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Organising in financial call centres

2. Reaching call centre workers:
recruitment and organising

a) Management style and culture in call centres

Call centres originated in the United States, and management techniques from north America have been exported to the rest of the world along with the ACD technology. This means that, regardless of the country or the industrial sector, many call centres have the same attributes.

They include :

  • An ‘informal’ work culture and management style, which does not emphasis differences of status or work hierarchy
  • The organisation of individual workers into teams
  • Competition between teams over call handling performance and, particularly, sales
  • Very flat management structures, with only one or two layers of management
  • As a consequence, very little opportunity for traditional career progression
  • Very restricted opportunities for staff to talk to each other informally
  • Very high turnover of staff
  • High percentage of women workers; high percentage of young workers
  • Weekend and evening operation, generally without additional premium payments. As a consequence, a wide range of part-time and shift working patterns
  • A ‘green field’ approach to the call centre operation, which may extend to a deliberate attempt to exclude trade unions. Non-adherence to existing collective agreements which apply to other employees of the same company.
  • The high use of agency staff by some employers, so that call centre staff may not be directly employed by the parent company

Trade unions need to mould their organising techniques and methods to fit with these characteristics of call centre life. This involves putting forward an image and message which is relevant to call centre workers, working in a highly structured but apparently informal working environment. Unions also need to bear in mind that many will be younger workers with no previous union experience. As one German union has warned, "Young workers often regard trade unions as overtaken by events and antiquated. They consider the unions have no solutions for the new conditions of customer-orientated service companies. Solutions from the industrial sector and union dispute settlement methods are considered inappropriate. Trade unions just disrupt flexible processes, it is felt". [Source: DPG (Germany) CI questionnaire, 1999.]

What are the problems met most frequently in terms of the unionisation of call centre workers?

  • The newness of the occupation
  • No history of strong unionisation
  • No developed professional qualification framework to establish a long-term career path
  • The nature of the work which makes it difficult for workers to talk to each other
  • High turnover of staff

[Source: FUPT CFDT (France), Communications International questionnaire, 1999]

The task of organising call centres, in fact, may raise broader questions for trade unions: their methods used for recruitment, their marketing techniques and image, the means of communicating with members and of servicing members’ needs, and also the effectiveness of their internal democratic life can all come in for scrutiny.

Put another way, this means that call centre organising can be important not just as a means of bringing non-unionised workers into the trade union movement, but also more fundamentally, as a way of helping unions to understand and redefine their role in the new ‘information society’ of the twenty-first century.

Trade unions must put forward an image and message relevant to call centre workers, working in a highly structured but apparently informal working environment

b) Union representation and collective agreements

It is no coincidence that one British bank, Halifax plc, initially adopted the working name of ‘greenfield’ for its new Internet banking subsidiary. The idea of establishing direct banking and insurance services as new operations, starting from scratch both in terms of premises and in terms of employment conditions, has been followed in several countries. All too often, this has meant that staff working in the associated call centres have poorer terms and conditions than those of their colleagues elsewhere in the parent company. This may mean less sick leave and holiday entitlement, poorer arrangements for working overtime or anti-social shifts, and less access to corporate pension schemes.

The ‘green field’ mentality may also mean that, even where trade unions are recognised elsewhere in a company, they may not be recognised in call centres.

  • In Germany, this has been the case, for example, with Citibank. Citibank’s call centre in Duisburg was established outside the collective agreement for the banking sector. Among other things, the bank expected staff to accept a five hour increase in the working week, five days less annual holiday and a completely new salary structure which abolished the traditional thirteenth month holiday pay.
  • In Ireland, the AIB (Allied Irish Bank) established its 24-hour direct banking service as a subsidiary to the parent company. The company initially did not recognise the union, the Irish Bank Officials Association
  • In the UK, the pioneer telephone bank First Direct was initially established by its parent company (Midland, now HSBC) without union recognition.

