Photo: Richard Pohle

The call center as a site of control and resistance

  • January 29, 2017

Work & Workers

Instead of seeing call centers as defined only by their technological methods of control and surveillance, they can be understood as a site of struggle and anger.

Jamie Woodcock is a Fellow at the London School of Economics and author of Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres. The book is based on Jamie’s PhD project, in which he worked undercover in a call center for six months. In the project he tried to understand this kind of precarious work, analyze how it is managed, and explore what strategies of resistance workers are developing on the call center floor.

Here, labor scholar Immanuel Ness speaks to Jamie about the nature of work in call centers, focusing on the role of technology, management and workers’ resistance, and considering the implications of new forms of organization both within and beyond the call center. Jamie and Immanuel also discuss the use of workers’ inquiry as a method, arguing for importance of developing a critical Marxist approach to understanding the transformation of work and the future of workers’ struggle.

What is the nature of the call center workforce in the UK and beyond? Do they remain a major force in the global political economy today?

There are an estimated one million people working in callcenters in the UK at the moment, with many more across the world. It is difficult to pin down exact numbers, because call centers are not a distinct sector. Rather, they are attached to different industries, spanning the private, public and third sector in various ways. The emergence of different kinds of call centers is best understood through the previous roles that they have replaced. There are call centers that provide information, helplines, access to emergency services, or organize repairs.

The focus of the book is on those that sell — whether that be physical products or services. The call center has become a successful way for capital to organize flows of communication, particularly those involved in sales. It allows a reduction of costs, centralizing and simplifying complex processes. High volume sales call centers provide an important opportunity to realize profits from commodities, whether material or immaterial, that would not otherwise happen.

Outside of sales, other kinds of call centers are becoming automated or transferred over into online forms and help desks. For the time being at least, there is still a demand for the human interaction required to convince people to part from their money over the phone.

How is the labor process organized in a call center? And how are emotions and affect mobilized in sales?

The labor process is strictly controlled in the call center through a combination of technology and human supervision. In a Taylorist sense, there is a clear separation between conception and execution, with the scripting of the conversation and decisions of who to call made away from the call center floor. The script provides a detailed word-for-word plan of the conversation, with hyperlinks taking the workers through each page to enter details.

Although one of the supervisors suggested that this meant “all the work is done for you,” a sales encounter requires workers to go beyond the scripting. Early on in the call center, workers were encouraged to annotate a printed out script. Various elaborations are added: where to pause or say “okay?” to encourage a response, the points at which you could make a joke, or even the moments to go off-script and “paint a picture” of the supposed benefits of the service being sold.

What each of these moments represent is the emotion or affective labor that call center workers engage with to make a sale. It is highly unlikely that anyone would offer up their bank details over the phone if the script was read out in a robotic manner. Instead, workers reassure and entertain potential customers, building up the rapport necessary to close a sale.

This kind of labor is often operating in a context of aggression from people on the other end of the phone, or in the case of selling life insurance in the book, grieving or seriously ill people. This puts an immense strain on call center workers who are subjected to a form of emotional dissonance — a tension between their own feelings and those they have to perform over the phone. It is in this way that call center work can be understood as highly skilled, involving the use of complex affective packages with only their voice.

What is the role of technology in the call center?

Call centers began as phone rooms, places where groups of workers would make phone calls. This involved physical telephones and lists of numbers for workers to call. The transformation into call centers as we know them now is the result of the integration of telephones with computers. This technological development allows the unprecedented levels of monitoring and control.

The computerization of the calls allows for every part of the process to be monitored, stored and subjected to performance metrics. However, in an interview I conducted with a call center activist, the despotic management practices long preceded these innovative uses of technology. This is an important reminder that no matter how detailed the statistics, they still need to be parsed and acted upon in the workplace.

It is therefore more useful to consider the role of technology in two ways: first, call centers are particularly susceptible to these methods of technological control, due to the clearly measurable outputs. Second, that the technology was introduced in a context of bullying management and a lack of traditional forms of workplace organization. It is therefore possible to see how the interests of capital have become deeply written into the technologies of call center — but that this is the result of contestation, albeit from a rather one-sided struggle in many cases so far.

What techniques of supervision and control do management use?

