kolinko | 11/1999|
Proposal for an inquiry in Call Centers
With this letter and questionnaire we propose a collective inquiry into the state of exploitation in Call Centers. Furthermore we want to contribute to a renewed and general debate of the aims and tasks of revolutionaries. We ask you to send us your critique of our questions and propositions and to take part in the investigation through information and contacts from your region.
In the first part of this letter we briefly present our political starting point. In the second part, we explain why we start with an analysis of Call Centers in our region. You will find our original questions and first propositions in the third part. In the fourth we make proposals for further discussion and the exchange of experiences. The questionnaire for interviews with Call Center-workers is at the end.
1. Who we are: Kolinko
We want to bring an end to capitalism because it transforms our lives into everyday labor and scarcity. Because, in capitalism, produced wealth only increases capital and otherwise creates poverty. Because the development of the social forces and technological opportunities in capitalism do not lead to liberation from drudgery but to increased exploitation and crisis.
In order to contribute to the over-coming of the current blockade in the world-wide class struggle we need to search for the material basis of liberation in the daily movement of the exploited within the capitalist production process. In the context of the world wide expansion of production chains, the migration of workers and the circulation of their experiences, the new organisation of labor and machinery creates anger, strength and the organizing of a new class composition. There, and not in the principles of political organizations, developes communism as a movement.
We neither want to organize Call Center-workers in union groups nor create new types of mediation. We are looking for the revolutionary tendencies, for worker's power and the desire for communism. We want to strengthen the forces of self-organizing and self-liberation. Therefore, we act collectively within this exploitation - some of us currently work in Call Centers - and propose this inquiry.
2. Why an inquiry in Call Centers?
Bosses, politicians and unions leaders agree that the boom of service industries and the new information technologies can lead capitalism out of crisis. Of central importance is the expansion of electronic data processing through telephone and computer-nets.
They use Call Centers as an example to discuss the future of labor. The capitalist management declares that the work in Call Centers - due to its flexibility - should be seen as a general example of "modern labor". Representatives of the state emphasize that Call Centers create jobs for people who otherwise had few chances in the labor market. Bourgeois sociologists take Call Centers as the best example of new forms of labor in the "society of service and information".
Unions criticize Call Centers as unproductive sponges of subsidies or new forms of precarious labor relations without regulated standards. They try to get a foot in the door through increased organizing efforts, also in order to make up for their crisis as representing bodies for the workers in other areas and to introduce or defend "bargaining achievements".
Whatever the interest may be, they produce different myths in order to justify their hopes for changes within the boundaries of capitalism.
We have to destroy the capitalist myths and investigate the real tendencies of exploitation behind them. Taking the development of the information technology, we have to make clear that capital (as a class) does not have any power of innovation. It can only confront us as a power as long as we do not recognize that we ourselves - and not capital - develope the productive forces through our increased social cooperation. Furthermore, we have to emphasize that increased productivity offers no escape from capitalist crisis but instead reproduces and aggravates it. After all capital (as value) can only increase itself by exploiting human labor. Therefore, the "achievements" of information technology, increased productivity and reduced utilization of human labor, lead to greater (!) amounts of drudgery in Call Centers or in the assembly of circuit boards.
We have started this inquiry in Call Centers because workers are re-concentrated there, with an organization of labor of a different type. Therefore, they could possibly become a central focus of struggles of a new type of worker. Particularly in our region, capital is pulling more labor force into Call Centers than into any other industry. We know that many Call Centers are being built in other European regions too, and that workers from Dublin to Lisbon will have similar experiences in them. We see a chance here to investigate the development on a European or worldwide level. This can be a first step towards understanding the whole process of re-composition of the working class.
We want to attack the question of whether there is a broader tendency of capitalist development and the possibilities for communism behind this formation of a new type of worker.
3. Questions and propositions for the inquiry
Revolutionary inquiry has to attack on several levels. Its starting point is an analysis of the laws of motion and contradictions of capitalist development. We need a sharp view if we want to open up a way through the jungle of details, statistics and the propaganda of Call Center management, making our own experiences as human answering machines at the same time. Against this background our interviews and discussions with other callboys and -girls will address the question of the formation of a new worker's subjectivity. This is a process which will lead us along the way to the focus point of a revolutionary intervention.
We use the following framework of questions and propositions as a first reference point for our inquiry. For you, it should be an instigation to your own contributions:
a) Cycle of accumulation
What significance do Call Centers have in the whole cycle of accumulation of capital in a society? The position and function, within the process of accumulation, is important for an accurate distinction between different Call Centers.
Most Call Centers are situated in the circulation process of capital. In the case that Call Centers contribute to an acceleration of the turnover time of capital in the money- and commodity-form, does that counteract the tendency of the the rate of profit to fall?
Other Call Centers act as the interface in the organization of supplies and transport and therefore are part of the direct production process. What effect does out-sourcing of coordination functions, from the old planning apparatus of capital, have on the whole process of production and the composition and conditions of workers?
Against the myth of "information capital" without crisis, we have to ask whether call centers are not just a special expression of the crisis of capital which must escape into "non-productive" areas of low organic composition of capital, due to the increased productivity and high organic composition of capital in factories.
This leads to the question of whether many Call Centers are just state-subsidized machines for job-creation and re-composition in de-industrialized regions, or just ways of publicizing the service orientation of big companies? Will they remain, without their own "profitability" and historical significance, for the reproduction of capital?
The understanding of the function of Call Centers within capitalist development is important for the discussion with other workers, in order to make clear that their appearance is not due to a "natural process", but to specific exploitative and contradictory relations of production. The significance of Call Centers in the process of accumulation is an important factor for the possible development of worker's power!
