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Organising in financial call centres

5. Conclusion

Call centres have played a central part of the restructuring of the banking and insurance industries in recent years, especially the development of ‘direct’ banking and insurance services. During this time, there has been a gradual shift from a straightforward customer service ethos to a more directly targeted sales approach. This trend will continue as customers increasingly use the Internet for their banking and insurance services, though ultimately the development of electronic delivery systems may cause companies to reassess their use of call centres.

Call centres offer considerable possibilities for trade union recruitment and organisation. This is despite the fact that some call centre managements have tried to adopt anti-union policies (even where there are recognition and negotiation agreements with parent banks or insurers). The current picture is mixed, with some financial call centres well organised and others almost entirely non-union.

There are now many examples, from around the world, of creative ways in which unions have approached the task of organising call centres. It is not the case that call centre staff necessarily consider unions irrelevant to their working lives, though it is true that unions need to focus on issues of direct day-to-day concern to them. This demands an understanding of the call centre working environment and the dominant work culture.

It can be argued that, if trade unions cannot demonstrate their relevance to the large numbers of people who now find themselves working together on the automated call distribution ‘assembly lines’ of the call centre factories, then frankly why do unions deserve to survive? Put more positively, the task of organising call centre workers can assist unions in identifying and if necessary redefining their role for the new century.

Action points identified in the report:

Reaching call centre workers: recruitment and organising

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

Organising in call centres: the issues for negotiation

Any organising strategy should start from the concerns and issues identified by the call centre staff themselves

Call centre workers are generally poorly paid. Extra premium payments for evening or weekend working may not be paid.

Performance-related pay and commission based on sales targets are a common feature of call centre life. Where possible, it is usually more satisfactory to link pay levels to demonstrable competencies.

High staff turnover rates in call centres offers a possible lever for unions negotiating to improve pay levels or structures.

Flexible working hours can benefit employees as well as management, but must be introduced by agreement.

Call centre staff need to have influence over the hours and shifts they are asked to work. Shift rosters should be drawn up with adequate notice to staff.

All the implications for staffing of 24 x 7 operating of call centres need to be adequately considered in advance.

Unions should seek to organise and recruit agency staff

Whilst superficially ‘clean’ working environments, call centres raise a series of health and safety issues and concerns, which unions should address. Stress is a particular health hazard in call centres.

Call centre staff are subject to unacceptable levels of electronic surveillance and monitoring. Any such monitoring should be undertaken by employers overtly rather than covertly, and by prior agreement with unions.

The issue of training has particular importance in the call centre industry, given the lack of career paths and the repetitive nature of the work being undertaken.

The particular needs of women workers, often the majority of workers in a call centre, need to be addressed.

Some current and future trends

Unions should monitor the development of virtual call centres closely. Home-based working needs to be voluntary, introduced only after adequate training and carefully monitored by trade unions.

The internationalisation of call centre operating raises challenges for trade unions at both ends of this process of work migration. Effective international cooperation and solidarity is necessary, to avoid social dumping.

Call centres have grown very fast in recent years, but their future development is uncertain in the light of technological change and the expansion of the Internet. Adequate training is necessary to equip call centre staff to cope with future change.