Calling for decent jobs

More than 1 million people work in call centers in the UK alone--but such low-paid, unorganized, casual jobs are increasingly common in advanced industrial countries around the globe, including the U.S.

Jamie Woodcock is the author of a new book, Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, an insider's account of work in a call center in Britain. Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal spoke to Woodcock about his reasons for writing the book, opportunities for new organizing and the future of work, in an interview originally published in the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century magazine based in the UK.

A call center office in Lakeland, Florida (Petiatil | Wikimedia Commons)A call center office in Lakeland, Florida (Petiatil | Wikimedia Commons)

A MILLION people in the UK alone now work in call centers, and it's a huge worldwide industry. Why do you think it's important for us to get to grips with what's going on inside these workplaces in particular?

THE DECISION wasn't so much because I wanted to study call centers--I wanted to look at low-paid casual work. If you try and get a casual job in London every agency will try and send you to a call center, so as an example of low-paid casual work they were easy to get access to. Call centers are also symbolic of many of the changes taking place in work--the shift away from manufacturing to service work for example.

YOU WORKED in a call center for six months and the book is a result of this undercover research. What were some of the most striking things you discovered while working there? Did you find anything you weren't expecting?

THE MOST surprising thing is the pervasive use of surveillance technology. The moment you enter you realize everything you're doing is being timed, collated and turned into metrics. That is really astonishing. It's also the visibility of targets. All across the call center floor are whiteboards with targets and people's names on, and television screens above you with targets. That pressure is everywhere. I assumed it would be like that but you can't escape it while you're there.

DO YOU think that the level of surveillance in the call center is higher than in other industries, or is this something that's common to a lot of low-paid casual work?

I THINK increasingly everybody is being pushed by targets and metrics. I'm somebody who works in a university, where you're graded by your students every term--you have certain metrics you have to reach to stay in the job and so on. But it happens across the service sector. What's different about call centers is that the technology allows so much integration. It's harder to do that in, for example, hospitality, where there's often more human supervision required. In the call center you can literally read off every statistic because of the integration between the phone and the computer.

SOME OF your other research looks at digital labor and the changes that technology has brought to work. Can you expand on how technology functions in the call center and helps to facilitate the surveillance you talked about?

AN INTERESTING way to think about call centers is to think about the jobs that they replaced before. So, for example, you have the displacement of bank workers, tellers in banks, with call centers. You have help lines of various kinds displacing that expert knowledge. Sales call centers displace the door-to-door salesman, or the person in the shop trying to convince you to buy something. But in a way they don't displace those roles, because you would never have come across the life insurance product that was being sold, or the subscription to the magazine, or whatever it is now being sold down the phone. Call centers are a new attempt to try and sell to people at any possible point--not just while you're in the shop, or when you're looking for something. It's an attempt to get sales more deeply into people's lives.

I think when we look at what digital labor is being used for, it's about creating platforms where vast quantities of data are being collected in order to profile us, in order to sell us things. The difference is that increasingly, you see that in attempts to advertise to us in various ways and not by making a direct sales encounter. But we could see in the future what might happen. Facebook can collect vast amounts of data and profile people to a very deep level--how do you use that information to extract profit? It's going to be some kind of encounter like the call center one. So I think we'll see a deeper integration of these things.

IN THE book you talk about the many small acts of resistance that workers do every day and identify these as examples of struggle and refusal of work. Equally, you document your difficulties in trying to unionize your workplace. There's a particular section of the book where you describe being unable to join the union online, and being sent just three paper sign-up forms in the post when you called them to discuss organizing. Do you have any thoughts on what trade unions should be doing differently? Is it important for them to have a strategy around call centers and similarly casualized workplaces?

TRADE UNIONS have to try to do more. In the UK they're facing massive falls in membership numbers and collapsing of the subs base. It would make sense for them to try and recruit new members. The problem is that there isn't the political will to do it at the moment. I think in that sense, we have to not wait around for the trade union leadership to want to organize in these areas. What I try to do in the book is say those small acts of resistance are the building blocks from which organization is formed. The problem is--as the example of joining the union in the book shows--it's very difficult to link that organization on the shop floor to a trade union.

I think the challenge is how to build sustainable organization and I don't think that always means joining one of the existing trade unions. I think things like the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) at the moment are proving that there are very successful worker-led models, with the campaign around Deliveroo for example. I think what we need to figure out is which of these is models can be generalized, which elements can spread further, but to not put all of our faith in the trade union bureaucracy.

YOU MENTIONED IWGB and new worker-led models. What are some of the lessons or clearest examples of successful organizing coming out the Deliveroo and UberEats campaigns?

THE MOST important lesson from the campaigns at Deliveroo/UberEats is that the campaign needs to be led by workers themselves. The struggle developed as a response to a change in the payment system at Deliveroo and was organized from the networks that drivers themselves had established. The choice of putting workers' self-activity at the core of the campaign has given it an energy and longevity, while developing a layer of new workplace activists. Alongside this, we need to dispute the arguments that new ways of organizing work or contractual conditions prevent workers from successfully organizing.

