openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Revealed: Thousands at risk from COVID-19 in ‘dangerous’ UK call centres

Labour and Lib Dems urge government to stop firms playing ‘Russian roulette’ with workers’ lives – as ‘harrowing stories’ emerge from new research

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Adam Ramsay Caroline Molloy
30 April 2020, 5.03pm
Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images

Thousands of low-paid call-centre workers are still being forced to work in ‘dangerous’ jobs – even in centres where colleagues have already died or fallen ill with coronavirus, according to new research seen by openDemocracy. 

Labour Shadow Minister for Employment Rights Andy McDonald has described the new findings as “deeply concerning”, and Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran has demanded the government urgently clarify whether laws allow unsafe premises to remain open in England.

Researchers at Strathclyde University, who surveyed 2,700 call centre workers, told openDemocracy about “harrowing stories of death... and illness” from respondents, and reported that “huge numbers of call handlers are justifiably fearful”. 

While 52% of survey respondents had been classed as “essential or emergency” workers by their bosses, fewer than one in five believed that their role was in fact essential or emergency. Meanwhile 78% of respondents expressed fear that they would catch Covid-19. 

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Call centre workers have been designated ‘key workers’ under the government’s lockdown guidance. However MPs are now calling for the government to close loopholes in England which allow dangerous or unnecessary workplaces to remain open.

In Scotland and Wales emergency laws enforce social distancing measures at work, and the Scottish government has instructed a wider range of non-essential workplaces (such as most construction sites) to close. 

But in England, there are no new laws requiring bosses to comply with social distancing guidelines, nor to close many non-essential workplaces.

The Strathclyde University survey, which included workers at a number of major telecoms and financial services businesses, has been described by Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, as “grim reading”. 

She added: “Bosses who refuse to take steps to protect their workforces should be prosecuted.”

Professor Philip Taylor, who led the research, told openDemocracy of receiving phonecalls from workers in one call centre where a staff member has already died of COVID-19, and two more are in intensive care.

Meanwhile Dominic Hook, who organises financial and legal sector workers at the trade union Unite, told openDemocracy that numerous cases of coronavirus deaths have been reported to him by call centre workers.

Transcripts of interviews seen by openDemocracy show that many of the workers surveyed do not understand why they are being required to keep working. “I do low value personal injury and property damage claims – how could I possibly be an essential worker?” one respondent asked, adding: “It seems like they are exploiting the system, I am disgusted.” 

Many of the interviews show workers afraid of contracting coronavirus after being forced to show up for work. “I’m 58 and have high blood pressure,” said one respondent who sells small investment products. “I just don't want to die for £9.30 an hour.”

‘‘Only a few months ago I was ‘low skilled'’’

Many respondents expressed cynicism about the reasons they were being required to work.

“I'm going to work during a national lockdown as I am now described by the government as ‘essential’ when only a few months ago I was ‘low skilled’... it's a joke,” said one respondent. 

A number also described dealing with queries they could do nothing about because other parts of the economy had shut down. Many said they had little or no work, but were still being made to come in, describing being assigned non-urgent tasks such as “tidying up spreadsheets” and “admin work from 8 years ago”.

“All we are saying to customers is ‘I am sorry your engineer cannot come out to your property due to the virus’. We are not actually helping people with necessary issues at this moment,” said one respondent.

“I have spoken with no vulnerable customers, and I haven't helped anyone with their service,” added another.

Others expressed frustration at being asked to defend the behaviour of their employers. “Customers call up distressed because we have cut off their phone and they need to contact vulnerable family members,” said one. “I have cried and had to leave my desk because I felt so ashamed that we had barred their phone”.

The research also indicates that people with underlying health conditions, whom the NHS has deemed at ‘high risk’ from coronavirus, are continuing to show up for work.

“We are scared,” one respondent said. “There are people who fall in the 12 week [‘high risk’]  isolation bracket who are being told to come into work.”

Another said: “They’re playing Russian roulette with our lives”. 

‘Invisible front line’

Professor Taylor at Strathclyde University said: “Call centre workers work on a largely invisible front line, many now providing essential services – but many not.”

“Hidden from public view too are the serious hazards that so very many are now facing from potential exposure to Covid-19.”

“Even where social distancing is in place it is virtually impossible to implement effectively – and profound concerns exist over sanitisation and cleanliness; most acutely manifest in that perennial bugbear of hot desking.” 

“Combining these hazards with air conditioning systems in sealed buildings circulating re-used air leads huge numbers of call-handlers to be justifiably fearful.”

He added that most call centre work could be done from home, but few firms have adopted this. “There is some best practice where organisations have been seriously committed to making their workers secure through homeworking,” he said, urging that these measures be “widely emulated”. 

‘Urgent letter’ to the Business Secretary

Responding to this research, Liberal Democracy leadership contender Layla Moran has written to Business Secretary Alok Sharma. In a letter seen by openDemocracy, the Oxford West MP asks:

"What action is being taken by the government to protect call centre workers"; "what sanctions has the government introduced for those companies which fail to follow social distancing guidelines in such premises?" and "Will you commit to looking specifically at the question of call centres and their workers and what can be done to stop them becoming major centres of transmission?".

Shadow worker rights minister Andy McDonald said: “The government's guidance must be strictly implemented and enforced, in the interests of workers' safety and to protect public health”. He called for union representatives to be involved to ensure “workplaces are safe to work in now and when we emerge from this crisis."

Labour MP Clive Lewis MP also commented on the survey, saying: “This research demonstrates what many call centre workers already knew: that many work for companies with little regard for their well being.” 

“Hardly surprising in a sector where major trade unions to this day still campaign ‘for easy access to drinking water’ for call centre staff, where ‘surveillance capitalism’ in the form of software programs monitor everything from toilet breaks to time spent on a call.” 

“This government should give the health and safety executive real teeth and real resources to close any non-essential operations down and force them to furlough their workers on full pay. Anything less fails to take the COVID-19 threat seriously.”

Responding to questions from openDemocracy about unsafe workplaces, a UK government spokesman said there was no intention to follow the Welsh and Scottish government’s example to legislate to enforce social distancing at work, and that “there is no guidance that implies only essential work can continue.”

“I imagine that there will be a number of legal cases when this is all over”, he added.

The Strathclyde University research is ongoing. Any call centre workers can complete the survey here

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