[OPE-L:2175] Re: the political economy of call centers

From: Gerald Levy (glevy@PRATT.EDU)
Date: Sun Jan 16 2000 - 14:44:32 EST

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Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2000 20:31:38 +0100
From: Jurriaan Bendien <djjb99@worldonline.nl>


I have worked professionally in a call centre servicing computer users, and
as a questionnaire designer, so if feel qualified to make a brief comment.
I think an investigation of call centres is certainly a good thing, because
in a lot of them the contracts, working conditions, pay, management, and
training are bad, and sometimes quite oppressive. Very few workers in my
experience were unionised and my contract prohibited the circulation of
non-work documents to colleagues (the Dutch Trade Union Federation is
currently trying to get call centre workers to become unionised). Call
centres attract a lot of foreign workers who lack the experience,
qualifications, networks or native language to get better types of work. If
you work in a call centre several years, and get qualified in your area,
you can earn a decent wage. But in my experience most people moved on to
better jobs. The main problem with the questionnaire is that it is far too
long (creating too great a response burden), and it is not clear to what
use the information obtained will be put. Many, if not most call centre
workers would not be motivated to respond to an appeal from some
inexperienced radical communist cell. They would not be able to answer a
lot of the questions anyway, because they lack the knowledge or the type of
contact with colleagues that would enable them to answer the questions.



At 10:57 AM 1/16/00 -0500, you wrote:
>(continuation, JL)
>>critically. Demands for higher wages, for example, lead in Call Centers of
>>banks to the introduction of wages based on performance and frequent
>>performance tests. In this way a previously non-existent wage hierarchy
>>was adopted.
>>f) Work method and product
>>What is the actual work of a Call Center-worker? Which functions and
>>reponsiblilities does she/he have to take care of, in addition to the
>>"official" work, in order to accomplish the job? In doing so, does she
>>improve the work flow in terms of management? Which skills is she
>>developing and how is capital utilizing them?
>>What significance does "immaterial work" and its "product" have in this
>>sense? How can value be embodied in an "immaterial" product? How can it
>>absorb human labor and therefore increase capital? In factories the labor
>>of thousands of workers is embodied in the product. They actually see the
>>product as the result of their cooperation. How does this relation appear,
>>if the "product" is information or a satisfied customer?
>>This question of the work method leads us to the actual basis of worker's
>>subjectivity, the question of how they see their work, their productive
>>connection, their society.
>>g) Worker's subjectivity
>>1. Actual workplace activity
>>What relation do workers have to what they do on the job? Capitalist
>>management claims, on the one hand to want good quality ("labor process"),
>>on the other hand it is interested mostly in quantity ("process of
>>creating value"). How do workers handle this contradiction? Do they want
>>to do "good work for a good product"? How do they react to the
>>intensification of work?
>>What do they enjoy about working? How do they deal with stress? What ist
>>their opinion of the hierarchy? What means do they develop to avoid
>>working? What do they think about the job or the profession? Is the
>>mobility also part of their own will?
>>2. Coherence amongst workers
>>How do workers see the coherence between them? Capital brings together
>>isolated laborers of different origin and has to make them cooperate. What
>>kind of relation develops between those workers when they are forced to
>>work together? What divides the workers and what brings them together? How
>>do they commonly find solutions for the daily problems created by the
>>divison of labor? Do they see the possibilities, within this process, of
>>turning the cooperation around as a base of their own power against
>>3. Society
>>How do Call Center-workers relate their work to the reproduction of
>>society? What sense do they see in their work and the product in
>>connection with the reproduction and needs of society? What do they think
>>about the "sevice ideology"? How do they perceive themselves within the
>>development of society? How do they assess this development?
>>This relation between the perception of the own activity as combined
>>workers on one hand, and the reference to work and development on the
>>level of society on the other, reveals how the "desire for communism" is
>>practically expressed today.
>>4. Worker's discussion and organizing
>>We must capture the actual experiences of exploitation, the ongoing
>>discussions, conflicts and organizing attempts, we must criticize and
>>develope them further.