In each of the above cases, as we shall see, unions have had to organise to reassert their voice.

A further issue is the trend in some countries away from collective bargaining towards the use of individual contracts. This development fits well with the management style and work culture of call centres. It individualises the nature of the relationship between employer and employee and offers an extra challenge to the task of trade unions in organising these workplaces.

Fortunately, these problematic developments are not the case everywhere. In France, the Fédération des Employés et Cadres (FEC-FO) has reported: "Phone banks are not generally made subsidiaries and the employees enjoy the same advantages as their bank colleagues". [Source: FIET Annual bank and insurance trade section meeting, 10-12 May 1999, collective bargaining reports]. Similarly, in Scandinavia generally employees working in direct banking operations and call centres are satisfactorily incorporated within existing negotiated bank terms and conditions.

Negotiating for call centre workers in Italy

In Italy, call centre staff working within the banking sector are covered under the national sectoral agreement for the industry, negotiated between the unions and the Italian Bank Association. This means that (though their hours of work may be different from other bank staff) they can take advantage of the standard working terms and benefits which have historically been available to bank employees. Call centre staff receive the same pay as other bank workers, and can benefit from the same training entitlement (50 hours a year, 32 of which are paid).

Nevertheless, this arrangement had to be hard fought for by the unions. The banks themselves would have preferred to have categorised call centre staff as not engaged in banking work, and to have arranged for them to be covered instead under the standard national agreement for the commerce sector. This would have meant poorer terms and conditions for the staff affected.

Call centre staff joined other bank employees for a successful one day strike during 1999, at a time when negotiations for the new banking sectoral agreement were under discussion with employers’ representatives. The strength of feeling among bank staff over attempts to revise their contracts helped the unions in these negotiations. Nevertheless, the sectoral agreement is up for further renegotiation and renewal in two years, and Italian unions anticipate that employers will press again in an attempt to remove some of their staff from its coverage.

Separate arrangements have been negotiated to cover call centre workers in the insurance sector.

Call centre workers in the banking and finance sector should enjoy the same conditions of service and benefits as their colleagues working in more traditional areas of the industry.

c) Putting resources into call centre organisation

In a number of countries trade unions have undertaken specific initiatives and campaigns around call centre organisation.

  • In Australia, the call centre industry was identified by the national union federation ACTU as a source of new union membership in its unions@work manifesto
  • In Germany, a forum attended by about 200 call centre staff, experts and union representatives was organised jointly by the unions HBV, DPG and IG Medien in November 1998. The results of the discussions and working groups were subsequently published in the booklet Arbeiten im Call Center
  • In Austria, the GPA union has produced a 46-page report ‘Arbeit im Call Center’, offering recommendations of good practice
  • In the Netherlands, FNV-Bondgenoten started a special call centre project in 1998, looking at the level of unionisation within call centres and also researching the training needs of workers in areas such as health and safety. The initiative, which followed research by the University of Amsterdam, has already led to a number of employers approaching FNV to negotiate call centre conditions.
  • In the UK, representatives of trade unions recruiting in the banking and finance sector (including Unifi and MSF) have established a joint Financial Call Centres Forum. This meets approximately twice a year, and provides an opportunity to share information and experiences between unions.

Perhaps the most ambitious initiative yet undertaken was that of the ‘Call Centre Action Day’, organised for 4th November 1999 jointly by FIET and Communications International, prior to their merger into UNI. Recruitment leaflet templates were made available on the Internet to be adapted for individual national use. Leafleting of call centres was reported from many countries, including Australia, Sweden, Ireland, UK, Germany and France.

