, transferred to other countries or outsourced to other companies. There is a paragraph in the agents' contracts stating that if their department gets transferred somewhere else, they have to move there too, or the contract terminates. The departments in Amsterdam are organised by product groups and languages. Most calls are about machines which do not work anymore and the callers need advice and support.
The number of calls varies between 20 and 40 a day. The first level (welcome desk, identification of the device and transfer to the right department) was outsourced to external call centres. For German callers that is done by Sykes in Wilhelmshaven. Most telephone workers at HP in Amsterdam are between 20 and 40 years old. 80 to 90 percent are foreigners (not Dutch). Many see the job as temporary. They want to live in Amsterdam for a while, learn about computers and get a certificate of a well-known company. But the work is boring. The customers are annoyed because their machines are not working, and go on about that. Some agents stop working there because they cannot deal with being a rubbish bin. Others try to get as few calls as possible. The HP management reacts by intensifying controls and giving agents more tasks (for instance more products to support, or more languages). In some departments statistics are being put up on the wall every day with the number of calls, pushed-back-calls, breaks, not-ready-time, etc. Sometimes the team leaders run around and criticise agents for their allegedly bad statistics. There is constant talk about quality. That is absurd because HP hires agents by looking for certain language skills. After about three weeks of training they are supposed to answer technical questions on the computer devices.
Citibank's management plans to introduce a voice computer (IVR) to take in transfers, give out balances, etc. Up to now this was done by the workers in the Citiphone-call centre in Duisburg. The workers are supposed to use the saved time for selling loans and insurance contracts to the customers on the phone. A new software will be introduced so that the call centre workers can handle the accounts in a comprehensive way, that was so far only possible in branches. Furthermore, the workers of Branchphone (also in Duisburg) will handle calls for all branches from February on. Initially, most workers like these changes. The work in the call centre will be less boring and demand more responsibility. There are more decisions to be made on the phone, for instance whether a customer deserves a loan or not. And in the branches the purely organisational calls will be reduced, e.g. making an appointment. But these changes are part of the efficiency measures. Citibank is reorganising the departments and branches in order to play the workers off against each other. We in the call centres are supposed to take over the work of the branches - under worse conditions! And taking management plans they will deteriorate further: up to now in the call centre many calls were transferred to other departments. That created many breaks the team leaders could not control. That is going to be changed. We will not be able to get rid of calls quickly and transfer them. Through the expansion of the call centre the tasks of the branch workers will be reduced further. Most of the day they are already selling insurance contracts and loans. The work performance of each worker is measured in order to put pressure on them easily. Management and team leaders want to sell us all these changes as improvements. Actually they want to play us off against each other, control us better and make us work more productively.
8.2.3 hotlines-leaflet: (Non)sense of work
(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 protected]]
[i] Callgirls and Callboys: What a madness?! [/i]
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...
8.2.4 hotlines-leaflet: Struggles in call centres
[i] Pilots of the telephones:
Without you no receiver can take off! [/i]
(July 2001) The bosses and their profits are in crisis and we are supposed to carry the can: in call centres and factories, on construction sites and in offices we are supposed to work for less money, sometimes more, sometimes less hours - in some cases even around the clock.
* The bosses hire many people as temporary workers so they can get rid of them quickly.
* It is not only in the New Economy that we see more rationalisation and redundancies, while the bosses threaten us with the relocation to 'cheap labour countries'.
* The public service, for instance the local traffic service, is getting more and more privatised, which means that the workers there are doing the same work for less pay.
* And with the 'lazy person'-campaign (of the German chancellor Schroeder) the unemployed are put under even more pressure to accept 'low paid jobs'.
These attacks by the bosses are not just happening in Germany or Western Europe: workers are confronted with them worldwide. In recent times we have seen very few workers' struggles which could overcome the defensive situation and serve as an example for other sectors of exploitation. Maybe the pilots of Lufthansa who managed to strike for a few days and got a nearly 30 percent pay-rise this spring. In this way they found an answer to the 'tighten your belt' situation of the last few years. But is this also possible in other sectors where workers do not fly airplanes worth millions?
Most other conflicts stayed as symbolic actions, like the recent warning strikes of bus-drivers and retail-workers. There collective agreements ended up under 3 percent, less than inflation.
In call centres
the boom of the past three years, where in Ruhrgebiet, Germany you could always get a job on the phone, seems over. Workers are getting fired depending on the 'market situation'. Whenever new ones are hired they are asked more and more for 'work experience' and one of those 'call centre certificates'. The turnover, especially in the badly paid and stressful jobs, remains high.