>>h) Strikes and struggles
>>What experiences of struggle do workers in Call Centers already have? What
>>revolutionary tendecies lay in these conflicts? What forms of organizing
>>appeared? We will, for example, investigate the conflict at Citibank in
>>Ruhrgebiet, Germany, where at the end of 1998 the workers began a strike
>>against the out-sourcing of a central Call Center and the resulting wage-
>>reduction and deterioration of other work conditions.
>>i) Worker's power and communism
>>We take Call Centers in order to analyse what basis for worker's power and
>>revolutionary self-organizing does exist. In discussion with workers we
>>have to find out which communist tendencies actually are being hidden or
>>lie behind the disgusting rhetoric of the "service- and information-
>>society". How do the workers acknowledge the fact that capitalist labor is
>>more and more expanding into all spheres of life? What do they think about
>>the increasing proletarization and dependency on labor, at the level of
>>society, that to us looks like the "service society"? Do they have ideas
>>of another type of social formation that does not make us new "servants"?
>>How do they assess the development of information technology which would
>>allow a cooperation of workers on a new level? What does it mean that
>>information can be transfered to all regions of the earth? That through
>>the development of the productive forces the contribution of an individual
>>worker to the creation of a product is less and less measureable and
>>apparent and that, therefore, the basis of capitalism gradually
>>disappears? Furthermore, do they see any chances to use the "information
>>technologys" in the class struggle against its capitalist applications and
>>in this way to overcome the separation of producers and production
>>knowledge as the basis of (the division of) labor?
>>4) Further steps and appeal
>>In the near future we will organize collectively the above listed steps of
>>the investigation (political discussion, analysis of information
>>materials, interviews with other workers etc.). We will draw up a more
>>detailed thesis which can serve as a basis for the worker's discussion and
>>for the decisions about an intervention.
>>We want you to take part in this debate and investigation - at best with
>>direct contacts and information. This paper is an appeal to intensify the
>>discussion on revolutionary organizing and to let collected material and
>>experiences circulate. You will find a questionnaire attached which you
>>can use in interviews with colleagues or comrades who work in Call
>>Pass this paper on to other collectives, write to and/or meet us!
>>Apart from German we can speak English, Polish an Turkish fluently. We are
>>also able to read French, Spanish and Italian contributions.
>>Nevertheless, you should write and circulate papers in English (or
>>German), if possible, because otherwise we would be overburdened with
>>We wish you passion and strength in the upcoming struggles!
>>Kollektiv in kommunistischer Bewegung - November 1999
>>C/o Archiv
>>Am Frderturm 27
>>46049 Oberhausen
>>e-mail: kolinko@koma.free.de
>>Questions for Call Center Workers
>>This questionnaire should enable us to analyze interviews with workers
>>from different Call Centers in several countries. Interviews, as part of
>>revolutionary investigation, are not an interrogation of workers in order
>>to collect facts. The questionnaire should be criticized and developed
>>further, together with the workers. Our aim is, that the interview will
>>become a discussion where we destroy the daily myths of the capitalist
>>production process and criticize the development of society. The
>>investigation will become part of the revolutionary process where it
>>manages to put forward the argument about capitalism, class struggle and
>>communism within the field of expoitation and where it becomes the
>>beginning of political self-organizing itself!
>>We indicated the decisive questions for the political discussion in bold,
>>the supplementary ones are not.
>>a) Company
>>1. In which company are you working?
>>2. To what sector does the company belong?
>>3. To which bigger trust does the company belong?
>>4. What is produced there or what kind of services are offered?
>>5. What function does the Call Center have in the company?
>>6. In which Call Center department are you working?
>>7. What other Call Center departments are there in the company?
>>8. When was the Call Center set up?
>>9. Did the company get state subsidies?
>>10. How many people are working altogether at the location or for the
>>11. Is the Call Center out-sourced or has it just been set up?
>>12. Were already existing Call Centers joined together?
>>13. What has changed through that concerning work conditions?
