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Extreme monitoring and lack of breaks top TUC call centre complaints

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Extreme monitoring by supervisors and not being allowed to take adequate rest breaks, were the top two concerns of call centre workers calling the It’s your call hotline, according to a TUC report.

The report, Calls for change, is released as Channel 4 News screens an investigation into some of the call centres reported to the TUC’s hotline, which took 733 calls over two weeks in February.

Calls for change, features a ‘league table’ of complaints from call handlers. One in four complained about extreme monitoring of their work. And most of these (53%) said they were monitored over when they went to the toilet and the length of time they spent there. Some had to ask permission to go and others complained of being hauled up in front of bosses to explain why they were going so often.

15.5% said they were not given adequate breaks at work and some of these said they were given no breaks at all, even though they were working more than a six hour shift – against the rules of the Working Time Directive.

Over one in ten of the callers (13%) complained about health and safety issues. Some said they believed they were developing hearing problems as a result of working on the phones – others complained of acoustic shock. Almost one in ten (9%) called to complain about wages. Many of these said their wages and bonuses were docked if they turned up to work late.

Calls for change includes a number of anonymous case studies:

Anna works for a call centre in South Wales. She says no-one is allowed to leave their desks without permission and, although there are sometimes up to 30 minutes between calls, magazines and books are not allowed. Anna says there is no policy for dealing with abusive calls other than that call handlers are not allowed to hang up on anyone – no matter what the circumstances.

'We have an adult channel and have to take calls from people wanting to subscribe. These calls come late at night – which is why I hate doing nightshifts. There have been a few times when I’ve taken orders from men and I can tell that they are masturbating while they are on the phone to me.'

Tracey works in a call centre in Coventry. She says although her bosses provide drinking water, they charge 5p for every plastic cup used.

'They say the water in the women’s toilets is drinkable – but we are not so sure. Until recently we understood that you shouldn’t drink the water in the toilets. But after they started charging us 5p for each plastic cup of water, they put a sign above one of the sinks saying the water was drinkable. But that water comes from the same pipe as all the other taps.'

Lorraine, from another South Wales call centre, has been off sick for the last two months with depression and stress, caused by work.

'Although I had been signed off sick by my doctor, my bosses expected me to ring in every day. We are really heavily monitored. We are timed whenever we go to the toilet, and if we spend too much time there, we have to explain ourselves.'

Daniel works in a call centre in the South West. He says his team leader expects him to come in ten minutes early every day, without pay, just to log onto his computer.

'Although we usually come in early for no pay, if we are even one minute late into work, we automatically lose 15 minutes pay. But if we are in the middle of a call at the end of our shifts, we have to stay behind – again without pay.'

Calls for change also shows:

  • calls came from all over the UK, although the majority came from Scotland (18% of calls) and Wales (13%). The cities that featured most heavily on the line were Glasgow (7.5% of all calls), Swansea (6%), Cardiff (4%), and Sheffield (4%).
  • almost half the callers worked in organisations with more than 300 employees (44.5%), most said they were customer service advisors (33%) and call centre agents (29%). But 8% of calls came from call centre managers who said they were fed up with the way they were expected to treat their staff.
  • 69% of callers to the line were not union members. And the unions organising in call centres say the campaign has raised their profile and led to increased membership.

Good employers agree with the TUC that this kind of bad practice is unacceptable. The TUC asked The Co-operative Bank and Qualiflyer in Hammersmith to respond to the case studies in calls for concern.

Mags Thomas, UK Human Resources Manager at Qualiflyer, a call centre selling airline tickets for several major airlines, said:

'The case studies suggest a very short-sighted view is being taken – an already stressful situation caused by inadequate training, rest facilities or flexible working, is compounded by an over-controlling style.

'Call handlers’ jobs are very challenging and, in the current market, good candidates are hard to find. The poor practices of some operators not only costs them staff, but impacts on all call centres by creating poor public relations for the industry as a whole.'

Sheila MacDonald, Executive Director of Customer Services at The Co-operative Bank said:

'I am saddened by the findings in these case studies. It seems that some employers believe that treating staff harshly is a good way to run a business. We have found that an empowered workforce, that is treated fairly, is a happy workforce. Our customers enjoy the benefit of a successful business attended by helpful, happy staff.'

The TUC argues that call handlers, and those looking for work in call centres, should check employment conditions against a TUC checklist. Employers should offer:

  • positive flexible working
  • ways of preventing occupational voice loss and hearing problems
  • a healthy and safe office environment
  • adequate breaks – especially after distressing or abusive calls

TUC General Secretary, John Monks, said:

'Although most call centres offer decent terms and conditions for their staff, our hotline shows that a significant minority offer poor employment terms – some are operating under sweatshop conditions.

'Insisting that staff put their hands up to go to the toilet, stay on the phone even when callers are abusive, and preventing them from having the breaks and holidays they are entitled to by law, is no way to run a business – and our report shows that good call centre employers agree.'

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