Management use detailed electronic surveillance methods in the call center. This involves logging all of the actions that workers take: from the length of calls, numbers of sales, time between calls, break times and so on, to digitally recording every phone call. The recordings are a very powerful tool of control, analogous perhaps to an assembly line manager being able to retrospectively recall every single thing made by a worker and inspect for defaults or errors.

In the pressurized context of the call center mistakes are bound to happen, and this digital record can then provide the basis for sacking. Alongside the electronic methods, supervisors walk up and down the rows, also able to tune into a call in progress. This combination of electronic and physical methods creates a kind of “electronic Panopticon” for people working there.

Supervisors could listen in to any of your calls at any moment, despite not being able to do this all the time or for everyone, which begins to have an internalizing effect on workers. Like Bentham and Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon, this is backed up with the spectacle of punishment — shouting at workers and firing them on the spot.

The methods of supervision are all used to ensure workers are meeting their sales targets. These are discussed at the start of every shift, in the weekly one-to-one meetings (often backed up with statistical print-outs), written on whiteboards at the end of each row, and displayed on a large television hung overhead. The targets are steadily increased and never feel like they are fully achievable, ratcheting up pressure on workers to make sales and hit averages.

What is the class composition of workers in call centers? Is the workers’ inquiry a suitable method for investigating this?

The class composition of call center workers can be understood in two ways. The first is through the technical composition. This involves a strictly controlled and Taylorized labor process, upon which methods of technological surveillance have been added, within a context of confident and antagonistic management. The political composition, while related, cannot only be understood through this. Among the predominantly young and female workforce there were no established traditions of trade unionism or party politics. But the workers were constantly engaging in forms of resistance and they were political.

Without the workers’ inquiry method — of actually going and working alongside people in the call center — it would be easy to focus on the bleak technical composition in call centers, while failing to see the political re-composition taking place. The project began as a workers’ inquiry from above, seeking to gain access to the workplace and gain an understanding of what the work was like. Ideally inquiries will move to an approach from below, a kind of co-research that draws workers themselves into the process of constructing knowledge and building organization.

During my time in the call center, much like the experience of Kolinko in their inquiry, it was challenging to move into the more participatory mode. All of the workers I worked alongside moved onto other workplaces, and by the end I was the only left of my training cohort.

Despite this difficulty, I shared the ideas and arguments from the book with people. Clearly, this kind of project is most successful when it can be from below, but this requires self-organized workers. In many examples the from-above method is going to be the starting point and it has the potential to provide valuable insights and the possibility of longer-term projects from below.

How can we understand worker agency and workplace resistance in call centers?

I began by trying to identify the small acts of resistance that took place on the call center floor, borrowing Kate Mulholland’s ideas of Slammin’, Scammin’, Smokin’ an’ Leavin’ — cheating, work avoidance, absence and resignation.

In the call center, work avoidance happened regularly and on a low level. At every opportunity — whether in the buzz sessions at the start of the shift, during training, or if there were technical issues — workers sought to reduce the time on the phones. Engaging in these acts of resistance is something that people to do make the work more manageable, and something that emerges from the organization of the labor process itself. Although cheating was not widespread, absences and resignations were a significant expression of worker agency.

In the book, I have understood this through the idea of the refusal of work. This reconsiders the high turnover in the workplace as a source of potential strength, rather than a weakness. Instead of seeing call centers as defined only by their technological methods of control and surveillance, they can be understood as a site of struggle and anger. In this sense, leaving the workplace is not that different to strike action — it’s just that workers don’t intend to come back with demands.

It is important to consider this alongside the main bonus that management used: not financial incentives, but letting workers leave early once they had made their targets. This speaks volumes about the quality of the work. Not only did most workers leave, but managers understood this desire and mobilized it to increase outputs. This also meant that many workers did not see themselves as working there long- or even medium-term, lowering the barrier to action. If you are planning to leave soon, why not stand up the manager before you go?

What is the impact of precarity? And in what ways is this linked to organization?

The impact of precarity in the call center is substantial. The casual contract meant that almost all workers were permanently on probation, with no protection from being sacked at a moment’s notice. In fact, while I worked in the call center a number of workers were fired mid-shift. This precariousness is a deliberate strategy from management to control workers. However, on the other hand, workers do not want to be tied long-term to the workplace — seen in the frequent refusal of work discussed above.

