In defence of Call Centre workers; an indictment of Call Centres

I recently spent a night in hospital for a minor operation to my nose, one of the men sharing my ward asked me what I did for a living, I answered that I worked in a pub, not considering this a sufficient answer he inquired as to whether that was my only job, or if I  had a ‘weekday job’. I then cagily replied that until about a fortnight before I had worked in a call centre. “Ah, you’re one of those cold callers” said the man, who had had several confrontations with the nurse throughout the night over him sneaking whiskey into the ward – which had made me warm to him, and had seen me vomit up some swallowed blood – which In my head had bread a sense of camaraderie if not at least broken down some kind of barrier. However once he knew I had once phoned people to sell them things he could barely contain his contempt for me, luckily this was on my way out so the rest of our conversation was me wishing him luck with the removal of a cancerous organ the next day and waving to the nurses.

I suppose the thing that made me sad about that encounter was the fact that he showed no sign of sympathy; nothing like a ‘that sounds like an unpleasant job’ for my trouble, there was just a thin veil of annoyance that I was one of those people, the annoying members of the modern world who reach into people’s homes and disturb them with the intentions that are best dubious and at worst criminal. I suppose I got this reaction because we live in a world in a country where boring, poorly paid jobs have been trivialised whilst those who work them have been demonized.   This has gone hand in hand with of one of the enduring myths of the early twenty-first century seem to be constantly built on the presumption that the working class no longer exists, and that proper non-professional jobs don’t exist anymore. Those that do exist are cushy and easy;  as the majority of us no longer consider black lung or being crushed by a collapsing steel bar as a an occupational hazard, we don’t need to analyse or think about working conditions. Anyone who does complain is generally seen as workshy or prissy, probably both, either way their concern is certainly baseless in the apparently health and safety obsessed, so called nanny state.  I always suspected that these attitudes where at best skewed and probably fictitious; proper regulated companies can’t treat people poorly right? Call centres, particularly of the kind I worked in, are probably the best example of why the idea of entitled workers and put upon bosses falls down the most, exposing the powerlessness of the average worker.

As fun as it looks...

Call centre workers are an easy target to be held up to support this narrative; if you work in a call centre (apart from a few examples in the public sector) you are extremely venerable too being fired at any point for any reason, the contracts signed specifically stated that as workers we were on a probationary period of six months, – this is in an industry where the average turnover of a worker is a few months at most – the first day I worked for the company three people were fired in front of me, for talking to their co-workers in-between calls,  however the striking example of the lack of control we had over whether we would come to work the next day was the mother I worked with who needed to go home at 5.30pm instead of the scheduled 6.30 to collect her daughter from school as she couldn’t afford to get anyone to care for her. This arrangement had been agreed with our line manager and she did significantly more work than some others who stayed all day, despite this one day she just didn’t come in. I assumed she was ill until someone quietly whispered that she had been let go the previous night due to going home early.

This constant threat of losing employment for most of the office workers meant that bosses held an almost comical amount of power over our lives. The emphasis seemed to be on infantilization of the workforce, this was done though constant haranguing of members of staff, confiscating newspapers and mobile phones, as well as very public and patronising reprimands of certain individuals; this was presumably to make us keep our heads down, it worked. We never knew better, even when we were sincerely reporting a fault – a common one being that we were, illegally, using phone numbers previously contacted – Management was very quick to dismiss any question as an excuse not to work; “a few weeks ago we were getting twice the clients you’re getting at the moment” was a consistent complaint from management, failure to obtain a seemingly arbitrary target was punished with being made to stand up until you had made a sale. Sometimes I would stand up to stretch my legs, this was pointed to as being dedicated to the job, and that I was an example to the rest of the team despite my relatively mediocre number of sales; however I’m white and speak like a middle class person, when you poses those attributes in a work environment it is relatively easy to give the impression of working harder than everyone else whilst being equally confused and bewildered by the whole thing. I was eventually let go as the department I worked in collapsed, and my lack of will to call people for the third time in a week on the off chance they might want to sue someone.

I suppose my hope that the description of how the people who phone you up and ask you if you’ve bought Payment protection insurance, been in an accident or wish to consolidate debts spend their days you might have more sympathy for them when you pick up the phone. I don’t just mean not telling them to fuck off or explaining that they’re annoying as you get ten of these calls a day – they will have no sympathy, they make hundreds of calls to whingey pricks every day. The company I worked for, as well as others I know of, monitor calls and the reason they ended; The nicest thing you can possibly do is ask who is calling without identifying yourself, once you’ve established it’s a cold caller, simply tell them that you don’t live at that address, wish them luck and hang up. They don’t get in trouble and you don’t get called again, it’s a win win. I mean you should also try to support them to form a union and take over their workplace, but in lieu of that just try do what you can to get them though they day. They’ll have a nicer day because of you.