In recent times there were some open conflicts and struggles in call centres. We need to look at them more in detail in order to learn for the confrontations coming up. We hope that those won't just be about the defence of the existing conditions but also about the question who controls our life. That question will move into the centre if we determine how and what we struggle for - and if we do not leave that to some union apparatus or representatives.
Confrontations so far
The open workers' struggles in call centres were officially about the level of income, the resistance against attempts of the bosses, who try to increase the pressure on the workers (through the hiring of temporary workers, the relocation or closure of firms, day-labourer-contracts), and about attacks on the workers' 'dignity' (through technological control, management despotism etc.). So the struggles are about similar things as in other sectors (factories, offices, etc).
In this leaflet you can find a selection of reports on conflicts in call centres. Apart from Verizon we had direct contact to workers in all the companies. We have seen roughly two kinds of conflicts: 1) more or less union-controlled strikes like the one at Citibank, British Telecom and Verizon, and 2) smaller, self-organised actions of workers in call centres in Berlin (Audioservice, Hotline GmbH and ADM).
1) The limit of the strikes at Citibank, Verizon and British Telecom was this: the workers took part in the union-controlled actions but did not find their own (!) ways of organising the struggles and beating the bosses. So the unions and other 'workers' representatives' could reduce the confrontation to strike- and bargaining-rituals and use the anger of the workers as lever against the bosses. At Citibank and British Telecom the strikes stayed as mainly 'symbolic' actions which did not yield anything. However, at Verizon the workers were determined enough to strike for two weeks. They accomplished some of their aims - as part of a collective agreement. Liberating experiences of collective activity and the feeling of their own strength in these strikes only developed where workers themselves carried out the actions, organised the pickets, attacked scabs, etc. Unions and other structures of representation are no answer to the attacks of the bosses: they are straitjacketed by the legal framework (their commitment to keep the 'peace', the collective agreement-stuff...). They divide us even more through their focus on professions and 'nation states' and cannot escape the bosses' logic of profits and productivity (see for instance the renouncement of 10 percent of the wage at HP and the low wage model for newly hired at VW).
2) Even if workers self-organise struggles, they do not becoming powerful and exciting events just on their own. That shows when we look at the actions of workers in Berlin. There the daily cooperation - and the connection outside of work - was the basis for workers acting against the bosses. They organised meetings, discussed collective actions, etc. Still, in confrontation with the companies they chose defensive measures: petitions, works council elections, industrial tribunals and calls for union-support. We do not know why they did not have more self-confidence in their own strength. It is clear that despite or even because of, these defensive measures the bosses were able to exercise their power: in the mentioned cases they fired people because they did not expect a strong reaction (occupation of the work-place, demonstrations to other call centres or other companies nearby...). This experience shows clearly that petitions, laws and negotiations do not push through anything, if there is no real workers' strength behind them - the ability to strike, to slow down the work process even with only a few determined workers, to endanger the bosses' profits.
These open confrontations in call centres remained exceptions. Usually we react to work stress and problems with the bosses individually: calling in sick, slow work and job-hopping make our life easier. But we are more and more often confronted with problems which we cannot solve individually or through collaboration with the management (suggestions for improvements...): compulsory overtime, hiring of temporary workers, threats with the re-location of the company etc. These situations demand other measures!
Even more so, because in many call centres the bosses are experimenting with more productive technologies (IVRs, internet service). During these experiments they are even more dependent on our work because they have already invested money into the technology but it is not running in a profitable way. For instance, we are supposed to make up for the technical problems. In the long run the introduction of these technologies is undermining our strength and will lead to increased work stress and redundancies - unless we act against it in this transitional phase and sabotage the bosses' strategies.
We can fight back where we are and where it hurts the bosses most. The cooperation with other workers enables us to fight against the various adversities of everyday work: we need to communicate daily with other workers in order to get our work done 'properly'. We are in contact with people from different departments, work-sites and 'professions'. Without this unofficial cooperation the companies would collapse.
We can turn this form of organising around (instead of customer data we exchange tips for sabotage or strike information) and in collective actions push things through against the bosses. We do not need 'outside' organising here, which 'represents' us (like works councils or unions).
Our answer to the crisis and the bosses' attacks can not be modesty and renouncement. We have to put our own needs in the centre and fight for them.
We cannot present general proposals of how to get out of the defensive situation. But we can - starting from the previous struggles - ask questions which can help us:
* Which forms of struggle correspond with our immediate abilities and needs: collective 'work-to-rule', other forms of sabotage, open strikes...?
