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Organising in financial call centres

1. Introduction

The very rapid growth of call centres has been one of the most striking features of work life in many industrialised countries over the past few years.

Their development has changed the nature of white-collar work for the many people who spend their working days handling telephone calls in these purpose-built units. The old, often comfortably chaotic nature of office life has been replaced with a new discipline in the workplace, imposed by the demands of the automated call distribution (ACD) technology on which call centres are based.

Call centres have already played a considerable part in the restructuring of the banking and financial services sector, in particular by facilitating the development of telephone-based ‘direct’ banking and insurance.

Call centres are of course not the first or only structural change in the financial industry made possible by technology: the extensive relocation of back office functions which began in the 1960s and 1970s also made use of new technology to restructure banking and insurance operations. However call centres alter the nature of working life in a much more radical way than these previous changes. As a consequence call centres pose particular challenges and difficulties (but also possibilities) for trade unions.

Call centre technology can increase productivity in telephone call handling to an often astonishing degree. Automated call distribution, computer-telephony integration (such as the ‘screen popping’ of customer information to computer screens) and the use of standard scripts by staff mean that the time taken to deal with calls, and the ‘free’ time between calls, can be pared to the bare minimum. The technique of predictive dialling (the use of software to dial outbound calls automatically, transferring calls when they are answered to available members of staff) alone enables ‘a day’s work to be done in an hour’, according to one call centre manager.

This technology-induced efficiency however requires the human agents themselves to submit to a highly controlled work regime. Call centres have evoked comparisons with the sort of assembly-line working in manufacturing associated with Henry Ford and Taylorism. Some have described call centres as the electronic assembly lines of the twenty-first century. The degree of surveillance necessary has also invited unfavourable comparisons, for example with nineteenth century designs for prisons, or even (by one call centre worker) with Roman slave ships: "You feel like you are on a galley boat, being watched, answering calls every thirty seconds, monitored and told off if there are mistakes". [Channel 4 TV (UK), Special Report, broadcast 14.12.99]

As the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) has pointed out, trade unions ought to find call centres promising areas for recruitment and organisation: "Trade unions need to develop a strategy that aims.. at organising workers in the new call centres. It does not appear to be an impossible mission. The call centres are the modern version of mass production, usually fertile ground for the trade unions. Centres often employ several hundred operators in vast premises…" [ICFTU, Call Centres — the new assembly lines, 1998]

However, trade unions do have to recognise that the particular culture and management style of call centres means that old forms of organising will not necessarily be effective. Recruiting call centre workers into a trade union, especially where there is a deliberate anti-union strategy from management, is likely to require a combination of good old-fashioned organising techniques and some more contemporary marketing tools.

As this report hopes to demonstrate, there is now a considerable pool of experience among unions around the world to take advantage of.

This report has three main sections:

  • In the first part, we will look in detail at possible approaches to recruitment and organising in financial call centres
  • We will then explore some of the key issues for negotiation
  • Finally, we will look briefly at some current and future trends in the call centre industry.

The report ends with a short conclusion.