YOU TALK a lot about the emotional and affective labor aspect of call center work and the damaging impact this can have on the people working there, such as exhaustion and burn out. It's clear that management needs workers to use their expressive and emotional faculties, but equally they don't know how to manage this aspect of the work effectively. Can you talk about the role these elements play in the job and how they impact the relationship with management?

THE EMOTIONAL labor aspect is incredibly draining. It's one of those things that management are unable to effectively manage because you get this tension between the quantitative demands like the number of sales or the number of calls made and the qualitative aspect--how good is the sales encounter, how well have you used the emotions? Management finds it very difficult to do the qualitative aspect.

You see elements of it with the buzz session to try to encourage people, but ultimately these skills vary from every sales encounter and they vary with every worker. How to successfully flog bad insurance is a very complex skill. In the book I talk about the deployment of "packages of affect" that have to be combined in various ways in order to carry out that sale.

There's a recognition from management about how stressful this is, and this is reflected in the fact that the job is always part time. There are some inbound call center jobs that you can probably do for longer, but in high-sales call centers, you can't do it full time.

DID THE people working in your call center find any ways of coping or managing this particular aspect of the job?

YOU HAVE to be able to compartmentalize it in order to survive a shift. During the calls you will often hear these horrible examples of tragedies in people's lives, or people just telling you to fuck off. It requires a performance that you're able to put on, that means it isn't you on the phone, so you feel that when you're being shouted at it's not really you that's being shouted at. But that creates a dissonance because you're feeling and displaying emotions that you aren't feeling internally.

I think it's something that brings people together, you have that shared experience so that when you leave work you can vent for a bit, go and do something else, and it creates a solidarity between people because you've been through that collective experience.

YOU IDENTIFY call centers as illustrative of the desperation of capital, a drive towards sales at a time of a crisis in profitability. Do you think they are sustainable and what do you think the future of these workplaces is? How do you see the explosion of these workplaces as relating to the current crisis?

I THINK sales call centers are an attempt to realize profit from products or services that wouldn't otherwise be bought. Insurance is a very good example of this. If that insurance package is not bought, it doesn't sit on a shelf or go bad, but if you can squeeze further sales out of this repackaged product then you can try to regain some sense of profitability. What will happen to call centers in the future I think is interesting because increasingly non-sales call centers are becoming automated. There's an example of a UK university now that doesn't have a call center, because people don't call it. They tweet or they send an email. Lots of those kinds of jobs are going to disappear. The difficulty is thinking how will sales disappear.

YES, BECAUSE it seems like the affective element in the sales call center is too central to the work. Can you automate that kind of call center when it's so reliant on the performance of the worker and their ability to make the sale?

IF YOU just had an automated reading out of a script, no one will buy your product. We're not yet at the point yet where artificial intelligence can convince people to buy things they don't need. Perhaps in the future we'll get to the point where these things can be done, but for now it requires human interaction. But this is human interaction stripped of all the things that make it worthwhile and converted into a tool to sell things over the phone. So I think we will see sales call centers continue at least for a while.

WHAT ARE your thoughts on what our strategy should be in jobs that are at high risk of automation?

AUTOMATION IS going to happen to many kinds of jobs in the near future. We need to start talking about political strategies, rather than simply focusing on individual jobs as they become automated. We need to regain the promise of automation: freeing us from the drudgery of work.

However, this utopian promise is not what capital is currently trying to achieve--rather, capital is trying to free itself from labor, to free us from the ability to make a living. We therefore need to start a longer conversation about what kinds of work we want to do and what happens if these can be automated. For example, can we raise demands about what happens to workers, or about how the work will be automated, rather than posing it in terms of change/no-change?

In terms of strategy, it is important to start from what workers themselves want in these situations, as this will differ greatly based on the kinds of work involved. However, it is important to think about the long-term effects of de-industrialization across the UK and not to end up losing the overall war despite waging local battles.

NOW THAT you've done a workers' inquiry into call centers, are there other jobs, workplaces or sections of the economy that you think we need to do inquiries into, or look at more closely from the labor process point of view?

THE FIRST part of the book is an argument for doing this kind of fine-grained analysis of a particular type of work from the perspective of the people who do that work. This used to be done much more commonly and Marxists used to have more of an interest in what people did for their work.

With call centers, they are not the most advanced or particularly militant section of the economy, but there are a huge number of people working there--it's currently estimated at about a million in the UK. But there are clearly other sectors that require a deeper understanding, catering and hospitality, for example. Universities do, too--the linking between academic, administrative and cleaning staff needs to be done, as well as looking at the role of students today.

I think we need to start unpacking what the transformation of capitalism recently means for work, resistance and organization. We can try to be strategic about what places should be studied, but we should also do studies where we work, where we know people already. Ultimately, it's a project of knowledge creation but one that's tied to organization. We shouldn't do these things just because we're interested and want to find out things--that's important, but we also do it because we want to change things and that means building new kinds of organization. Hopefully, experiments like this book can offer us ways and point us in the right direction.

First published at rs21 magazine.