* Where can we hit the bosses hard: when lots of callers are in the queue, during test-phases of new technologies...?
* How can we overcome the company-walls in order to undermine the bosses' attempts to use workers in other call centres as scabs?
* How can we establish connections with the struggles of workers in other sectors and learn from each other - e.g. because we are fighting against similar conditions?
* How can we do all this without putting our fate in the hands of a union- or other apparatus?
The answers can be found only in the struggles themselves!
Strikes and other conflicts in call centres
Here are some reports on conflicts and strikes in recent times. We are still trying to get information on some others, for instance the one-day strikes at Telecom Italia / TIM in Italy against re-location, insecure contracts and lousy working conditions, and the long strike of part time workers at Korea Telecom (KT) in South Korea, who are fighting against redundancies and the privatisation of departments...
The strike took place in 1990 in the out-sourced call centre of Citibank in Bochum, Germany. The reason for the strike was threat by the management to of the closure, or rather the relocation, of the call centre. The works council called in the union which asked for collective bargaining and thereby put the strike on a 'legal basis'...The strike took place on three single days spread out over months. The management hired scabs through temporary agencies and rerouted calls from the striking call centre in Bochum to the Citibank call centre in Aachen, Germany. By the end of June 1999 the call centre in Bochum was closed. Only 50 out of 400 workers were taken over to the new call centre in Duisburg/Germany (30 km from Bochum). During the same period similar developments took place at other Citibank call centres (for instance Gelsenkirchen, where 500 workers were sacked). The weakness of the strike had several reasons: the workers left the organisation of the strike to the union by accepting the demand for collective bargaining. The strikes took place only on one day at a time and, therefore, could not develop any power. There was no contact between the workers in Gelsenkirchen and other Citibank call centres which could have led to the coordination of collective actions and prevented the strikebreaking. The symbolic actions organised by the union and the works council (protest meeting in front of the Citibank headquarters, public relation happenings in shopping zones) increased the feeling of powerlessness and passivity among the workers.
In December 1999 workers of the British Telecom (BT) call centres staged a one-day strike all over the country. It was mainly about the hiring of more temporary workers, the increasing work stress, unrealistic work targets and the bullying by the bosses. 4000 workers in 37 call centres took part in the strike. The temporary workers did not. The communications workers' union (CWU) initially called three one-day strikes. After the management agreed to let the CWU have a bargaining position, it called off the other two. Surprised? The strike has not really changed anything. It was short and did not really disturb the work process. For some BT-workers this was not enough: When the temp agency Manpower was substituted by Hays in March 2000 and the wages were lowered immediately, some workers did not accept the new contracts and started a series of acts of sabotage in order to show how they felt. For instance, the speaking clock in Zimbabwe was called for hours and the workers did 'work-to-rule', which gave them plenty of time for gossip, story-telling and other work refusal techniques. At BT there are more and more precarious, low-paid and temp jobs. Furthermore, the work stress is getting worse. The management tries to use the 'carrot' of a possible permanent contract and at the same time threatens with the 'stick' of firing workers. The question is how the division between permanent and temp workers with poorer conditions influence their ability for common struggles.
At Audioservice about 70 workers sell tickets, CDs, videos, etc. Most are students who have an outline-agreement without fixed working hours, without paid holidays, sick pay, etc. In summer 2000 the workers discussed how they could prevent the substitution of the already insecure outline-agreements by day-labourer-contracts, and how they could get permanent contracts with paid holidays etc. They wrote a petition which was signed by 30 workers. After that, about half of them were fired. Some went to the industrial tribunal and got between 500 and 4900 DM. The petition obviously provided the management with the names of the 'dissatisfied' so it could sack them selectively. Although the 'students' also met outside the work-place and stuck together they were obviously lacking the ability or determination to 'close the place down'. Signed petitions show the bosses that something is going on, but they can react on the spot and attack the people. A direct action might have been more effective.
At Hotline GmbH about 150 workers, mostly students working part time, handle calls for external customers (Berlikomm, Ares-Strom). At the end of last year 40 people were sacked 'due to the reduction of a large-scale contract'. Some workers started discussing what they could do to prevent this happening again. They started to set up a works council and asked the union, IG Medien, for advice. The management heard about this and organised its own works meeting as a counter-move. Then, in February, it sacked more than 20 workers with flimsy justifications. The workers got the support of the initiative Call Center Offensive and organised a demonstration with about 50 people outside the call centre. Afterwards there were some court cases (for re-employment) and compensations between 500 and 4000 DM were paid (those who had caused the most trouble got the most!). The conditions worsened and the work rhythm was increased further after this confrontation. Furthermore, there was a 'hunt' for the friends of the workers who were sacked, who still worked for Hotline. Some workers sympathised with an anti-fascist initiative, and the management tried to sack all of them.
