There are now container loads of materials concerning call centres; their function and development. However, a lot of this stuff is produced by the call centre management themselves and is thus brightened up to keep the shares high. In this part we try to give a general overview:
4.1 Service hell, or a hell of a service? What is a call centre?
What are they?
Call centres are not an economic sector. They are a specific work organisation that is being used in diverse sectors. Roughly speaking, you could say call centre workers function as a human interface between a database (customer data files, product information, internet etc.) and a person calling in or being called. The workers are connected to the database by computer, and with the customer mostly by telephone, but also by fax or email.
In 'Inbound'- customers calling in - the worker has to supply the caller with the required information from the data base (balance of a bank account, technical advice...) or enter their information into the database and pass it on (ordering products...). In 'Outbound' - the worker is calling someone - the person called is being asked for information (market surveys...) or provided with information, mostly to sell something to him/her. Enabled by the headset (earphones plus microphone); telephoning and computer work are mostly done simultaneously.
With inbound, automatic call distribution systems pass on the calls directly to single workers. At some call centres; the connection between telephones and databases enables the workers to have the caller's costumer data automatically on the screen when welcoming them. At outbound there is software that can call costumers and automatically pass the call to the next available worker.
Call centres don't provide a new kind of service, but rather the work of sales staff, bank workers or insurance employees is being organised in a different way. This new form of work organisation results from a combination of:
* A greater division of labour; for example, the different tasks of a bank worker - providing information on the state of your bank account, consulting concerning investment and credits - are now divided between several call centre workers; and
* new technology; the growing standardisation of, for example, banking enables the use of computers, thus in turn speeding up this standardisation. The greater division of labour, plus the integration of computers and telecommunication devices, create the basis for the job to be done 'over the phone'.
Here are some examples to warm up with:
Ascend Communications have opened up a call centre at Sophia-Antipolis/Cote d'Azur, France. Here, customers from Europe, the Middle East and Africa receive services. (According to a company rep) the place was chosen because of more attractive and better conditions for the employees than in Paris or Brussels and because many foreigners with the necessary language abilities are living in the area. [Les centres d'appels attisent les convoities, L'Usine Nouvelle, 23rd of April, 1998]
Cegetel, offering telecommunications services, have installed a call centre in Toulouse, France. Up to 750 agents should be working there by mid 1999. Cegetel have invested 40 million FF (around 6 million Euros) and received 7.5 million FF (about 1.1 million Euros) subsidies from city and regional administrations. [Les centres d'appels attisent les convoities, L'Usine Nouvelle, 23rd of April, 1998]
EasyJet are selling their flight tickets directly through a call centre in Luton, England. Avoiding travel agencies has lowered their costs by ten percent. Calls from different countries are atomically passed on to the agents who speak the respective languages. At the moment, an 'internet-booking system' is being built up. Furthermore, they are experimenting with working from home to lower costs for call centres. [Clegg, Alicia: Coming in from the cold, Management Today, 1999]
Fastphone Telemarketing is running a call centre in Pasewalk, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Northeast Germany. 95 percent out of the 240 employees are working part time, usually between 5 and 7.5 hours a day, six days a week. Their monthly 110 hours vary up to 30 hours +/-, to be equalized in a year. The average age is 27. Wages before taxes were 10 DM (5 Euros) an hour in 1994, in 1998 around 11.5 DM (about 5.8 Euros). Due to a company agreement they receive 5 Pfennigs (about 2.5 Eurocent) extra pro call, which adds up to 80 DM (about 40 Euros) a month. [Gewerkschaftliche Praxis, no.1, February 1999]
Lufthansa reduced their former 211 call centres to 9, in order to raise productivity. The centres are situated in different time zones so they can take incoming calls around the clock (Dublin, Ireland; Kassel, Germany; Melbourne, Australia...). Thus, most of the employees are working the cheaper day shifts (no extra pay), which the workers also prefer. Two hundred people work in Dublin, speaking nine European languages. Amongst other tasks they provide flight information and booking. The call centres are interconnected with each other, so a call for which the respective language is not available at that moment can be automatically transphered to Kassel or a centre in the US. [Take-Off for Lufthansa's 200-Agent-Centre, Business and Finance, October 1998]
Volvo has call centres in Gand, Belgium and Rugby, England for the European customers of their truck, bus and ship departments. In Gand, every week seventy agents answer about 20,000 calls from sellers, importers and customers. Their 'breakdown-service' is supposed to guarantee that every customer with a technical problem will receive help within 24 hours. Following each call a file is written in English and passed on to the local or regional bases to enable support. Previously, all problems had to be solved inside the respective country. Today, the two call centres with six language groups deal with all the calls. [Le paysage des call centres cartographie, Bulletin des la FEB, June 1999]
Walter TeleMedien Gruppe, by their own account, is Germany's biggest company running call centres, in Ettlingen, Bremen and Magdeburg amongst others, 10 locations with 21 centres and 3,000 employees altogether. The group has 200 customers (e.g. Deutsche Bank, Allianz, Beiersdorf, Deutsche Telekom) in sectors such as insurance, credit, hotlines (product information), teleshopping, e-commerce. [Berliner Zeitung, 22nd of June, 1999]
In order to assess possible impacts of workers' struggles, we raise the question: what is the call centres' function in the accumulation of capital? It might for instance be decisive if a strike affects other workers beyond the limit of the respective company or if - apart from the company on strike - only 'private costumers' are affected. Inside a company, the question is if other departments or the whole production process are disturbed...
