The old work ethic has disappeared along with the massive obsolete structures of capital which required a permanent army of producers, yet work still has far more implications than mere survival. Millions of people still compete for the privilege of turning up day after day, year after year, to surrender body and soul in exchange for a wage.
– Jean Wier’s Introduction to ‘Let’s destroy Work, let’s destroy the Economy’ by Alfredo Bonanno.
— Where are you from?
— What are you doing here?
— You move to Greece now?
These were the continuous questions that I met when moving to Athens a few years ago. At the kiosk, in the post office, in the taxi. Why would anyone be foolish enough to move to Greece of all places and during these times? People talked about the impossibility of survival as if we all want a full time job and a straight normal life of work, consumption, death. Eventually I found myself blessed with the most unusual opportunity, employment in Greece, in crisis, now.
Many people have found their way to this call centre which is located in Kallithea and handles the customer services for many big national and international corporations. The conditions are considered very good and after stumbling through some tests and an interview I found myself in a 3 week paid training programme. Every week ended with an exam which was necessary to pass in order to progress to the next weeks’ training. Only one person failed and had to leave, as the test could be taken with notes and access to the internet and training materials and retaken on the Monday of the following week if not passed initially. Towards the end of the training we were taking calls under the supervision of other employees and then we were released into customer support for one of the biggest computer companies in the world.
Even though I have no fondness towards the corporate office environment I must admit that the beginning was not as bad as I had expected. A regular salary is something that I had not had for 10 years and we weren’t treated badly. What is interesting is how conditions that would seem obvious in relation to regular corporate work had already eroded in Greece. Some of the excellent conditions of my new job, in comparison with the general reality were; salary paid on time, salary paid in full, and overtime paid. On top of that were the added bonuses based on performance and general bonuses, paid in untaxed supermarket and restaurant vouchers. My new managers and coworkers were a mix of Greeks and internationals, often overeducated but with a wide range of previous experience, and current realities. Some were young, some old, some were students and some had families, loans and huge financial burdens. Whilst initially many were grateful to have a job, increasingly continuous discussions about our conditions and hatred towards this job were formulated during lunch breaks and the few moments that allowed us to talk to each other.
The way that the call centre workplace is organised creates little space for anything other than work. The employee is hooked up to a computer and ideally functions as a human addition to a computerised network. At the exact time your shift starts you should already have checked your emails and be logged on as available. The calls then start arriving and you answer with a friendly voice and start logging the information about the customer and their issue as you receive the information. When you are done, you have one minute to finish your notes, log the case in the system, send any relevant emails to the customer and be available again. A few seconds pass and you are on your next call. If you work full time you get a short 15 minute break and a longer 30 minute lunch break. In both instances you change your status on the computer. If you wish to go to the bathroom or anything like that you also have to change your status to ‘break’ so you’re already then using up your 45 minutes. Half an hour is officially set aside for training but only if there isn’t a long line of calls waiting to be received. Sometimes a supervisor will ask you to change your status as they have negative or positive feedback to provide. To extend these discussions for as long as possible is one of the only possibilities for minimising the time you spend on calls. The only other break from work happens if there are more calls answered than there are calls coming in but you are still sitting with your headphones on waiting for that sound that indicates a call coming in. Officially you are not allowed to play games or surf the internet during this time and sometimes there were crackdowns on this from time to time and people would be sent home for the remainder of the day without pay like naughty schoolchildren.
The good conditions came packaged with precarious ones. Contracts were short, ranging from 1 to 5 months with a total of 10 holiday days a year and zero public holidays. The 10 holiday days were in relation to your contract so if you have a 2 month contract you still have the right to less than 2 paid holiday days during that time. Unpaid leave was possible but not guaranteed so there is almost no freedom from work and on top of that, schedules were released on a weekly basis and you would not get next week’s schedule before the Thursday of the preceding week. The schedules consisted of 8 hour shifts for the full-time staff but the shifts could start anytime from 10:00 to 14:00 resulting in no possibility to schedule in any kind of regularity in one’s normal life as you never know when you are going to work in one or two weeks’ time. We also worked on Saturdays, with Sundays as the only guaranteed free day of the week. The whole time that I worked there I had no paid sick days as IKA (state health insurance) currently takes forever to come into effect even though a nice sum is taken from the monthly pay-check. On top of this, people would suddenly disappear very suddenly, people were fired on the spot without warning and a whisper would go around pointing out the empty desk as a technician would come to take the computer away and wipe it clean for the next human interface to be attached to it.