Missed chance?! Some workers knew each other from outside the work-place anyway and maybe it would have been possible to occupy the place in a joint action, interrupt the 'productive process' and put pressure on the management.
500 people are on the phone for Adm in Berlin in in- and outbound. They are dealing with calls for GASAG, Tele2... Most are students. The situation is characterised by 'lousy conditions, nerve-wrecking controls and low wages' (quote from a leaflet). First 70 workers asked for paid holidays, which was denied by the management. Then, in April 2001, more than 80 workers were sacked. Some workers formed a 'work group' and wrote a leaflet demanding, for instance, holiday payments and sick pay. People from the initiative Call Center Offensive also made a leaflet and handed it out in the call centre. Some of the sacked went to court and got between 500 and 3000 DM. After the sackings and the actions the conditions got even worse. The controls at the entrance were intensified (using cameras...) and management paid more attention to punctuality, etc. It's more than interesting that the union ver.di (result of the merger of most unions in the service industries) was already negotiating with the Adm-management about a collective agreement for Adm-workers. After the self-organised actions of the workers and the intervention of the Call Center Offensive, the union wrote a letter to all workers arguing against 'exaggerated actionism' which would 'have a negative effect on the negotiations'. Clearly, whatever happens outside the control of ver.di is unbearable!
In August 2000 more than 85,000 workers of Verizon (telecommunication group) went on strike, among them technicians and many call centre workers. The official strike demands were higher wages, less compulsory overtime, restrictions for the re-location of departments and the chance for the unions to organise the workers in the mobile- and internet-part of the company.
The conditions in the call centres were characterised by shifts of ten hours or more, dictated standard phrases, strict surveillance, the obligation to reach a certain sale-target, stress due to the high amount of calls, etc. The unions of the communication workers (CWU) and the electricians (IBEW) organised the strike and negotiated with the management. About 30,000 other (white-collar) Verizon employees were used as scabs in the maintenance departments and call centres. Although most calls are connected automatically and therefore the Verizon-operations could be kept up, the management could not prevent the call centres becoming quickly blocked, calls were not handled and important repairs were not carried out. As well as pickets in front of hundreds of Verizon-buildings there was a series of acts of sabotage against switchboxes and cables and attacks on maintenance trucks driven by scabs. After two weeks the management gave in, accepted certain points and agreed to a new collective agreement: the wages were raised, team-bonuses introduced, overtime was limited to eight hours per week, transfers of workers restricted, and the unions got the approval for their attempts to organise the mobile- and internet-departments. A major factor here was that the union organised 60 percent of the workers of Verizon. More than 85,000 workers on strike could put so much pressure on the management that many demands could be pushed through.
The problems of such a settlement are shown by the daily work situation in the call centres: now people get a little higher wage and do only 1,5 hours overtime, maybe with a few calls less every day. But what did CWU-president Morton Bahr say about the strike result: 'This settlement secures the future for our members at this company and it also helps sharpen Verizon's competitive edge'. The workers still work their butts off!
ISI Marketing is a great company!
First 40 hours of work without payment and no contract, then 12 DM [6 Euro] an hour with an un-guaranteed bonus, very low rate for sick pay... is that not a 'sh.... job'? Anyway, that is how some friends called it who went to work for ISI Marketing and wrote a leaflet on their working conditions (see [www.motkraft.net/hotlines] under 'leaflets').
The ISI-management was not amused. They could neither get a hold of those workers or the people who handed out the leaflet nor condemn them to three years of forced telephone labour. So ISI used the civil laws in order to 'make the workers shut up': by getting court injunctions the company put pressure on 'free', the provider who hosts the hotlines-leaflet's web pages. ISI refers, for instance, to terms like 'sh..... job' used in the leaflet and argues with the 'law against unfair competition'. No word on the working conditions themselves: ISI knows why!
The situation of this legal battle is this: the provider 'free' has to cough up lots of money for the legal costs etc; and the website was moved to a different provider in order to avoid further problems for 'free'. The attempt of censorship was criticised by many independent providers, union-groups etc. Many groups have published the leaflet and other statements on the ISI-attack. But this is not just about keeping the internet open for the free exchange of information. This is also about the struggle against the working conditions. Those conditions can only be changed by the people who have to work there. So if you have experiences with ISI or other companies and want to report on them: Write to us!