>>14. Was the same work you are doing in the Call Center done in other ways
>>15. Which work routines or technologies have changed through the set up of
>>the Call Center?
>>*16. Why do you think does this Call Center exist?*
>>17. What eyplanation does the management give about the question of why
>>the Call Center exists?
>>b) Region
>>18. Are there many Call Centers in your region?
>>19. In what sectors are they engaged?
>>*20. Why are they concentrated in your region?*
>>21. What do managers or politicians say about this?
>>22. Is there a training scheme for Call Center agents offered in your
>>23. Who is offering that?
>>24. Is the state employment office or social service agency putting
>>pressure on people to work in Call Centers or take part in the training
>>c) Workers
>>25. How many people work in the Call Center?
>>26. How many are female, how many are male?
>>27. How many immigrants work there?
>>28. Where do they come from?
>>29. How many are part-time workers, how many are full-time?
>>30. Has the proportion of part-timers and full-timers changed?
>>31. What various working time models exist there?
>>*32. In your opinion, what kind of people start working in Call Centers?*
>>*33. Why do they start working there?*
>>34. Do you think people in the Call Center come from similar backgrounds
>>and get along well, or do they differ from each other very much?
>>d) Job or profession
>>35. How long have you / the others worked there so far?
>>36. Did you / the others already work in other Call Centers?
>>37. Why did you / the others finish working there?
>>38. What did you / the others do or where did you work before that?
>>39. How did you find the Call Center-job?
>>40. Why did you / the others apply for the Call Center-job?
>>41. Do you / the others want to work there for a long time?
>>*42. Do you want to have another job within the Call Center?* (Which one
>>and why?)
>>e) Qualification
>>*43. What criteria did the management apply when hiring people?*
>>44. What kind of job training or skill did you already have before?
>>45. Does the management organize training to qualify workers?
>>46. How long does this training last?
>>*47. What is taught or what have you learned there?*
>>*48. What do you think about the training now, where you are working?*
>>*49. Did you have the necessary skills before or did you learn them "on*
>>*the job", while working at the Call Center?*
>>*50. Which skills does a Call Center-worker need, in your opinion?*
>>f) Methods of working
>>*51. When working on the telephone, which actions do you perform?*
>>*52. Who is giving you direct orders?*
>>53. Apart from those, who has a position superior to you?
>>54. With which technical devices are you working?
>>*55. Which functions do these devices have?*
>>56. Can you operate the devices properly?
>>57. Do you like working with the devices?
>>*58. What do you like about this work in general?*
>>*59. What do you dislike about it?*
>>g) Cooperation
>>*60. Are you working together, cooperatively, with other workers?*
>>61. In what way do you cooperate?
>>62. Do you have contact with other departments, branches or work sites?
>>63. Are these contacts important for the work?
>>64. How do you find the information you need?
>>65. Are you dealing with a call on you own or are you putting them through
>>to other departments as well?
>>h) Problems with the organization of work
>>*66. What kind of problems frequently come up concerning the organization*
>>*of work?*
>>67. Are there frequent failures of the technical equipment?
>>*68. In the case, where there are problems, how do you deal with them?*
>>69. What role does cooperation with your colleagues have in this context?
>>70. What role do the managers and supervisors have?
>>*71. Is it enough to follow the official work routines in order to manage*
>>*the work, or do you also have to fulfil other functions as well?*
>>*72. Have you been given additional work since you began?*
>>*73. How did you react to that?*
>>*74. In your opinion, who is organizing the work?*
>>*75. Is the organization of the work sensible?*
>>*76. Why not?*
>>*77. Why are there managers and supervisors?*
>>*78. In your opinion, why are there so many workers in one office in Call*
>>i) Work intensity
>>*79. How or what is determining the pace of work?*
>>80. At what rhythm are you being called or are you calling up?
>>81. Is the rhythm of the calls and your work speed determined by the
>>telephone equipment?
>>82. Is the rythm of calls leaving you time for talking to colleagues about
>>other things?