Most call centres are producing services for 'private costumers'. Then there are centres producing for other 'service firms'. It is hard to estimate how many companies use call centres directly related to the material production process - e.g. regulation of delivery or transportation.
Call centres are mainly active in the following sectors: banking and insurance, information technology and telecommunication sector, marketing/sales and market research. Here, the most important functions for the firms are: source of information (products, sales locations...), simple services (orders, money transfer...), customer services (after-sales service, guarantee...), sales, interviews (market research...). Inbound call centres make up eighty to ninety percent.
Furthermore, there are many companies specialising in software or interior designing for call centres, plus the usual financial advisors and qualification bodies.
It is easy to see: after the closures of giant factories and downsizing through out-sourcing; with call centres more workers are brought together under one roof again. Call centres with 200 or 300 mostly part-time employees are common.
Technically, workers could work at home in isolation. Some firms actually do have home workers and control them by means of software and communication technology. But despite these possibilities, why do call centres still rely on the concentration of a large number of workers in one room or building? Partly because of the necessity of the immediate cooperation of the workers. From experience, we can say that in most call centres a direct contact to other workers and 'superiors' is necessary to react to some customer inquiries or (technical) problems. In others direct communication between workers is hard, due to the number calls, noise and separating walls, but training and controlling workers still requires concentration in one office.
Age: Many call centre workers are young. There are differences, depending on sector and level of qualification, but overall two thirds of all call centre workers are younger than 35.
School education: The level of school (de)qualification in call centres is high: forty percent have got their A' levels and/or a university degree. However, one shouldn't conclude that these workers are performing 'skilled' jobs. On the contrary: following a study in 'service call centres' ('unskilled' market research work) students make up about 60 percent.
Gender: More than sixty percent of all call centre workers are women. In some branches they make up eighty to ninety percent, mainly in commerce, which means rather 'less qualified' jobs.
Hierarchy: There is a lot of drivel about 'horizontal' hierarchies in call centres. In most cases, there is one team-leader for every ten to fifteen telephone terrorists. Aside from the team-leaders there are also coaches, on top of that there are qualification managers and 'the management'.
Fluctuation: In the boom phase call centre bosses complained about the high rate of staff turnover. Rates of 30 to 40 percent were seen as 'normal'. This, too, is an international phenomenon: in Germany, Britain or Australia, similar figures are estimated. One of the reasons for this turnover is the composition, e.g. students tend to change their jobs more often. Also, workers might hope to find something better elsewhere. In Britain, turnover in full time jobs is higher than in part-time jobs.
Many call centres lost more than half of their new employees during their first year. On average, turnover is 23 percent a year. The sick rates show similarly disastrous picture. Nearly every third call centre has a sick rate between six and fifteen days per month. [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 7, 2000, commenting on the Hay Management Consultant Study, 1999]
Full/part time: The percentage of part-time workers in call centres comes to around fifty percent, which is relatively high. About twenty percent of the men work part-time and eighty percent of the women. The proportion of casual workers and those working below the benefit entitlement limit [geringfuegig Beschaeftigte] - comes to around ten percent, most of whom are women. The proportion of temporary workers is lower in in-house and higher in external call centres.
Shift work and weekend work: With the introduction of call centres the former 'white collar sector' can now enjoy the three-shifts per day pattern and other models of 'round-the-clock work'. More than eighty percent of call centre workers are working in shifts. Nearly three quarters of whom work between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. In many call centres working Saturdays and Sundays is normal.