Whilst you are speaking to customers on behalf of your employer, we can speak to your employer on behalf of you…

Across the world, workers in call centres raise the same kind of issues:

  • Health and safety
  • Pay and benefits
  • Stress, working time and workload
  • Equal opportunities and training
  • Harassment at work
  • Poor working environment and equipment
  • Respect and proper consultation
  • Social benefits
  • Child care facilities…

Today unions across the world are speaking to call centre workers with one simple message… Join the union for a better deal

[Text taken from the Call Centre Action Day leaflet, CI/FIET, November 1999]

Trade unions should put resources into recruiting and organising staff in call centres

UNI should consider repeating the joint FIET/Communications International call centre campaign of 1999

d) Finding the right way to reach potential members

The experience of trade unions who have tried organising in call centres suggests that a carefully planned recruitment strategy, executed with close and indeed almost military attention to detail, is likely to be much more successful than a more ad-hoc approach.

Clearly there are more opportunities if the union is given the chance by the employer to talk direct to employees. One of the most effective ways of recruiting call centre staff is to have union access to new employees during their induction training, and this should be negotiated as part of a union recognition agreement. However, even if this sort of facility is granted, the time available is likely to be very limited and needs to be used to the full.

In the UK, MSF’s recognition by the large life and general insurance company CGU gave the union access to staff at the call centre in Bishopsbrigg, Scotland. MSF chose to use drama to push home its message.


Prior to MSF’s organising effort, union membership at the 1000-strong call centre was low, with only one rep servicing the site. MSF arranged to hold a number of meetings in the staff canteen, each lasting about half an hour. The site rep arranged for staff to be given time off to attend (MSF members’ time off was paid, non-members time off was without pay).

For the first eight minutes or so, the MSF regional officer with responsibility for CGU gave a brief presentation about the work of the union. This was followed by a piece of drama, performed by a professional company of three women specialising in theatre in the community. The play highlighted call centre life, such as the pressures of the work. After the play, staff split into small groups and were asked to join the union. Those that did were given a ‘goodie bag’, including union publications, a pen, key ring, wrist rest for keyboard use, mug mat and chocolate. From this initiative, 85 new members were recruited, and a team of ten union reps established. [Source: information from Rachael Maskell, MSF]

It is more likely, however, that the union will find itself kept firmly outside the call centre building.

In Ireland, the experience of the Irish Bank Officials Association (IBOA) in organising at AIB’s 24-hour direct banking subsidiary demonstrates how a determined approach to recruitment can pay dividends.

IBOA and AIB 24-hour banking

AIB (Allied Irish Bank) set up a subsidiary to operate its direct banking service, opening a call centre with about 140 employees in the town of Naas west of Dublin. The bank established 24 Hour Banking as a non-union workplace, and did not approach IBOA for a formal recognition agreement. (The IBOA is recognised by the AIB elsewhere in its business).

The union responded by arranging an evening social, with free food and drink, in the town. Management concern about this initiative could perhaps be deduced from the fact that the company announced that it would be holding its own social event on the same evening; in response the IBOA simply brought forward the start time of its event. Whilst membership packages were made available, IBOA’s Michael Bride says that no pressure was brought on staff to join. Nevertheless about thirty people did sign up.

The company offered limited recognition but continued to refuse full recognition, so that the principal concerns of the IBOA’s new members were not addressed. As a result, IBOA was faced with the problem that some of its new members became disheartened and cancelled their membership. The union responded by agreeing to waive the call centre members’ subscriptions. This was a move which was not without controversy within the union, but which succeeded in stemming the tide of resignations, and in addition gaining new members.

The IBOA continued to run training events and socials in Naas, covering everything from employment rights to interviewing skills. Following representations made to the company, the bank reversed a previous decision that the call centre staff would not be eligible for an IR£2000 Millennium evening extra payment. This proved an even greater boost to recruitment.

The IBOA received formal recognition from AIB 24-hour in February 2000, and now has over 80 members at the Naas call centre. The union is now turning its attention to three other direct banking operations in Ireland, and has plans to draw up a Charter for financial call centre workers.