Donations- for 'free': Freie Arbeiterinnen und Arbeiter Union, Account-No.: 96 152 201, Postbank Hamburg, Bankcode 200 100 20, key word: FREE
See also under:
hotlines no.4: the last part of the series
This is the fourth and last of a series of leaflets: 1. the expansion of working hours; 2. the intensification of work; 3. The sense and nonsense of work; and this one 4. on workers' struggles. You can find all leaflets and more contributions on the website [www.motkraft.net/hotlines].
Time for some thoughts and an outlook: when we started writing the leaflets and website in October 2000, we wanted to support a discussion on the working conditions and chances for struggles. Our aim was to instigate the exchange of reports from call centres, to circulate information and to build up contacts to workers and pass those contacts on to others. Some of that has happened.
The leaflets led to some excitement and discussions at work. However, this ebbed away after a few days. We got e-mails asking us to carry on the stuff, but there were not many people sending us their own reports (like the one from an Australian call centre worker) and few contributions to the actual discussion. Certainly, we are getting information from various people and groups on a regular basis, but a large-scale discussion on the chances for struggles hasn't really developed.
In order to get there - also considering the small number of open confrontations in call centres - we need to go beyond this sector. We think that call centres are not isolated, but are places of exploitation like other offices, factories, construction sites and hospitals. In call centres we can learn from the experiences in struggles in other sectors.
We will try to get more interviews and reports from workers who want to do something in their work-place or are taking part in a strike. And wherever necessary we will also intervene in confrontations with leaflets. Stay tuned!
Your hotlines [www.motkraft.net/hotlines] [[email protected]]
8.3 Call Centre-List
Here is a list of the call centres that get mentioned a few times in the text:
Adm/Berlin: Five hundred people work in this call centre in Berlin-Wedding, many part time. Adm supplies call centre-services, and does calls for instance for Gasag. There is another Adm-call centre in Mannheim.
Atesia/Roma: Subsidiary of Telecom Italia with five thousand telephone workers and call centres in several Italian cities. The biggest one is in Roma. Most workers have freelance contracts and 'rent' their work-places. They give information out on Telecom-products, do technical support...
Audioservice/Berlin: Call centre in Berlin that is connected to the advertisement paper Zweite Hand. About seventy workers, many of them students, sell tickets, videos, CDs...
Blu/Firenze: Until the beginning of 2002 there were four hundred people working here, giving out information and doing technical support for the provider of mobile phone lines. Now there are less than two hundred because Blu is supposed to be sold and most calls get already re-routed to the second Blu call centre in Palermo.
British Telecom: At present there are more than one hundred British Telecom call centres, which employ many part time and temp agency workers. They give out information, do technical support...
Citibank/Duisburg: Three years after most other Citibank call centres were closed, more than one thousand people are working here, most of them on the telephones. They do bank transfers, give information on account balances, handle the internal calls from Citibank branches, sell loans... and call up overdue debtors to make them pay their interests.
Client Logic/Duisburg: Former Dts. About five hundred people are working there, mostly in ordering services (for Neckermann, Weltbild, Conrad...) and in technical support (for Premiere, Tele2...).
Deutsche Bank 24/Duisburg: Opened just three years ago most of the three hundred plus workers will soon be made redundant. After that the calls will be re-routed to the two other Deutsche Bank 24-call centres in Bonn and Berlin-Tempelhof. The workers in Duisburg do bank transfers, give out information on balances, handle stock-exchange-orders, sell credits...
Emnid/Berlin: Workers here, many students working part time, do telephone-research for several customers. Emnid has more call centres, for instance in Bielefeld and Koeln.
Fiat/Milano: About seven hundred people are working here, some in administration, most on the telephones. Several hundred are from other countries (England, France, Poland, Germany, Spain, Brazil...). At beginning of 2002 the call centre was outsourced and is run by Europ Assistance. The workers run an ordering service for spare parts, cancellations, answer questions on deliveries and guarantees, sell insurances and 'serve' customers who have a navigation-system in their car and call for information on the weather or traffic jams.
Frontline/Hannover: Frontline is trader (and ordering-service) for skater stuff. In the call centre in Hannover the workers, mostly students on part time, handle orders, call up dealers...
Hewlett Packard/Amsterdam: Some hundred people work in this European 'head quarter' of Hp. Those on the phones are divided in first and second level. The first level qualifies the calls and passes them on. The second level is organised in product teams (scanners, printers...) and those again in language teams (French, Spanish, English, German...). The workers do technical support, info-line... Most calls come in from corporate customers. The private calls for Hp are handled by external call centres (for instance Sykes, Sitel, Medion...).