The customers range from old people with simple issues and perhaps a need to talk to someone, to the rich assholes who are angry because they can’t use their computer or just want to vent their life’s frustrations by putting someone down. Racist and other oppressive behaviour does not have to be tolerated but someone calling you stupid and incompetent is ok. It takes a lot of patience and kindness and at the end of the day one does not have much left of that for normal life when leaving work which leads to a miserable feeling during free time. All customers receive a survey after the call so they can evaluate you. One needs to have something like 90% positive feedback on these surveys. On top of that, the system measures your ‘average handling time’ which should ideally be about 13 minutes, your ‘after work time’ which should be no more than 1 minute, your percentage of calls forwarded to the senior department, your sales and a whole bunch of other things that are hard to keep up with. Also, your calls are randomly listened to by a Quality Analysis Department who check your notes and the call and send you a review where you pass or fail. On a regular basis your supervisor or manager will go though these numbers with you because they are never all the way they should be because it is impossible to meet all the criteria so you are always struggling on some detail of your work.
All these aspects combine to create a feeling of never being good enough, never knowing what the outcome of any part of your day will be like, no possibility to plan your free time and the double feeling of hating your job and fearing losing it at any moment. In a time of economic and political crisis, this feeling of uncertainty becomes amplified for the worker whilst the precarious nature demanded by the call centres meets less resistance and critique. It is no wonder that many call centres now are based in the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) countries and as the workforce that they can choose from is bigger and more qualified than ever and more desperate and more willing to put up with low salaries and unfavourable work conditions as well. However, the call centre has long been a work place with similar conditions to those mentioned so far.
“Call Centres were and are an attack on the refusal of many office workers to accept a deterioration of their conditions (in banks, insurances, the post office, telecom and other offices). For many workers call centres mean longer working hours, forced shift work, constant control and intensification of work.” [Hotlines no.1, October 2000] (1)
There are a lot of writings about call centres and at some point several of us started reading online versions of these between calls, most notably the German “Hotlines- call centre | inquiry | communism” by Kolinko (a German libertarian communist group), and found that though call centres might thrive in the current conditions in Greece our conditions were not new but rather central to the way that call centres are organised globally. Kolinko’s study of call centres shows that the conditions that characterise call centre work here in Greece were common practice across Europe and beyond even in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Common aspects include the managerial structures where supervisors and managers who used to be employees look over the production floor whilst the bigger bosses pressure them to provide high results in relation to customer satisfaction and all the other measurements of effective call handling. Short term contracts, high turnover of staff, uncertainty, performance targets and evaluations, ever changing schedules and constantly changing procedures that combine to induce a stressful work environment and also have negative impacts beyond that resulting in both psychological and physical complaints were well documented by several interviewees as well as the authors who found employment in call centres as part of their study.
Call centres, as they are now, boomed in the 1990s and Kolinko reported that even though the business recorded growth in the early 2000s, there were also a lot of closures and outsourcings. Many call centres are now located in India and some other Asian countries but when looking at the closures back then it can be assumed that call centres also moved or were outsourced south within Europe and that those call centres received more clients. The inquiry found that the workers at call centres could be generalised as young, well educated, carrying out unskilled work- hence low salaries, majority female, “relatively high [salaries] when compared to other jobs in the ‘service sector’”, stressed, not union organised and high turnover of staff is common.
An interesting development is the increased use of computers for both work efficiency and control of workers. In fact the introduction of the computerised control of everything that the worker does is documented as being followed by the implementation of bonus schemes based on several aspects of worker’s behaviours including their break times. So the computerised aspect of the job not only increases efficiency but also controls the worker to an even greater extent by providing comparative data that can be both rewarded and punished. As stated in 2001 by a German worker:
“At first we didn’t give a shit about the ACD [computerised Automatic Call Distribution] data. We can control our break times on the phone but we didn’t take it that seriously. But then the call centre management came up with a bonus scheme…So once a month we get a letter saying if we got the bonus or if we didn’t. Our data must be below a certain average. They also list the different items: how long you were logged on, how many calls you had, how many entries you made into the program, how long your average time was, how much time you took for post-processing, and of course the breaks…At first this really changed the mood, suddenly everyone paid attention not to be late, how long their breaks were, and always making entries into the program. Everyone started comparing their data.” [Medion, Muelheim, 2001]
The introduction of advanced computer systems works to squeeze as much work as possible out of every worker whilst contributing to a competitive work environment which leads to increased pressure and possible lack of solidarity between workers. Workers’ struggles in call centres are virtually impossible, as the whole concept is very much built with this in mind. The possibility for some kind of union or workers’ organisation of any kind quickly seemed impossible here in Athens. In fact, one of the questions during the interview was about that and I managed to play stupid and not really answer it. During times of general strikes in Athens, the company even organised several private bus lines that picked up workers from all over Athens while security guards were on high alert at the company doors. Some kind of big scale sabotage quickly seemed to be the only possibility of resistance, but how to do so was beyond us and anyway it would only provide a temporary relief. Learning how to mess with the status on the computer system so as to be able to have a few extra minutes of freedom each day made little difference. Going over the prescribed break time was possible and safe for a while and with the added bonus that a supervisor would have a pep talk with you about being a team and you could stretch that out as it’s better than taking calls. The only little act of sabotage that was easily practiced was to create free support by claiming that the phone line was bad and calling customers back which meant that the calls would not be listened to, then providing free support that the customer is not entitled to whilst robbing the company of that potential income, writing in the notes that the customer figured it out themselves and then you get a good customer survey also. Little tricks like this seem like nothing, but whilst the company is made sterile and hostile towards anything else, little tricks and acts of vengeance are all you have to feel any power at all. Getting drunk with coworkers, sharing tricks and bitching about everything also creates a feeling of solidarity and works as good therapy.
