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End of the line: surveillance, precarity and resistance in the call centre

I spent six months undercover in call centres, researching how workers are subject to constant watch, psychological pressure, and what they do to resist. This is what I discovered.

Listen to a recorded audio version of this article on curio.io.

Pexels/Negative Space. Some rights reserved. Pexels/Negative Space. Some rights reserved.Most of us only get a glimpse into call centres when we are bothered by cold callers, or perhaps through something like the recent BBC television series The Call Centre. But we rarely understand what the work is actually like, or get any sense of workers’ agency in these conditions.

There is no call centre in the world that would willingly let a critical researcher in to study the conditions of work. Even if they did, it is unlikely you would get an accurate picture of how the work is organised. So while writing up my PhD on casualised and precarious work, I took the decision to find work in a call centre myself, and enter undercover.

The first step was signing up to a job website and letting the process – one that many other people undertake – lead me to a call centre. After leaving a telephone message, I was invited in for an interview, and started work only a few days later.

On the first day I discovered I would be selling insurance. But in many ways, the product itself does not matter – so long as you have the script to work from.

After a few days of training we started making calls. On an average shift I would make 300 to 400 phone calls, trying to convince people to take out an insurance policy over the phone. The act of closing a sale over the phone requires a constant pressure to ‘smile down the phone’: the demand to constantly perform positive emotions with only your voice, often despite the reactions on the phone. Meanwhile, the automated dialling system creates an ‘assembly line in the head’, with the next call only five seconds away.

After my first shift, I discussed how hard it was to make a sale with my new colleagues – we all agreed we would never give out our bank details over the phone to someone who called us to sell insurance. So we had to find ways to use our personalities and emotions to convince people to buy. It was a complicated, skilled, and psychologically draining process.

It was a complicated, skilled, and psychologically draining process.

I spent six months working in call centres for my book, Working the Phones. This kind of ethnography used to be more common in sociology, but is becoming increasingly harder to do, particularly as ethics boards become more concerned with litigation and academics face the pressure of the ‘impact agenda.’

Up until the late 1980s, there was a vibrant tradition of sociological research into work. This produced detailed ethnographic studies like: Michael Burawoy’s Manufacturing Consent, Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford, Anna Pollert’s Girls, Wives, Factory Lives, and Ruth Cavendish’s Women on the Line. These offered important insights into the changes at work, an activity that most of us will still spend most of our lives doing.

Taking this inspiration, my approach drew on the traditions of workers’ inquiry. This critical Marxist methodology seeks to understand work from the perspective of workers themselves, drawing them into a process of knowledge creation and organisation. I decided to explore call centres, as they have become typical of post-industrialisation – along with the popular notion that these are difficult, stressful, and precarious workplaces.

There were constant pressures and surveillance in the call centres I worked in. Every action you took was logged and timed, every call was permanently recorded and could be replayed at a moment’s notice.

This electronic surveillance was combined with the setting of targets at almost every opportunity. Each shift started with a “buzz session” which went over targets. These were written on whiteboards scattered around the office, displayed real-time on a widescreen TV hanging from the ceiling, and discussed each week in one-to-one meetings.

Flickr/Rajesh Pamnani. Some rights reserved. Flickr/Rajesh Pamnani. Some rights reserved.Over the weeks and months that followed, I worked alongside a wide variety of people, many of whom left the call centre before I did. Turnover, like many call centres, was very high – with workers leaving (sometimes mid-shift) when they could no longer stand the conditions.

At first there did not seem to be obvious signs of workplace resistance – other than this refusal of work – but a variety of practices became clearer the longer I stayed. The stress and challenging nature of the work meant acts of resistance became a coping strategy.

The most common was an attempt to increase the amount of time off the phones – whether in the “buzz sessions”, on breaks, or during the shift itself. At times these could be individual, but the most successful involved taking collective action, for example, each taking turns to ask questions in the “buzz session” to ensure it carried on longer than planned.

These small moments may not seem that important, but they were the first acts of refusal. They catalysed workers’ opposition with management, with small conflicts bringing workers together. The emergence of these from the nature of the work itself provides the basis for more sustained organising.

As a researcher – and not reliant on the work as my sole basis of income – I was careful not to lead the meetings or push for things that others would not have suggested. However, simply by being in the call centre, I was making an intervention; by not taking part in the resistance I would likely have been shunned.

I spoke to the people I worked with about my research, which was mainly met with the question: why would you choose to study call centres? The offer to share things that I had written was declined. Instead we talked through ideas and arguments for the book, collectively thinking through our experiences in the call centre.

The discussions about organising in precarious work were particularly useful. For one of my co-workers, the closest analogy they could find to joining a trade union was that it would be like joining ‘Dumbledore’s Army’, from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Despite this lack of conventional trade union traditions, they enthusiastically engaged in organising – something that hopefully they, along with others we organised alongside, took with them to future workplaces.

This was my attempt to move the inquiry ‘from above’ – being an outsider to the workplace – to one ‘from below’: a form of co-research discussed by the Italian Workerists. However, this was limited by the high turnover in the call centre, resulting in the most active (at least in terms of resistance) workers leaving.

After six months in the call centre, writing about call centres during the day and working in them in the evening had taken its toll. I no longer wanted to use the phone, either inside or outside of work, and keenly felt the pressures of meeting increasingly difficult targets. I had fallen into a routine of eating beans on toast when I arrived home from a shift, and going to sleep on the sofa. Like my colleagues – all of those I had started with had already left by this point – I had come to the end of the line.

I had come to the end of the line.

I have written up my experiences, and those of others I met along the way, in Working the Phones. Rather than finding the unorganisable workplaces that call centres are often portrayed as, the inquiry uncovered a site of resistance. The predominantly young workers, despite lacking traditions of trade unionism, were political.

The high turnover is an expression of their active refusal of work – something which can be turned into precarious workplace organisation. New forms of resistance to work, whether in call centres or the gig economy, will come from the labour process and how the work itself is organised.

In Working the Phones, I want to offer an important starting point for understanding the conditions of work: either gaining access through ethnography or finding new ways to give voice to those in the workplace. This is just one insight into a particular kind of precarious workplace, and we need more of these studies – either where we work ourselves or in the transformed workplaces of contemporary capitalism. As Marx originally argued in his call for a workers’ inquiry, workers…

“…alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer, and that only they, and not saviours sent by Providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills to which they are a prey.”

Listen to a recorded audio version of this article courtesy of curio.io.

About the author

Jamie Woodcock is a fellow at the LSE and author of Working The Phones. His current research focuses on the digital economy and the transformation of work. Follow him on Twitter: @jamie_woodcock.

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