There are 5,500 UK call centres employing 400,000 workers, many of whom have no union representation and work in appalling conditions. These workers are now threatened with “off-shoring” or “out-sourcing”.
Dave Moody, from Taunton Socialist Party explains how this workforce can be organised to fight for job security and better pay and working conditions.
Call centre staff can be making outgoing calls or taking incoming calls but the stress and strain on the workers is similar.
Call centres take incoming calls for technical support, mail order, insurance claims and customer service enquiries. The bosses will often make the employees feel that they are not contributing to the company’s profits – they are a service which they have to have but can’t afford. This attitude is used to keep pay and conditions as low as possible.
But if you’re making sales calls, however many sales you make it is never enough to cover the calls or the cost of employing you.
Now out-sourcing and off-shoring are new weapons in the bosses’ arsenal to keepcall centres workers in check. This is a very big stick to beat call centre staff with, especially when you consider that, if you include back-office and software-programming jobs that could be out-sourced, we are talking about 790,000 people.
Job losses in areas where call centres were supposed to replace manufacturing jobsis an extra blow to the working class.
The Health and Safety Executive have described the conditions in the worst call centres in Britain as being like Victorian Satanic Mills. There is a high turnover of staff because of low wages and bad working conditions.
Liane Groves, a spokesperson for Unifi, one of the unions which organises call centre workers, told the BBC in an interview: “Automated systems mean workers only have a couple of seconds between calls. This isn’t long enough, particularly if they have just been sworn at by a frustrated customer.
“Workers should be able to choose when they are ready to receive a call – it is no surprise people working in the industry only stay in it for just two years on average.”
In a call centre that I worked in, staff could make their phones unavailable to take calls, so they could take a break. But management considered making staff put up their hand and ask the shift supervisor to log them off so they could go to the toilet!
This would have caused a walkout if it was ever implemented but it shows the extent to which employers will go to get staff to take extra calls.
The bus to Bangalore
But the bosses want to squeeze out every single penny to maximise profits. So they’ve jumped aboard the offshore bus to Bangalore, India’s 5th largest city.
Here exploiters have come upon a low-pay dreamland. Where even basic workers’ rights are nothing to worry about and building a brand new call centre costs just $8,000 per seat. This is a fraction of the cost in the UK.
A spokesperson for communications firm NTL, when asked about the poor conditions and salaries said: “I have no idea what the salary levels are. Our contract is with the company and not the individuals. It is a telemarketing contract only.”
So that makes it OK then and should keep the capitalists’ consciences clear!
There was a one-sided article in the Guardian by Zoe Cacanas and Patrick Collinson in December 2003. They went to Mumbai and Bangalore and spoke to a couple of workers who work for a company called Respondez in a call centre employing 350 people. The scene they painted was of pure bliss.
No doubt there are a small number of call centres that are fair to their employees. But many workers have no contracts and can be sacked at a moment’s notice. Vivek Sonatakke, a supervisor at Respondez, said in the same article: “The work is not secure, if out-sourced call centres in India fail to meet the expectations of their UK or US paymasters, the axe falls swiftly.
“It is very unstable, you never know what may happen and that really worries some staff. It’s good to seek out a call centre with renown – if not, you’ll be taking a calculated risk.”
So is it all ‘win’ ‘win’ or are cracks in the outsource dream appearing?
A report by consultants Contact Babel, found that UK call centres out-perform Indian ones by resolving calls 90% of the time. A third of callers to India have to ring back a second time. Workers in India answered the calls more quickly , probably because there is plenty of staff. The bosses can afford them – wages for new workers are about £1,500 a year. Not surprisingly they also found that British workers stayed in call centre jobs longer than Indian workers.
The report concludes: “The bottom line is that UK businesses which are moving their operations to India are doing so to cut salary costs… The earnest nonsense talked by UK organisations justifying movement offshore on the pretext of offering better quality to customers should be seen as such.”
Yet Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt openly praises off-shore out-sourcing and claims that the exodus of jobs actually benefits the UK economy. I don’t know how or why anyone would say this, except it makes more profit for the shareholders.