It must be said that even though many of the conditions that we find in the Kolinko study were similar to our experiences we also came across drastically worse scenarios such as “a place like Atesia in Italy, where the workers are formally ‘self-employed’ and have to ‘hire’ their work-equipment and the ‘wage’ barely provides them with a living, to Quelle (warehouse company) in Germany, where the workers on the phone have to receive orders literally without any breaks.” Other scenarios included single day contracts in Berlin (where you sign your contract for the day at the beginning of the day), unpaid internships, 100% commission based salaries, shift-based work where workers might finish one shift at 22:00 and start their next one at 07:00 the next day, forced overtime, unpaid trial work, forced scripts for answering the phone, strict dress codes. In more recent reports one can read about workers who might all have shifts one week but not necessarily the next, whilst continually being available for work
(what now has been called ‘zero hour’ contracts in the United Kingdom)(2). When coming across these kinds of examples, many of us were shocked and surprised at the fact that before the current economic crisis had hit properly, several rich countries in Europe had worse call centre conditions than those that we were under at the present time. This goes to show that the call centre already prefers exactly the kind of environment that the economic crisis delivers; a workforce that is precarious, desperate for work, well qualified and likely to shut up and work instead of organising and resisting.
More than 10 years ago the conditions of the call centre work environment stood out as surprisingly precarious and seemingly abusive towards the workforce. In relation, the working conditions in this specific call centre in Athens are not only better than many of the examples brought forth by such projects as Kolinko, but also much better than the conditions that meet those lucky few who do still find employment in Greece in these times of crisis including doctors and civil engineers. If the call centre was the nightmare scenario of the neoliberal onslaught of the 1990s, the crisis is the time when all those neoliberal desires get to run wild and unhindered capitalism triumphs as people in their desperation have to shut up and work their asses off for nothing, knowing that they are easily replaceable. In crisis all work starts to resemble the call centre, the new factory of our times, precarious in nature and fed by an eager workforce who still have much to lose and have no other choice than to compete for the privilege of wasting their time making money for others. There’s an uncomfortable contradiction between the supposed luck of landing a nice office job and the reality of being plugged into a machine in a cubicle like some kind of factory-farmed livestock.
Let us not be blinded by either work ethic or financial desperation, we all know that work is shit and must be abandoned along with the excessive consumerism that goes along with it. No one is lucky to do a shit job where they sell their time, their kindness, their patience, whilst the free time out of work is ripped apart by anxiety and frustrations and littered with tasks like cleaning and paying bills. Whilst the destruction of work is an obvious desire, the road there is not clear as we are unfortunately stuck in this capitalist machine, but we can still carry this desire with us in everything we do and try to steal as many moments of freedom as possible. We should not be fooled by capitalist promises of future prosperity somewhere down the line but enjoy leisure, joy and solidarity as we try to break free and live our lives in the present.
I finish this text with these wise words from a Hollywood film:
“We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.”
— Office Space, 1999
Written by: Coraline
1. Quoted in “Hotlines: call centre-inquiry-communism” which along with related material can be found here: http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/kolinko/ engl/e_index.htm
2. See ”A “zero-hours” contract… for thousands and thousands of hours” at http://libcom.org/library/%E2%80%9Czero-hours%E2%80%9D- contract%E2%80%A6-thousands-thousands-hours
In fact LibCom has an extensive section about call centres which is worth checking out for anyone who is interested in the subject.