8.2.2 hotlines-leaflet: Intensification of work

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: [hotlines@motkraft.net]

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.

Call by Call - On the intensification of work
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!

That's it!
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/Amsterdam
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.