[Source: conversation with Michael Bride, January 2000]

The IBOA was one of many UNI affiliates to use the FIET/CI Call Centre Day of Action initiative in November 1999 to leaflet call centre staff at their workplaces. However, this — perhaps the oldest trade union method of recruitment — is not necessarily as easy as it was in the past. Many call centres are located on private industrial estates, and staff often arrive and leave by car from secure car parks. Both the IBOA and Unifi (in the UK) report problems with security guards or police when attempting to leaflet particular sites.

There are a number of tactics for tackling access problems which can be learned from organising campaigns in other industries, including: where the company provides staff buses contacts with the drivers’ unions and a union presence at pick-up points can help; where people drive cars to work it may be useful to track route home and find out if there are clusters of workers living in particular localities — leafleting local housing estates and schools, making contacts in local pubs and clubs can produce inside contacts; providing union branded sandwich bags to shops and burger vans etc where people buy lunch is another tried and tested method; and social events, especially for young people, can help build union networks.

[Contribution made at TUC (UK) New Unionism seminar ‘Organising telephone call centres’, 13 November 1998]

In Britain, the Trades Union Congress (TUC)’s New Unionism project has identified call centres as an important target. A range of tactics have been identified for reaching call centre staff, including arranging for union recruiters to be employed ‘under cover’ in target sites. The New Unionism approach is highly structured, involving among other things a detailed ‘mapping the workplace’ exercise where each employee’s name and workstation is identified on a map. In a technique reminiscent of traditional election canvassing in Britain, each individual’s likely sympathy towards a union is formally recorded, on a scale from 1-4.

The call centre work culture is one where informality, flexibility and teamwork are stressed by management. Not every company goes as far in terms of jokey rituals as the call centre where (according to one report) the team leader was expected to stand up and shout out ‘sausages’ each time a sale was made whilst colleagues undertook a celebratory ‘Mexican wave’ of the sort normally seen at football stadiums. [Source: ‘An assembly line in the head’: work and employee relations in the call centre, Phil Taylor and Peter Bain].

Nevertheless, unions may be more successful in organising call centre staff if they also are prepared to adopt some of the same tactics as management.

This was the approach adopted, for example, when the British union BIFU (now Unifi) was attempting to recruit workers at First Direct. A conference room was set up with a video, information about the union, a quiz and free gifts, such as biros, balloons and rulers.

Where possible, unions should seek access to new staff during their induction training.

Recruitment campaigns are more likely to succeed when planned and executed with attention to detail. Campaigning techniques can be borrowed from management techniques in call centres.

e) Using the opportunities of new technology

Unions in a number of countries are attempting to use new on-line means of communication to talk directly to call centre staff.

  • In New Zealand, the financial sector union FinSec has a dedicated web home page for call centre staff, which includes pay comparisons and health & safety information ( FinSec promotes itself as "Your call centre union"
  • In Germany, the Internet and telephone advisory service for teleworkers, OnlineForumTelearbeit (OnForTe), ran an open chatroom on its web site during European Telework Week, in November 1999, one day of which was focused on call centre issues. OnForTe ( is a joint initiative of the HBV, DPG and IG Medien unions, in association with Deutsche Telekom and the federal Ministry of Economy. OnForTe reports that the netchat initiative attracted considerable interest.
  • FNV Bondgenoten in Holland also makes use of the web, to provide a series of pages of information for call centre workers, regardless of whether or not they are FNV members (

The potential importance for unions of using electronic means of communication as a way of accessing members and would-be members led FIET to launch an ‘on-line rights for on-line workers’ campaign in 1998. The campaign, which is continuing under UNI, has as two of its demands:

-. The right of free access by employees and by trade unions and works councils to corporate e-mail systems, so that employee members can receive information and communicate with their representatives.

- The right of free access to the Internet (and to corporate intranet networks) by employees, to enable them to access trade union web sites and other information relevant to their rights at work.

Nevertheless (and ironically given that call centre workers spend their working days using information and communications technology) the disciplined nature of call centre life does not necessarily mean that staff have easy access to email at work. The freedom to access the Internet is likely to be even more limited.