Hotline GmbH/Berlin: The Hotline GmbH is a call centre-service provider with about 150 workers, most of them students on part time, who handle calls for external customers (like Berlikomm and Ares-Strom).
Ifb/Toulouse: Workers of Ifb try to persuade people on the phone to agree to consultation meetings with investment consultants. They earn the minimum wage.
Isi/Bochum: Isi is a call centre service provider with more call centres in Essen, Duesseldorf... Among other things the workers try to talk people into taking subscriptions of the Burda-publishing house.
Medion/Muelheim: More than two hundred people do the customer service for computer products, household appliances and hifi equipment that Medion usually sells in Aldi-shops. The calls are taken in by the first level who do simple services (information, deliveries...), while the second level does the technical support.
Pacific Bell/San Francisco: Pacific Bell produces computers. The call centre supplies the technical support. The turnover here is very high, the working conditions lousy.
Quelle/Essen: Quelle is an ordering service. There are about three hundred people working in Essen, but the company has more call centres, for instance in Nuernberg, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Koeln. The workers take in orders, one after the other, all day long.
Telecom Italia/Firenze: The workers here are part of the virtual call centres of Telecom Italia, which employs more than 18.000 workers in back and front offices and has call centres in many Italian regions. The workers give out information, sell telecommunication services and supply technical support.
Tim/Bologna: In Bologna is one call centre of the mobile phone-subsidiary der Mobilfunktochter of Telecom Italia. Tim employs more than nine thousand workers, most of whom work on the phones, in customer service, technical support...
Verizon/USA: One of the biggest telecommunication companies in the US, mostly active in the eastern states, with nearly 250.000 workers, some tens of thousands in call centres: information, technical support, marketing/sales...
8.4 Literature and Links
Some references to literature and links that might be interesting in this context:
(English, German... a few pieces also in Italian)
Situation in call centres, struggles...
Support initiative from Berlin (see part 6)
Left union-site, but good information
'Scientific' unionist initiative with reports from call centres
Some websites of Italian base-unions in call centres:
Call centre research
(English) Research project in one of the call centre metropoles (Leeds, England). Many texts on the functioning of call centres and lists of other literature.
(German) Research project in one of the call centre-metropoles (Duisburg, Germany). Unionist tendency. Many references to other literature.
Among other things with the brochure 'The Subversion of Everyday Life' and a piece on 'class composition' (everything in German and English and partly in other languages).
Inquiry and intervention
For instance on [www.wildcat-www.de/thekla/thekla.htm]:
Romano Alquati: Organische Zusammensetzung des Kapitals und Arbeitskraft bei Olivetti, Quaderni Rossi 1962/63 (German) and Raniero Panzieri: Ueber die kapitalistische Anwendung der Maschinerie im Spaetkapitalismus, Quaderni Rossi 1961 (German).
Socialisme ou Barbarie
You can get an overview from the articles of Marcel van der Linden on
and Andrea Gabler on
Welt in Umwaelzung/Germany: [www.umwaelzung.de]
Freie ArbeiterInnen Union/Germany: [www.fau.org]
Collective Action Notes/USA: [www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/2379]
Komunist kranti/India: [www.anti-capital.net/kk]
Echanges et Mouvement/France: [www.geocities.com/echangesetmouvement]
Cercle social/France: [www.geocities.com/demainlemonde]
People, this is a mere arbitrary selection. You can find links on these websites which lead you into the virtual world of the revolutionary class struggle and that of other interesting comrades. Of course, you might also check out: [www.prol-position.net]. Enjoy surfin'!
Who has no retina-detaching computer screen and cannot moonlight-surf anywhere should send us questions and will receive the desired information - if we've got it. No, this time not via e-mail, a letter!
kolinko c/o Archiv
Am Foerderturm 27
And don't call us!
ACD-System: (Automatic Call Distribution) Consists of hardware and software. Takes in calls and distributes them to the workers using certain profiles. ACD-systems control the call queues and register all data regarding the calls (call times, not-ready-times...) which can be statistically analysed.
After-call-work: (not-ready-time or post-processing) Extra stress after the call, for instance entry of information on the computer, filling in of ordering or complaints forms. During that time workers usually press the 'not-ready' button on the call master so they cannot receive a call. Reason for continuous struggles with the team leaders.
Agents: Description for call centre workers. Call centre agent is being used by bosses and unions in order to present the drudgery as a profession and to reward it with formal qualifications and certificates.
Assessment Centre: Method for the selection of job-seekers. Those are dragged into stupid games and asked to lower their pants during psycho-tests. Right training for false statements.
