8.2.1 hotlines-leaflet: Extension of working hours

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: [hotlines@motkraft.net]

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!

Good times, bad times...
Against the flexible extension of working hours in call centres

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!

Citibank: Overtime
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...