Posts Tagged ‘John McInally’

Karl Marx and the Wage Slavery of Call Centre Workers

March 15, 2014

Call Centre Pic

One of the main features of the modern, post-Thatcher economy is the rapid explosion in call centres. These seem to have taken over from manufacturing as one of the leading employment sectors. One cannot walk past the various employment bureaux without seeing jobs in them advertised. On the other side of the picture, ordinary domestic life is now punctuated by regular phone calls during the day from someone in Birmingham, Glasgow, or even Mumbai phoning you up to ask if you want to change your energy provider, telephone company or are aware that you might get some kind of refund on your insurance. If you phone up a company, you are automatically put through to their call centre somewhere else, frequently half way round the planet. They’re often in one of the developing nations, like India, which has a large reservoir of skilled workers, who can be paid very poorly compared to their fellows in Britain. British call centre workers are, however, joining them as extremely low paid employees working in dehumanising and exploitative conditions. I heard a long time ago from a friend that call centre work is one of the most miserable experiences people go through to earn a living.

Owen Jones on Degrading Conditions in Call Centres

Just how depressing and degrading they are is also described by Owen Jones in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. He writes

If you think shop workers have it bad, consider now the call centre worker. There are now nearly a million people working in call centres, and the number is going up every year. To put that in perspective, there were a million men down the pits at the peak of mining in the 1940s. If the miner was one of the iconic jobs of post-war Britain, then today, surely, the call centre worker is as good a symbol of the working class as any.

‘Call centres are a very regimented environment,’ says John McInally, a trade unionist leading efforts by the PCS to unionize call centre workers. ‘It’s rows of desks with people sitting with headphones. There’s load of people in the room, but they’re separate units. They’re encouraged not to talk, share experiences and so on … The minute you get in the door, your movements are regulated by the computer.’ Here is the lack of worker’s autonomy in the workplace take to extremes.

In some call centres he has dealt with, a worker in Bristol or Glasgow who wants to leave fifteen minutes early has to go through head office in Sheffield to be cleared. ‘We’ve likened conditions to those you’d have seen in mills or factories at the end of the nineteenth century.’ Think that’s an exaggeration? Then consider the fact that, in some call centres, workers have to put their hands up to go to the toilet. Computers dictate the time and duration of breaks, with no flexibility whatsoever. Employees are under constant monitoring and surveillance, driving up stress levels.

Many call centre workers have told McInally that the whole experience is ‘very dehumanizing. People talk abaout being treated like robots. Everything is regulated by machines.’ The working lives of many operators consist of reading through the same script over and over again. According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, increasing numbers of call centre workers are being referred to speech therapists because they are losing their voices. The cause? Working long hours with little opportunity to even have a drink of water.

That’s one reason why the sickness rate in call centres is nearly twice the national average. The other is deep alienation from the work. In once call centre McInally dealt with in Northern England, sickness rates had reached nearly 30 per cent. ‘That’s a sign of low morale’, he says – as I the fact that annual staff turnover is around a quarter of the workforce. And, like so much of the new working class, the salaries of call centre workers are poor. A trainee can expect £12,500, while the higher-grade operators are on an average of just £16,000.

The dehumanising regimentation and micro-managing of call centre staff by computer reminded me of some of the dystopian SF that appeared in the 1970s, speculating on the type of future if computers suddenly took over the world and humanity was reduced to their slaves, watched and controlled totally by omniscient machines. The intrepid crew of the Enterprise encountered one such society in the Classic Star Trek episode ‘Return of the Archons’. The crew of the Liberator, the Dirty Just-Over-Half-A-Dozen of BBC’s Blake’s 7, also encountered an alien civilisation under the totalitarian control of central computer, though were able to bring it down and break free to continue their campaign against the Fascistic Federation through the superiority brain-power of their own machine, Orac. Sadly, contemporary call centre workers trapped in their totalitarian, micro-managed environment, can’t look forward to being similarly freed.

Marx pic

Karl Marx on Wage Slavery

As for the similarity between the conditions suffered by modern call centre workers and those of 19th century mill workers, it is striking just how similar t6he former are to Marx’s classic description of wage slavery in the 19th century.

Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the foreman, and, above all, by the individual manufacturers himself. (pp. 1467-8).

Marx was wrong about many things, but here he is absolutely correct. What we need is are renewed campaigns to improve conditions for the working class, to give people a better future than simply functioning as another human cog being ground down by the inhuman and dehumanizing machines of big business.