Shanice McBean reports on the impact of zero hours and agency work on organising call centres
Organising in a call centre was difficult mainly because of the so-called ‘flexibility’ of work. Our caller workforce was split into those working for an agency (who were on probation) and those working directly for the company (who were the experienced callers relied upon to consistently bring in results). However, all of us were on zero-hours contracts. Management marketed this as giving us the flexibility to work when we wanted. Most staff worked elsewhere as actors, or were parents, and found the ability to cancel shifts useful (even I relished the ability to cancel my shifts when I was hungover). The reality was it meant workers could be (and often were) sacked mid-shift and management could easily adjust the division of labour on the calling floor as it suited them. It also meant that when the call centre went bust the company had very little financial obligation to its casual staff.
Management also exploited our zero-hours contracts by promoting callers to mentoring and caller-coach positions. These positions involved doing the work of supervisors (in-call coaching, leading briefing sessions, monitoring the progress of callers) but staying on a caller’s zero-hours contract and wages. The only benefit to those promoted in this way was the psychological wage of being a good enough caller to be promoted and the sacred state of being “off the phones”.
These two things complicated organising. Zero-hours contracts made agency workers impossible to organise (they could be employed on Monday and gone by Tuesday) and divisions were created between them and experienced callers (those who were mentors and caller-coaches often felt more of an affinity with management and less able to criticise them). This meant that initially organising the union meant pushing for improvements in our workplace environment, such as air conditioning and toilets. Initially organising around these easy issues and winning some victories meant we could build a sense that the union was useful and effective at challenging management without pressuring people to confront issues that, because of their zero-hours contracts, made them feel vulnerable.
In time, this gave callers confidence that they could use the union as a vehicle to challenge management more concertedly and feel protected and safe from victimisation (which is a real fear when you’re on a zero-hours contract). Soon after we won around toilets, union meetings became places where people were challenging management bullying and the informal promotions ‘procedure’ that seemed predicated on who was friends with who.
Hitting the buffers
Ironically the issue that in the end proved most pressing when the company went bust – our zero-hours contracts – was the hardest to organise around. This was because the workforce was largely made up of people for whom zero-hours contracts had some tangible benefit to their lives yet the high-stress, results-based environment deliberately hyped up by management and a culture of bullying meant people felt constantly on edge about their job.
It was only when the company was thrown into crisis, after a Daily Mail expose led charities to pull their business from the company, that the class composition of the company became clear. Management withheld money owed to callers – despite the fact our labour paid everyone’s wages – but permanent staff who (surprise, surprise) were also managerial staff had their pay protected and everything owed to them was guaranteed to be paid.
While management and supervisors were trying to push the “all in this together” line (which was being used to justify hours and wage cuts as well as withholding pay) the strength of the union was crucial to fighting for the interests of callers. But, crucially, it was only because of the long-term, often boring, work that had been put in beforehand that meant when management showed their true colours we were ready to defend ourselves. Though the company is now bust and our union branch will soon be dissolving, the workers who went through this experience stood up and fought and this is going to have a significant effect on them in their new workplaces.