1. Obviously capital concentrates Call Centers in certain regions. Which strategies of capital and the state lie behind this? Call Centers functions as a "revolving door" through which masses of pupils, students, "housewifes", "unemployed", young workers and "precarious" employees are sent. How does this mobilization effect the regional labor market?
2. What kind of material reasons (apart from the state subsidies) are behind the regional concentration of Call Centers? The existence of certain sectors that depend on flexible and network-based communication work can be a reason, as well as the existence of a Call Center proletariat, which has specific skills that can be exploited. What are the reasons for the concentration of call centers in countries like Ireland?
What is especially interesting to us is where we find parallel developments in class struggle and whether there is an exchange of worker's experiences that we can support.
c) Composition of capital
Does the outsourcing and re-concentration of certain "office jobs" in Call Centers include a change in the composition of capital? Has the relation of constant capital (machinery, buildings etc.) and variable capital (labor power) changed profoundly? In which sectors do Call Centers work have a "rationalizing" function? A first thesis is, especially in the banking sector, that the rhetoric of service- and customer-orientation is used to conceal that the creation of call centers is just a step in the transition to a broader restructuring and re-composition as an attack against workers (rationalization of customer care, "taylorization" of office work, attack on the negotiated standards of branch-workers, deskilling, conversion to electronic commerce).
d) Technical class composition
At first sight it is obvious that a predominately young, mobile and female labor force is being exploited in Call Centers, often for short periods. Capital has difficulties in urging and manipulating the necessary social qualifications of this labor force (abilities in stress-handling, communication etc.) into a certain formal profession.
According to our experiences so far, capitalist management has not really got a clue about how to organize the complex work flow in Call Centers. It depends on the self qualification of workers within the work process. Will management be able to appropriate this worker's knowledge? Can it use this knowledge, claim it as its own, and use it to confront the labor force with an image of a new profession? There is a trend towards standardization in the training of bank- and administration-workers in Call Centers. This is possible because of the technical devices for the distribution of information. Therefore, the training periods can be shortened, which is a necessary condition for the accelerated rotation of the labor force and the reason for an increasing "proletarization" of the employees.
The majority of Call Centers do not ask for "specific" qualifications. In the ordering department, you find mostly women working for especially low wages. In other Call Centers male technicians answer, for example, questions about complex problems in computer programming. The sexual division of labor is maintained here, while it apparently is falling apart in many other Call Centers.
We must investigate whether the different conditions lead to common behavior by the exploited. Where do new possibilities for collective struggles develope?
e) Organization of labor
The often mentioned spacial "atomization" of the labor force through information technology has not taken place in call centers. On the contrary, new concentrations of workers were created. We have to find out why capital counts on these concentrations although it knows the dangers.
One question is whether the expenses for constant capital can be lowered through the concentration of workers. More important is, whether capital depends on the (informal) cooperation of workers in order to keep the technical apparatus going and make the work flow more productive - in comparision with what is possible with a spacially isolated work force.
2. Division of labor and cooperation
Are Call Center workers part of a divided work process that goes beyond the Call Center (i.e. not only speaking to "private customers" but, for example, getting and passing information or organizing the transport of supplies and materials)?
Is there a division of labor and a cooperation within the call center and how is it organized? Here we have to distinguish between the "official" cooperation (after instruction) through the organization of the work process and the "informal" cooperation (improvised) which is organized by the workers themselves.
These questions are important because they lead us to the dependence of capital on the labor force and therefore allow us to understand the power of possible organized worker's struggle.
Is telephone- and computer-equipment capitalist machinery? Any call center worker can tell how the means of production represent means of controlling their work at the same time, that calls are statistically analyzed and monitored. Do the technical devices mediate the cooperation between workers and therefore can they be presented as the power of capital?
How can capital appropriate the knowledge of the workers and use it for the further technical development of the machinery? In many Call Centers the workers are just human interfaces between the telephone- and the computer-system. Can they technically be replaced by the expansion of the internet and voice response systems?
As revolutionaries we have to investigate how the workers use their means of production as well in order to gain a certain control over the work process and whether it is possible to appropriate the means of production as a weapon and organizing tool in struggles (e.g., the intranet as a "virtual strike committee").
At first sight there are only a few hierarchical levels in Call Centers due to the minimal division of labor and small differences in skill. Which ways does capital have to establish a hierarchy in order to instigate divisions and give incentives for promotions (e.g. the difference in seniority, work contracts, working hours like part-time and full-time and therefore wage differences).
In factories, capitalist management has to explain the hierarchy by pointing at the production process and the necessity of having to organize it. How does the hierarchy gets legitimized in Call Centers? Which "productive" and control functions does it fulfil?
Which role do works councils and unions play within the capitalist order? What difficulties or interests do they have in organizing the labor force, which due to its mobility is hard to represent through union structures (based on professional categories)? No wonder that the union mobilizations in Call Centers present themselves as coming from the rank and file and often (have to) pretend to be "workers self-organizing".
5. Working hours and wages
Call Centers are seen as experimental fields for developing models of working hours and wages. With Call Centers shift- and Sunday-work is being expanded into the "white collar-sector". The standardization of work routines and the therefore possible assessment of individual work performance paves the way for the introduction of "piece-wage", like in factories, into office work. We know that there are conflicts between managements and workers around these issues. We have to analyze them 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 capital?
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 inquiry (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 inquiry - 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 Centers.
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 translations.
We wish you passion and strength in the upcoming struggles!