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Call centres: Union campaign makes important gains
I was interested to read the recent article in The Socialist by John McInally about the work my union PCS is doing to improve working conditions in call centres in the civil service. I work in one such call centre, for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Paul Newton, PCS rep
In our Jobcentre Plus call centre, we take benefit claims over the phone - mainly for Jobseeker's Allowance. Less frequently we deal with claims for Income Support (due to government attacks on lone parents and the sick) but we also deal with secondary benefits such as Maternity Allowance, Carer's Allowance, etc.
Many young people participating in the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign will have spoken to a customer service agent like me if they have made a claim due to unemployment.
Within the PCS, there are some people who portray the contact centres as akin to the 'dark satanic mills' of the 19th century. Recently anger erupted among benefit processing telephony staff in the Benefit and Fraud Directorate (BFD). Upon hearing that they would be forced into the Contact Centre Directorate (CCD) management structure, at least one site staged a brief and unofficial walkout.
When a direct comparison is made, contact centres clearly have poorer working conditions than other areas of the DWP and the civil service.
Contact centres do replicate the conditions of the 19th century factory in some ways. In my workplace, there are massed ranks of desks - 60-100 on each open plan floor - that create a collective consciousness like a factory.
In our office, we have over 260 members of staff, but fewer than 200 desks. There are teams of staff who have to 'hot-desk' - constantly changing their desk for one that is empty due to sickness or holiday leave. Unless you're assigned to the hot-desking team or a smoker, you won't get to meet many of your colleagues from other floors.
If you're a smoker, and I wouldn't recommend it, you get to hear the more open and less sanitised views of staff. The latest joke going round is that management are planning to install commodes to increase our productivity benchmarks!
Our jobs lack flexibility. The other week, I started work at 9.47am and finished at 5.56pm. I am contracted to work 37 hours per week - dividing this by the five days I work means I have to work each day for seven hours and 24 minutes precisely. The schedules would be much easier to organise on the basis of a 35 hour working week!
One PCS member recently said that he'd missed the last bus by five minutes because he wasn't allowed to leave five minutes early. This meant he had to wait for one and a half hours on a platform for the next train. If we want to use the flexi-time we have built up by starting late or finishing early, this has to be ratified by a national management team. The CCD is a 'virtual' network of over 30 contact centres, yet each individual contact centre has a quota of staff that they can let go early, if at all.
When the CCD became a virtual network, management promised more access to flexible working. Arguably, the opposite has happened. If we want to take annual leave at short notice, this is capped at a low level and is distributed on a local, not a national, basis. It is also restricted to three times every three months for no apparent reason. Management had a trial to extend our ability to apply for annual leave on the day. This was very popular and was then stopped with no reason given.
On Mondays, and between 5pm and 6pm, the service is busier. Why can't staff stay on if they want to volunteer to build up their flexi-time? This simple change in itself would suit both management and staff!
The struggle in civil service call centres is between workers wanting to provide a quality public service and management wanting to squeeze as much productivity out of us as possible by treating us like statistics, regardless of the effects on our members' health and well-being.
The service to the public is consistently undermined by the pressures of unrealistic targets, de-skilling, centralisation and cuts in training programmes. Despite an increase in the number of newly redundant people using our service, our average call targets were cut from 21 to 19 minutes. Even this target is illusory, as we are forced to compete between different workplaces, and between different management commands and teams within each workplace.
Nevertheless, it is important to have a clear picture of the situation and not be overly despondent. The hard work performed by trade unionists in the PCS and its predecessor unions means that conditions in the CCD are still much more favourable than private sector call centres and many other workplaces.
This shows the need to maintain and improve the union's campaigning activity and organisation in the workplace.
In the CCD, there is quite a varied picture - some workplaces are very highly unionised and well organised, others less so. Our ability to take action to achieve improvements relies on our unity across the CCD, as it would be easy for management to redirect calls to sites that have a lower union membership.
I have every confidence that the PCS call centre campaign will have an electrifying effect in the CCD, particularly amongst the young people who are often concentrated in this sector.
In the revenue and customs department (HMRC), hundreds of new union members were recruited in a short space of time following a successful ballot for industrial action to improve conditions in their call centres.
In my workplace, we have recruited scores of members only relatively recently by being seen as a campaigning force on issues that are important to staff, like working conditions and our defence of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme.
This latter campaign will require a significant struggle by members to pressurise a management that seeks to cut costs as much as possible to foot the bill for the bailout for the bankers and to make our essential service more attractive to privatisation. Already, a company called Vertex that runs private-sector credit card call centres has taken over a substantial part of the Jobseeker Direct service, which performs job searches for members of the public.
Quality public services and private companies are like water and oil - they don't mix. What we are demanding is perfectly reasonable. It's the management who are so often unreasonable.
- Proper training for workers so they can provide quality public services.
- Sufficient breaks to alleviate stress levels, repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and musculo-skeletal disorders (MSD).
- An end to the oppressive electronic monitoring system.
- Realistic targets set by workers themselves.
- Access to flexible working for all workers.
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