The state of precarity creates serious challenges for sustained organization in a single workplace, with the high turnover meaning much of the activity becomes recruiting simply to keep numbers at a viable level. Beyond the focus on the single workplace, workers move between jobs with similar conditions and pay, while being faced by common issues of bad housing conditions and expensive transport across London.

The question therefore becomes how to connect these issues between workplaces. If it is difficult for the individual workplace to be a focus for sustained struggle, are there other forms of organization that can be coordinated across London? The answers to this will emerge from the struggles of precarious workers and there are important lessons emerging from the campaigns by the IWGB union with cleaners and Deliveroo drivers.

How do call center workers relate to other precarious workers in Europe and North America?

In the book I found no direct relationship between call center workers in the UK and Europe or North America. The call center itself was an operation based in, and exclusively making calls to, the UK. Since the research was carried out there have been some developments in how precarious workers are relating to each other across national borders.

The Transnational Social Strike Platform has had meetings across Europe, drawing in the experiences of different workers’ struggles from Deliveroo and the junior doctors in the UK; Amazon workers in Poland, Germany, and France; activists from the French protest movement against the loi travail; Italian migrant workers; to German and Swedish care workers.

It has involved a rethinking of what strike action means today takes on two important dimensions. First is transnational, because capital is organized beyond the national level so resistance needs to be also, while seeking to build links of solidarity across Europe. The second is social, to understand that the strike as a weapon is not the preserve of unionized (or traditional) groups of workers.

This is particularly important in the context of workplaces like call centers with high turnover, making a connection to other precarious workers and finding commonalities and forms of resistance and organization. Initiatives like this are important experiments that can point beyond the current obstacles to organizing in precarious conditions.

How are call center workers characterized in popular culture and why is it significant to understand film, arts and the media?

Call centers have come to symbolize the shift from manufacturing to services in the neoliberalized contemporary economy. The sales call center is almost universally reviled, either by those who spend time working the phones, or by people harassed by unsolicited phone calls. Whenever I presented the research on call centers, there was always someone in the audience who wanted to share their experiences — often one cut short by them leaving the job.

I used two examples in the book to introduce call centers: the BBC documentary The Call Centre and the film The Wolf of Wall Street. I choose these because each offer an insight into call center work, often the only insight that many of us will have, apart from the phone calls we receive or if we have worked in one ourselves.

The Wolf of Wall Street provides a glimpse of that high-pressure sales ethos that permeates call centers, the idea that through force of (a macho) personality workers can close sales and become a success. It gives a sense of the subjectivity that management would like to encourage with workers — not taking “no” for an answer and fully assuming responsibility for making sales.

On the other hand, The Call Centre follows an actual call center in Swansea, Wales. Unsurprisingly, it does not offer an account of worker resistance, but rather seeks to make entertainment from the experiences of the workers and the over-the-top figure of management Nev Wiltshire. In the partial account provided by the BBC documentary a number of important themes emerge: the indeterminacy of labor power, the challenges of emotion labor and the negative experiences for both customer and worker.

These provide us with starting points for how call center work is understood, but cannot be the basis for our analysis. Instead, in the book I make an argument for renewing research methods that start from the workplace and the labor process itself.

Do you see the possibility for call center workers to build their power? And what is their struggle in relation to the working class?

At present, many workers in sales call centers express their frustration and anger by leaving. Throughout my time at the call center people acted out their refusal — sometimes mid-shift, other times no longer returning for the next one. In this way, call centers are a site of struggle and resistance, but not one that is building sustained organization or power.

There have been relatively isolated examples of strikes or campaigns in call centers, but these have not successfully generalized in the sales environment. However, much like those I organized with in this particular call center, the people involved in individual or collective resistance will take that on to their next precarious workplace. Call center workers, like those now employed (or given the bogus self-employed categorization) in the gig economy, face low-pay and bad conditions.

The existing trade union movement, for various reasons, is not investing time or resources into organizing, which means that these struggles will find their own methods of resistance and ways to collectively organize. The reorganization of capital has created new conditions, but these are still to be met by a recomposed working class. Workers’ inquiry provides one way to understand these processes. In the book, I aimed to provide an example of this. But what we urgently need is more inquiries and organizational experiments.

Jamie Woodcock

Dr Jamie Woodcock is a senior lecturer at the Open University and a researcher based in London. His research is inspired by the workers’ inquiry and he is on the editorial board of Notes from Below and Historical Materialism.

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