Rates of pay: Wages differ depending on the type of call centre. In so called 'service sector call centres' you get less. In the Ruhrgebiet, average wages before tax are around 1,300 to 1,400 Euros for a full time job. This is relatively high when compared to other jobs in the 'service sector' (restaurants, cleaning...). The average wage before taxes for newly hired call centre workers in all Germany is about 1,500 Euros.
The cost of wages: The share of wages in relation to general costs (for the capitalist) is relatively high, at about 60 to 85 percent (compared to a car factory where it is three to five percent).
Many workers complain about physical consequences of stress on the job: Tinnitus, eye complaints, head or neck problems, too much strain on the voice, insomnia or irritability. When asked for the causes they name the high number of calls, long duration of calls, screen and shift work, but also the control by the technology and team leaders.
Despite repeated efforts of the unions ('call centre representatives', call centre 'rank and file groups'...) most of the call centres are 'non-unionised', exceptions being the 'in-house call centres' in the trade, banking and insurances sector. But even in the 'direct banking' sector union membership is estimated at around five to ten percent.
4.2 Don't believe the hype! The development of call centres
Forms of 'call centres' have existed for a long time, e.g. as telephone information services, writing offices or calculation offices. But we can see a real boom with corresponding management strategies, job descriptions and a public hype since the early / mid 1990s. In Germany, nearly 90 percent of the call centres were founded after 1991.
In 1997, thirty percent of companies in Germany were using call centre services. Two thirds of them had their own integrated call centres (in-house). The rest used external services. In the US, as early as 1995, around 80 percent of companies were using call centre services.
The Background to the Boom in Germany:
* Rationalisation in banking, trade, insurances: The old type of white-collar employee (long training periods, relatively high wages) came under pressure. For years, banks have been closing down branches, at the same time as the volume of business has increased. Consumers are expected to execute their transactions themselves using cash points (a.t.m.s). If you get a problem, you are always free to 'phone the call centre...'
* Rationalisation during the privatisation of telecommunication companies: Deutsche Telekom has outsourced whole departments and transformed others into call centres.
* Growth of the (mobile) telephone sector: In Germany, only around ten percent of people had a cellular phone in 1998, by 2000 that was about 30 percent, today the figures are higher than fifty percent. The price per call was lowered, free of charge 'service numbers' were introduced. The companies' expenses for telemarketing rocketed.
* Boom of the 'new economy': More hardware and software were sold, requiring customer advisory services (by telephone). Many specialised shops offering advice for technical problems ceased to exist. So now we have supermarkets selling PCs.
* A growth of (regional) state subsidies for 'new jobs': in the first phase, there were 'scandals' of companies grabbing up to 50,000 DM (25,750 Euros) per newly created job, whilst the average cost for a call centre workplace was around 15,000 DM (7,670 Euros).
In many sectors a 'technical recomposition' has taken place: especially in the banking sector the new work organisation of a call centre made it possible to attack the white collar employees' position. The tasks of a 'formally highly qualified' bank worker with several years of training are now executed by call centre workers, after two days of training, for about two thirds of the white collar wage and subject to much stricter controls as well as much higher workloads.
On a global scale, call centres are mainly located in Western Europe, the United States, and some countries in Asia. In the US, a few million people are said to be working in call centres, in Britain half a million, in countries like Germany, France and Australia between 150,000 and 250,000 each. Most of the figures are estimates, since call centres are not a sector of their own and so there are no exact figures available.
Until the late 1990s Britain and Ireland were the leading countries with call centres in Western Europe, mainly because of the language of the local workers: many multinational corporations opened up their call centres there in order to have access to workers with English as their first language.
Parallel to the regional concentration of call centres a kind of international call centre workforce developed: e.g. Italians first go to Ireland to work in a call centre there, then later work in Dutch call centres. These people are not so few and far between.
Regional concentrations also exist inside a country: e.g. in Germany Bremen, Hamburg, Ruhrgebiet, Saarland, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In Britain they are mainly concentrated in Scotland, Northern England, Wales and London.
Reasons for a regional concentration of call centres:
* Sufficient amount of workforce available (high unemployment; students);
* Pre-qualification through previous jobs in call centres or training at so-called 'call centre academies'
* State subsidies for 'structural adjustment' in certain regions - e.g. in Nordrhein-Westfalen in combination with a general permission to work on Sundays and bank holidays that started May 1998;
* Other 'technical' supplies (installations, maintenance of the technical equipment) or proximity of 'customers' (media companies, software industry).