Bridging: Turning an inbound-call (for instance a technical question, a bank transfer) into a product-sales talk.
Burn-out: The state one is in after some thousand calls in a call centre (or, if you want, after the shift when you always fall asleep on the bus, miss your stop, and therefore your date, and subsequently grow old and lonely).
Call master: A kind of telephone with more buttons as usual. On the call master you are supposed to log in and out, press ready, or not-ready, transfer calls to other workers or into the call queue-nirvana... In some call centres the call master has mutated into software and lives virtually as a screen window.
Call queues: Callers whose call has been registered by the ACD-system but has not been answered yet have the pleasure to listen to lulling call queue music and are being put in states of hypnosis by gentle female voices. The length of the call queue is often been shown to the workers on wallboards in order to get them moving.
Casualisation: (From causal; in other languages 'precarious' is used, meaning insecure) Term for the increased substitution of unlimited full-time work contracts through temp work, limited contracts, trainee periods...
Clandestine: Means: secret. When bosses should not know who is resisting against their measures, reducing the work rhythm or deciding to push through longer breaks, then it has to be organised in a clandestine way.
Coaches: Call centre talk for the hyenas who burn the standard phrases into your brain during the training, drivel on about the customer care rubbish and generally get on your nerves... In some call centres they listen to your calls, make notes and give you smileys afterwards... or warnings for your incapability.
Cross-selling: Similar to Bridging. During an inbound-call you are supposed to sell stuff.
CTI: (Computer Telephony Integration) Wiring between telephone-and data base-systems. Allows the direct connection of telephone work and computer applications. While receiving a call the workers automatically have all the caller's details on the screen.
Customer qualification: Caller reception including customer number, name... After that the call is transferred to specialised department.
Data Mining: Systematic search for personal data using customer profiles. Found data gets utilized during telephone sales. Similar to selection: search through data using certain marketing criteria.
Direct-to-ear: Direct transfer of calls to the ear of the worker, without 'lifting the receiver' or 'pressing a button' to answer the call. That is supposed to hinder the workers relaxing between calls.
External Call Centre: Not part of a bigger company, but a call centre service provider who gets contracts from corporate customers to handle their calls. See also in-house call centre.
First/Second Level: Form of work organization. The first level represents the first step in call handling, often used in business with masses of calls (customer reception, orders, account balances...). For other work procedures which cannot be done fast and demand special knowledge the calls are transferred to the second level.
Front-/Backoffice: Form of work organization. In the front office workers handle the calls and add information to data bases. All other steps - paperwork, decisions etc. - are made in the back office. That allows a speed up of the work rhythm. Furthermore, unskilled workers can be hired for the front office tasks.
Headset: Unity of headphone and microphone with the effect that the hands stay free. Sometimes headsets are greasy and have an itchy headphone foam.
Help Desk: A department to which for instance computer uses can refer to in order to get help.
Hotline: Description for telephone-based customer or information services.
Idle-time: Time on not-ready or a break... when you cannot receive a call. Literally: the time you are doing nothing. The ACD-system registers that through the monitoring and the team leader controls it - and uses it against you.
Inbound: Describes all incoming calls: information, ordering, booking services, complaints, emergency lines, support, sex hotlines... See also Outbound.
Inhouse-Call Center: Call centres which are not outsourced but part of a bigger company. On the contrary, external call centre service providers organise phone-services for corporate customers.
IVR: (Interactive Voice Response) Speaking dialog system that allows callers to give instructions via telephone-buttons or human voice. The entries are being digitally processed. IVRs are being used for checking customer's secret bank codes or the qualification of callers before their transfer into specialized departments.
Job-hopping: Newest athletic jumping sport from Ruhrgebiet. If you don't like a job because it pays shit or the shift schedule keeps you away too much from important things like being lazy, doing nothing or hanging around you just hop to the next one hoping (in vain) that you'll have more time for that then.
Log in/log out: Registering through typing in user-id and password on the call master and the computer. And to sign out, of course. Similar to clocking in and out with a punch card.
Masks: Fixed input computer screens with set boxes to be filled in or ticked before you can progress through the program.
Monitoring: Team leaders have software that uses the data of the ACD-system and enables them at any time to see who is ready or not-ready, the performance of a worker yesterday or last week... That's called monitoring and is some kind of surveillance.
Mute-button: Popular key on the call master. Its use enables the call centre worker to hear what the person on the other end of the line says but not vice versa. Allows carrying on flirting with a colleague.
Mystery Calls: Calls by testers to control the performance of call centre workers. These mystic snoopers see great importance in the smile in the voice, the compliance with scripts and standard phrases...