Massive job losses
The potential for losing call centre jobs abroad is probably about 200,000, according to the union Amicus. But any call centre job could become off-shore. With the fall-out in industries that supply services to the call centres, this would mean massive job losses.
Already we have seen the HSBC bank move 4,000 jobs abroad and Norwich Union moved 2,350 jobs to India. Hill House Hammond closed with the loss of 1,600 jobs. The irony is that Aviva, who own Hill house Hammond and Norwich Union, are blaming the job losses on the fact that people are calling call centres abroad for their insurance and that they can not compete with this!
In America the situation is not much better, with the Forrester research group predicting up to 3.5 million white collar jobs being lost to off-shoring. 500,000 of these being Information Technology jobs likely to be lost by 2015.
The company directors’ greed in making short-term profit with no thought of the long-term effect on the economy or real people’s lives is endemic to capitalism. It proves that capitalism cannot meet the needs of the majority of people on this planet.
What are the unions doing?
Amicus, along with CWU, UNIFI and Connect are asking the government to do a study into the effects of job losses abroad. No hard demands beyond that. It seems that they need kicking. Like an old record player whose needle has become stuck, they constantly repeat “enquiry, enquiry” but never do anything with the results.
They also say they are working with unions in India to make union membership more global. This is welcome, as the same companies that are moving to India today, will be moving to China or somewhere else when they feel the need to maximise profits or deal a blow to the working class.
Why bother with more reports and enquiries when the government already know the effects? The government do not care. They are protecting the interests of the fat cats they suck up to.
The trade unions should campaign for workers in call centres to join. A movement of new members demanding that their union takes action, could be the kick that is needed to move the needle and start the record playing again – to the workers’ tune and not the government’s or big business.
The potential of strike action in a financial call centre is shown by Nationwide’s estimate that call centre sales account for 20% of their overall profit. Workers should not have to accept slave-labour conditions because of intimidation by an employer.
A lot of workers will feel that at the moment it is not too difficult to find another job and that if the call centre is going to be closed, they can’t do anything anyway. What happens when the last call centre closes? What jobs will there be then in service industries?
Manufacturing has been decimated by the capitalist asset-strippers and profiteers, it is time to say “no more” and start fighting back as an organised working class. We must fight to save these jobs.
The trade unions should go all-out to organise call centre staff.
All job losses should be opposed.
End the use of agency labour. All workers should have full employee status, with a decent minimum wage and conditions.
There should be a decent minimum wage for call centre staff in whatever country they work in.
Dave Moody, Socialist Party England & Wales (CWI – Britain)
Workers’ Organisations In India
Earlier this year the socialist carried a report from the World Social Forum in Mumbai. Jagadish Chandra from the Socialist Party’s counterpart in India spoke on the situation in India for workers, extracts of which are reprinted here.
MANY MULTINATIONAL corporations feel their mouths water at the mention of the opening up of the Indian economy. India offers a good ground for plunder. Even if only 10% of the population of over a billion have 5,000 rupees to spend, that offers a big market.
Like China, India will apparently offer an endless supply of cheap labour, including child labour…
The Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) claim that India should use its IT economy and knowledge. But only two or three Indian companies are listed on the NASDAQ (IT) stock exchange. The Indian IT workers are skilled but in general they are just used as cheap labour. Their wages are just 10% of Western wages.
Others say that the ‘Call Centre Economy’ will take India forward. I have a nephew working in a call centre. He has, for the last six months, not seen the light of day because he works continuous night shifts!
The IT boom and the 8% growth of the economy do not have any effect on the majority of the population of this country…
So what is the way forward? Last year on 21 May, 50 million Indian workers went on strike against neo-liberalism, privatisation and WTO policies. One trade union leader in Calcutta commented: “In recent years we have played no real role. We were just facilitators passing on management decisions to the workforce”.
This section of union activists and the resentment welling up within the unions will lead the way forward towards a workers’ alternative. New Socialist Alternative calls for a mass workers’ party to be created, based on the fighting trade unions and poor landless peasants.
Jagadish Chandra, New Socialist Alternative (CWI – India)