Call centres prefer to settle in regions with high unemployment or university towns with many (multilingual) casual workers.
A call centre is easier to move than a steel mill or a mine. Calls can easily be transferred, which means the caller might not notice if they are talking to an English person in Leeds or Amsterdam. And telephone equipment is cheaper than a smelting furnace. Outsourcing works in different ways:
* All calls are answered or made by external call centre services [see glossary]
* Simple calls (information...) are dealt with externally whereas the internal call centre does, for example, sales calls or after-sale-advice
* An external call centre does special sales campaigns with better know-how for these kinds of calls
* The internal call centre is only available during the 'working week', in the rest of the week calls are passed on to an external call centre
* The internal call centre is over its limit because of too many calls, so all further calls - the overflow - get transferred to an external call centre.
We've seen all of these forms of outsourcing work for years. It is especially triggered by the rising and already relatively high wages in in-house call centres as well as in certain regional concentrations. Some examples:
* In the mid 1990s, British Airways shifted their call centre from South London to Glasgow, the main reason being the differences in wages
* Since the end of the 1990s, we hear of English and American companies having their calls answered in India, e.g. GE Capital (finances) or American Express (credit cards).
* In 2001, Atento in Spain (telecommunication), a Telefonica (Spanish Telecom) offspring, has planned to open up call centres in Morocco because apparently there are enough Spanish speaking people there.
* Similar tendencies in Germany: In 2000 the mail-order company Otto threatened to shift the Essen call centre to East Germany if the workers didn't agree to a 500 DM wage reduction.
* In turn we hear that in East Germany call centres settle in West Poland where many people speak German.
It is not always about regional outsourcing. In some cases out-sourcing to external firms will suffice for the capitalists. Here is an example of how workers are divided and put under pressure:
Hewlett Packard (computers, printers...) has built up a pyramid of internal and external call centre companies they use to - as the bosses put it - 'keep costs down'. The tasks of some of these call centres are coordinated in a central call centre for Europe, in Amsterdam. Certain departments are kept 'in-house' to get to know the customers' problems and questions (call centres are also a kind of ear for the company to find out what doesn't work, what's lacking with a product and so forth). Others are to provide a direct service for favourite customers who provide a lot of business. The rest gets out-sourced. In Amsterdam, this is done through the international call centre firms Sykes and Sitel, in Germany through Medion as well. Part of first level 'customer qualifying' has also been 'out-sourced'. In these call centres, the conditions are worse, controls stricter. First level 'agents' are required to keep every call shorter than ninety seconds. There is also a significant difference between the wages 'in-house' and 'outsourced'. The HP call centre workers in Amsterdam get about 30 percent more than those at Sykes performing basically more or less the same job one block down the road.
There has been a lot of ideological drivel concerning call centres. From the early to the mid 1990s, capital's representatives had been hectically searching for new ways to legitimise their system: consulting firms, university and economic research institutions, politicians and employers associations. Once again, they re-packaged capitalism as a 'service society' and emphasised how much we need call centres as a 'new kind of service'. This myth crumbles when workers and customers find out that this 'service' doesn't arise from new desires, but rather because it's the only way left: the opening of the call centre means the closure of the local branch. People are now working in shifts and cannot possibly go shopping during 'normal' opening hours, so they have to do their banking at night and by telephone. When buying technical devices, there are no experts left in the shops so you have got to call the hotline. But also those 'call centre agents' may not be able to help you sufficiently, and they themselves experience this kind of work as 'customer fobbing-off'.
So, new myths had to be created: new economy, information society. The problem with this new economy was that in the beginning it was limited to an exclusive part of the labour market: programmers, small entrepreneurs... hardly compatible to the masses. As a next step, call centres were sold as a kind of new economy for the unskilled: everyone has a personal computer, actually it's not really work you're performing but communication; the environment is modern and clean; call centres create new jobs for the rust belts and overcrowded university towns. It was not all just empty promises, often you had a real reason to quit the hairdresser and get yourself a job in a call centre. Nevertheless, even in the early phase the first contradictions showed up to question this picture of 'light work'.