Outbound: Outgoing calls: customer relations, market research, opinion polls, arrangement of appointments, sales... See also Inbound.
Outsourcing: Used not just for call centres, it describes the transfer of parts of businesses into external companies.
Overflow: Calls which cannot be answered and go mouldy in the call queues. The overflow gets sometimes re-routed to external call centres.
Power-/Predictive-Dialer: Dialling-system for the outbound-sector that automatically establishes phone-connections on the basis of telephone-lists which are the result of data mining. Busy signals, faxes, answering machines can be filtered out. Produces a lot of stress because it sends you one customer after the other.
Profiles: Workers are being assessed using a certain matrix, for instance what languages they speak, which products they can support... This 'profile' is then programmed into the ACD-system so it knows which calls it can transfer to each worker. Profiles are also being used for customers during data mining in order to determine who should be called during a certain promotion because he or she has just married... and has still not been lumbered with enough credit.
Ready-button: Meanest key on the call master. Whenever you press it the ACD-system can send you calls.
Routing: The telephone numbers of incoming calls are checked in order to find out whether the call should be transferred further - routed - to Bayern or Sachsen, Scotland or Kent. The internal transfer of calls to a worker through the ACD-system is also being called rooting. During strikes the bosses use the re-routing to other call centres in order to get their calls handled there.
Sabotage: (sabot = wooden shoe) Workers on spinning machines invented a shoe-attack which makes the machine stop. Also practicable without a shoe on other machines.
Scripts: Scripts are precisely defined sequences of sentences that have to be read to customers. The compliance with them is often being checked by coaches, through monitoring or mystery calls. See also standard phrases.
Service Level: In some call centres the bosses calculate, how many calls per one hundred are being answered within three minutes, for instance. Anything above three minutes spoils the numbers. An objective is defined for the service level, for instance ninety percent. Sometimes the actual number is then shown to the workers continuously through wallboards or daily notices... in order to put them under pressure.
Smiling: Widened state of lips. Workers are obliged to use it because callers can hear the form of the mouth. In case of non-compliance you are threatened with one-to-one-meetings with slimy smiling team leaders and wage-cuts.
Standard phrases: Precise instructions, for instance, how to say welcome and goodbye to the customer. The compliance is checked and gets on everyone's nerves: 'Hello, my name is Firstname Surname, how can I provide you with an excellent service?'
Supervisor: Slave drivers. In some call centres the team leaders are being called supervisors but often they are the team leaders of the team leaders.
Support: : Term used for technical hotlines, but support often rather expresses some kind of hope and not actual help. The workers often do not have access to all the information they need and they hardly get trained at all.
Taylorism: Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 - 1915) made time and motion studies on factory workers what allowed the further division of work in small steps which can be carried out by unskilled workers. That was the basis for piecework targets and the continuous increase of that amount. (According to unconfirmed rumours he was beaten to death by burned-out assembly line-workers using a clock.)
Team: Most often arbitrary organisational unit on department level. Several workers are being put in a team so they can have a team leader. Logical. The teams rarely have anything to do with the work process itself, it just means a division into certain work steps performed step by step by a specific group of workers...
Team leader: What the foreman is in the factory, the team leader is in the call centre. As a qualification they have to know to snoop and make people work... but also to calm things down and to use the team-babble.
Tinnitus: One of the most common effects of call centre work. You are constantly hearing a sound, a noise, a whistle, although there is nothing. Whoever hasn't learned this yet: Call centre work makes you sick!
Training: Before you can work in a call centre you need to do training. That is some kind of education and takes between two minutes and two months or longer. Most of the time it is a form of brain-washing where the company and the product get praised so you can regurgitate that nonsense later when talking to customers.
Virtual call centre: Combined call centres in different locations. The incoming calls can be transferred to call centre workers in Luebeck, Magdeburg, Cardiff and Brisbane, whoever is not occupied at that moment.
Wallboard: Big running displays that show the amount of calls in the call queue, the service level...
Work-to-rule: Effective method of letting the work process fall apart. Workers just do everything as they are told: no improvisation, no rush, no extra-tasks, no thinking... Can be used for producing pressure...
Works council: (Betriebsrat) Elected workers' representation body on company level. According to German law the works councils can participate in some (minor) decisions like whether to put up a Christmas tree or paint the company's canteen.
WPA: Something like 'words of personal acknowledgement'. The coaches demand that workers often say 'Well done, Mrs Donkey!', 'Thank you very much for your open words, Mr Broom!', so customers get a positive impression. Here is another one: Bullshit!