Another option made possible by technology is to reach call centre staff by setting up hotlines — using call centres!

  • In Australia, trade unions have invited unhappy call centre employees to ring a hotline number to report on poor practices in their places of work. This initiative has been called, in Australian parlance, ‘dob-in-a-call-centre’ [report a call centre].

Unions should maximise the possibilities of new technology for recruitment and organising purposes

f) Using industrial action

More traditional forms of industrial action may also be necessary.

  • The shocking example of the Citibank call centre at Duisburg, Germany, which was set up outside the collective agreements for the banking sector, has already been mentioned. It has led to an ongoing dispute between the HBV and DAG unions and the Citibank management, which included limited strike action at the end of 1998.

Citibank has been accused by the unions of adopting ‘wild west’ methods of industrial relations at the plant. "Citibank managers see unions, collective agreements and social security of staff as the devil’s handiwork," said one local union secretary. Duisburg is a large call centre which employs around 800 staff, and its opening coincided with the closure of several other back offices and call centres run by Citibank elsewhere in Germany, affecting more than a thousand workers. Unions point out that the bank sought incentives of 7.2 million Deutsche Mark ($3.7m) from the state of Nordrheinland-Westphalia to ‘create’ these jobs.

The bank has retaliated to union action by sacking staff who participated in strike action. The union response has been to campaign for their reinstatement and for a pay agreement for the Duisburg staff, to encourage supporters to send postcards of protest to the company and to call for a boycott of the company. UNI has also offered international support for the union campaign.

  • One of the most successful industrial actions taken in relation to call centres was the one-day national strike organised by the UK Communication Workers Union CWU on November 22nd 1999, for staff working for the telecommunications company British Telecom. The strike followed attempts by the union to persuade the company to respond to staff concerns, including stress, a bullying management style, unachievable targets and the widespread use of agency (non-BT) staff.

The strike quickly led to an agreement with the company, in which BT pledged to develop a model of best practice for the call centre industry, to reduce its use of agency staff, to adopt a stress management programme and to revise staff performance criteria.

More traditional forms of industrial action may also be necessary when campaigning for better conditions in call centres

g) Organising of call centre workers — some concluding comments

The degree of union membership found in call centres varies considerably, not just between countries but also within the same countries. Indeed there can sometimes be marked contrasts between well-organised and poorly-organised call centres within the same company.

This should encourage us not to fall prey to easy generalisations. As we saw above, there are particular features of call centre life which can appear to mitigate against strong levels of union organisation: management style, the use of part-time and/or agency workers, the numbers of young workers, and so on. However, in practice the picture is more complex.

As the academic writers Philip Taylor and Peter Bain point out, call centres may also employ sizeable numbers of workers who have previously worked in other occupations, where they have been union members. Taylor and Bain surveyed 345 employees at six financial call centres in the United Kingdom. They write, "When one considers both the composition of the workforce and the extent of trade union membership, there appears to be an interesting polarity. These are largely female workforces, composed on the one hand of many young workers with little if any employment history and who, if they join the union, are doing so for the first time. On the other hand, there are sizeable cohorts of more experienced workers with a trade union past. Such a profile contradicts the oft-used ‘Generation X’ stereotype of the call centre worker. This crude caricature portrays the call centre workforce as composed wholly of young workers who are individualised, atomised and antipathetic to trade unionism." [Trade Unions and Call Centre Survey, Philip Taylor and Peter Bain for Finance Sector Unions, 2000]

Finally, the power of the call centre management culture, with its stress on teamwork and flexibility, informality and an absence of hierarchy, can also be overstressed. It should not be assumed that staff automatically ‘buy in’ to this ideology. Nor does everyone like the rituals: the call centre management which went in for Mexican waves and shouts of ‘sausages’ has now changed its practice, after facing concerted ridicule from staff.