Call centres were compared with 'battery farms' and 'communication assembly lines'. Such comparisons came from many workers' experiences: big noisy offices, piece rate per calls, general stress. The factory being out, call centres became the new playgrounds for old industrial sociologists and the creators of the brave new working world. Papers were written, titled 'Call centre: organisational interface between neo-taylorism and customer orientation'.
Job 'enrichment' and employee qualification become central demands of these criticisms. Not very imaginative, given the history of the call centres' development and the experiences of debates around 'humanising jobs' and 'team work' in the factories. Coloured screw-drivers, new coffee vending machines, flat screens or the 'team work' hype won't do anything about the principal tendency to exploit our labour power as efficiently as possible.
4.3 Boom, Boom, Bang! What about the crisis?
We don't yet have a precise picture of how the crisis will effect call centres. In 2000 they noisily announced growth rates of 20 to 25 percent a year. We can now state that this was just bosses' nonsense. Nowadays you hear more about bankruptcies, closures and lay-offs. The number of vacancies have decreased especially for better call centre jobs, for example in some banks or technical support. Some examples:
* End of November 2001, Deutsche Bank 24 announced the closure of their call centre in Duisburg-Rheinhausen. More than 200 workers got the sack.
* End of March 2002, British telecom announced 2,200 call centre workers being laid off. 53 out of 104 call centres are to be closed in the next two years.
* Mid April 2002, e-plus (mobile phones) announced the out-sourcing of their call centres, affecting 2,400 workers in Germany, probably getting laid off.
* Mid May 2002, Swisscom announced the closure of six call centres. 250 workers get the sack. By 2004, the remaining eleven call centres are to be reduced to two.
* Mid May 2002, Comdirect Bank AG announced further dismissals. Since the end of 2001, 200 jobs have been cut, at the moment 300 are on temporary contracts.
* In July 2002 Citibank announced the closure of its call centres in Aachen and Nordhorn with about 800 workers. Only between 200 and 300 will be re-located to the centralised call centre in Duisburg.
With the crisis developing, it's also getting harder to find a job. There's competition for the 'good' jobs, and today many companies prefer to hire through temporary agencies.
Reasons for the slump
* It is a consequence of the general crisis, especially in the 'new economy': for example, shortly after the announcement of the Kirch Media bankruptcy a call centre company working mainly for Kirch also announced its bankruptcy. Similar developments can be seen at AOL and HP, which are also cutting back on their call centres. The companies try to save money where it seems the easiest, i.e. in 'services'. This shows that service is, in many cases, just a by-product of the real production.
* Economic slump and the 'cleansing process' of increased competition: As a call centre service company manager put it in early 2002: 'The price for info-calls has gone down by up to 40 percent. With a price per minute at around 30 to 40 cents for customer service calls, call centres are hardly able to make profits.' He mainly blamed it on the competition from 'cheaper offers' abroad...
* Lay-offs through making labour power superfluous by the introduction of new technologies: In some fields, they recently experimented with speech recognition computers and Internet communication. Simple tasks like receiving mail-orders or handing out information on a person's bank account are already partly executed by means of these technologies. As early as 1999 union reps claimed that in the years to come tens of thousands of jobs would be lost this way. It would be the same development as with the telephone operators after the introduction of relays or the accountants in the big offices after the introduction of computers...
The future of call centres is not yet clear. Nearly all medium-sized and large companies in the capitalist metropoles have moved certain tasks to in-house or external call centres. Furthermore, other fields of office work are shifting to call centres, e.g. parts of public administration. Some broad development towards a further division of labour is possible with call centres taking all direct 'customer contacts' (front office) and specialised workers analysing and making decisions (back office). At the same time, technologies are being further developed and introduced to intensify the work: software for simultaneously dealing with inbound and outbound calls, integration of different data bases, standardisation of data input masks... The automation of certain steps in the work process - e.g. 'qualifying customers' - will lead to lay-offs in certain fields. Elsewhere, the combination of different media - telephone, fax, e-mail - will lead to bigger workloads. Taylorising communication will affect all areas of office work.
The extraction of surplus labour in taylorised offices will create different work processes: dealing with orders on a 'mass' level as well as 'creative' customer services or 'intelligent' solutions to technical problems. Varied forms of cooperation will still exist: with other workers in the call centre, over the telephone with workers outside the call centre etc.
Call centre bosses will still depend on continually getting new workers into their call centres because:
* In many call centres; working over a long period of time is just unbearable
* After some months of working there, most of the call centre workers will have learned enough tricks to slow work down, take breaks etc.