7000 JobCentre Plus telephonists began a 24 hour national strike this morning. They are demanding improvements in working conditions, especially an end to the target-driven culture in their contact centres.

PCS picket

one striker, explained:

“There is a target for everything – time talking to customers, time not talking to customers, toilet breaks. You only get 12 minutes break in your 8 hour day. You get the same 16 minutes to deal with a caller who’s got a broke finger as someone with terminal cancer. It’s just wrong – not customer service driven at all.”

JobCentre Plus management’s refusal to engage in negotiations with the PCS – over the twin issues of target-limited service quality and pressurised working conditions made progressively worse by a recruitment freeze – left Contact Centre Staff with no choice but to strike.

“You’re effectively chained to your machine”, one contact centre worker told me, standing next to a PCS official dispute placard at the entrance to the car park.

“You are under pressure all the time. You spend more time concentrating on the clock than you do the customer”, added another striker. “They’re trying to get more work out of less staff, people who consistently don’t meet the targets get fired. In Newcastle we have the highest number of contact centre staff on the long term sick due to the working conditions”.

Good turnouts for the strike are reported across all 37 of Britain’s JobCentre Plus contact centres. In Newcastle, only 30 out of 220 contact centre staff opted to cross the picket line.

Many of the strikers were inspired by the historic March for the Alternative on 26 March. One told me: “It’s less about the immediate effect of the march on government policy, and more about he effect of the march on the people who attended or saw it. It encouraged people to think that it is possible to stop the cuts”.

PCS picketsThose picketing in Newcastle this morning were in no doubt as to the cause of their, and their callers, misery. As one striker told me:

“Benefits fraudsters are a tiny part of the problem. Rather if they simply collected the billions of pounds worth of tax that gets uncollected, or evaded by millionaires and big companies, the cuts wouldn’t need to happen”.

Research funded by PCS has estimated that the treasury misses out on more than £120bn worth of tax per year- approximately £25 billion is lost annually in tax avoidance, a further £70 billion in tax evasion by large companies and wealthy individuals, with an additional £26 billion going uncollected.

“The last government was bad, this one’s even worse”, one of the pickets told me, while handing out flyers to the administration staff who are not directly involved in the dispute. “ We want more time for breaks and to spend on the phone with customers. We need to employ more people at HMRC in order to collect the uncollected tax. We need a lot stricter rules on tax dodging companies like Vodafone”.

At the 26 March rally in Hyde Park Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said “At least half a million people marched today for the alternative, now we must be prepared to strike for the alternative”.

After national strike action by civil servants last year against the planned cuts to their redundancy scheme, and today’s strike, PCS can clearly play a major role in leading workplace resistance to cuts. We will need co-ordinated strikes by PCS and other unions to take forward the fight to stop cuts, job losses and worsening conditions for workers.