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Working the Phones, based on first-hand experience of work in today’s call centres, underlines the need for unionisation and politicisation, argues George Barratt

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Jamie Woodcock, Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres (Pluto Press 2017), vi, 200pp.

Working the Phones is the popularisation of Jamie Woodcock’s doctoral thesis on employment in call centres in the UK. It appears to be the first left-oriented exploration of work in this sector of the UK’s service industries. Although it is essentially a case study based on participant observation, it casts a spotlight on the problems of precarious employment in the white-collar proletariat during the neoliberal phase of late capitalism.

Most of the book is about the problems of the job. This consists of making cold calls to sell insurance to unwilling people under conditions of constant management surveillance. Working life is made unpleasant by the bombardment of constant computer allocated telephone calls. The number of calls for each worker is electronically monitored and displayed on large VDU screens, along with the number of successful sales. There is a white-shirt and black-shoe dress code, and it is prohibited to hang a jacket on the back of a chair. There are also petty restrictions on toilet breaks. An enthusiastic performance is demanded from the worker with the management slogan, ‘happy people sell, miserable bastards don’t’.

Call centres emerged in the UK during the Thatcher period of the 1980s. BT was privatised in 1984 and the 1986 Financial and Building Society Act accelerated the merging of the banking, financial and insurance services. Computer technology supplied the automatic telephone-call distributor, the logging of worker performance, and the large visual-display units which showed the workload of each employee. The cold-caller works from a script. There is complete control of the work process following the ‘scientific management’ theories of the management guru, Frederick Taylor.

But the slaves of the telephone head-set resist the limits imposed by management and computer technology. Work is avoided by stretching out the tea breaks and the morale-raising ‘buzz sessions’ with supervisors, or else taking a ‘sickie’. Finally, there is a high turnover of staff because the young and mainly female workforce just get fed up and leave. Because the work is so temporary, there is no core of workers providing a basis for trade-union organisation. Indeed, the contract of employment discourages such organisation by stating that the job is not subject to the provisions of any collective agreement.

Of course, the trade unions themselves have been subjected to a sustained attack by successive Tory governments since 1979. Labour markets have been de-regulated, and a low-wage, low-skill economy has been promoted as a means of attracting inward investment. Competitive tendering and internal markets have been introduced in the public sector. There has also been a continuing legislative assault on trade-union organisation, employment rights, and collective bargaining. The result of all these factors is a severe deterioration in pay and working conditions.

Because the book originated as a PhD thesis, there is a theoretical framework with references to the relevant literature. The starting point is that in 1880, Marx called for an inquiry to ascertain what French workers actually thought about their working conditions. Within the international Trotskyist movement after World War Two, there was an attempt to rethink Marxist industrial strategy in modern working conditions. In Italy in the 1950s, industrial disputes in the FIAT factory in Turin gave rise to similar demands for a sociology of industry ‘from below’.

Woodcock calls for an inquiry into working conditions under the current neoliberal economic regime with precarious employment and advanced technological methods of surveillance and control. He discusses the instances of spontaneous and individual resistance to an oppressive working regime in his workplace, but the problem remains of how activists can transform this into an organised movement. In the UK, there is now a large, but unorganised white-collar proletariat in call centres, fast food and retail services. How can these workers be organised into trade unions and radical politics?

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