>>*83. What do you talk with them about?*
>>*84. How do you manage to make the work easier or to have unofficial*
>>*85. Do you think the job is stressful?* (What exactly is stressful about
>>86. How do you feel after a working day?
>>j) Control
>>*87. Are you being controlled and how?*
>>*88. Who is controlling you?*
>>*89. Why are you being controlled?*
>>90. Which criteria are being used in controlling you?
>>91. What happens if you are making serious mistakes or if you are not
>>following orders?
>>92. Does that happen often?
>>93. Are you managing to get around the controls?
>>94. Does it happen that people do something wrong deliberately in order to
>>have breaks or fool the supervisor?
>>k) Wage
>>95. How much do you earn?
>>96. Does everybody earn the same?
>>*97. Why not?*
>>98. Is there a wage scale or are there wage groups?
>>99. What criteria are used to get a pay raise?
>>100. Does the wage depend on performance?
>>101. Are you getting additional payments for certain working hours (at
>>night, on weekends...)?
>>102. How does management justify the wage differences?
>>*103. What do your collegues have to say concerning wages?*
>>l) Working hours
>>104. What does your contract say about your working hours?
>>105. Are you working overtime, special shifts, etc.?
>>106. How long does it take to get to work and back home?
>>107. What time does the Call Center open and close daily and how long do
>>people call up?
>>108. Is the Call Center open on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays?
>>109. What kind of shifts exist (e.g., early shift, night shifts only)?
>>110. How is the shift schedule made?
>>111. Do you have a say in that matter?
>>112. Are there work time accounts where you can (be forced to) accumulate
>>working hours and take time off later?
>>113. When do you have breaks?
>>114. Do the workers have breaks together?
>>115. Do you have additional breaks due to the fact that you are working in
>>front of computer screens?
>>116. How many days of vacation do you have?
>>*117. Are you satisfied with the working hours, the shift system etc.?*
>>*118. What is not satisfying to you about all that?*
>>m) Unions
>>119. Is there a negotiated collective agreement?
>>120. Does that cover only the location, the whole company or the sector?
>>121. What exactly is regulated there?
>>122. Who has signed it together with management?
>>123. Is there a works council (official worker representation body on the
>>company level)?
>>124. What is it doing?
>>125. Which union is active within the Call Center?
>>126. What is it doing?
>>*127. What do you / the other workers think about the union and the works*
>>*128. What do you expect of the union or the works council?*
>>n) Services
>>*129. What exactly is your service?*
>>*130. Why is this service getting "produced"?*
>>*131. Who has an interest in it?*
>>132. What significance does friendliness, customer oriented service etc.
>>*133. Do you consider your job as necessary for society?*
>>*134. What does the management have to say about that?*
>>*135. What do the other workers say about that?*
>>o) Conflicts
>>*136. While working, do you talk a lot about the problems in the Call*
>>*137. What are you talking about exactly?*
>>*138. Are / were there conflicts among the workers?*
>>*139. What was the problem and what happened?*
>>*140. Are / were there any bigger conflicts with the management?*
>>*141. What happened exactly?*
>>*142. Will there be (more) conflicts around the situation on the job?*
>>*143. Were you already threatened with out-sourcing or closure of the*
>>*Call Center?*
>>*144. What do you think about this threat?*
>>p) Discussion
>>*145. What is the difference between work in a Call Center and work in a*
>>*factory, other offices or in a hospital?*
>>*146. In the future, will more people work under conditions similar to*
>>*Call Centers?*
>>*147. Will there still be Call Centers in a few years?*
>>*148. What will change about the work conditions?*
>>*149. How do you imagine work and life will be in ten or twenty years?*
>>*150. Who will determine how the situation will be in ten or twenty*
>>*151. What do you think about the possibility of commonly organizing for*
>>*an improvement of the situation?*
>>*152. With whom would you organize?*
>>*153. What could you do to put through your demands?*
>>*154. What do you want to put through or change?*
>>q) Questionnaire
>>*155. What do you think about this questionnaire?*
>>*156. How can it be improved?*

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