Call Centre Action Month Winds Down
Helping a senior determine which bus to take to the library, ensuring someone’s electrical account is set up in their new home, collecting important information after a car accident – these are just a few of the jobs hundreds of COPE 378 members perform in call centres. In October, COPE 378 highlighted the work of these professionals as part of UNI Global Union’s Call Centre Action Month campaign.
Approximately two-thirds of all interactions between companies and their customers are now taking place through call centres, which are largely staffed by highly-skilled yet unfortunately undervalued employees.
“Based on their education, skills, and the complex tasks they perform each day, call centre workers are professionals. Ideally, professional status includes good wages that are above the national average, recognition of employees’ valuable skills, some autonomy and control over work, and clear paths to career advancements,” UNI’s Call Centre Action Month report states, but points out that globally, we are far from that ideal:
“Too many call centre workers find themselves in dead-end jobs with no autonomy and substandard pay.”
When we at COPE 378 saw the report we thought it was important to talk to our members who work in call centres to learn about their similar challenges and what additional unique issues they might face.
Over the month of October, in recognition of UNI’s Call Centre Action Month, Communications Officer Jarrah Hodge visited call centres staffed by COPE 378 members at FortisBC, ICBC, Coast Mountain Bus Company and Accenture (for BC Hydro). There were a few key things all or most of them had in common.
For one, they’re highly trained. Nearly everyone interviewed had received between 6-8 weeks of training to learn how to answer the varying kinds of calls they’d have to deal with.
Janie McDougall, a COPE 378 member at FortisBC Customer Service Centre, said, “We learned about gas and where it comes from, how a meter works and what to advise when it breaks down, how to use our computer system, and how to communicate with customers in a way that’s sensitive and careful.”
At ICBC, people work answering main customer service lines and processing and resolving telephone claims. Brody Darough-Hardekopf said new hires get approximately eight weeks of training so they can work with customers effectively and be ready to answer questions on claims province-wide, how licensing works and related areas of provincial law.
Stephen Von Sychowski, now a COPE 378 union representative, started in customer service at the Coast Mountain Bus Company. “The members in that call centre are well-trained and committed to providing good service,” he explains. “They’re helping people get around the Lower Mainland by public transit. A lot of our callers were people who couldn’t afford a smartphone or computer, or didn’t have technological skills, but they still needed to get around.”
That training is crucial when you’re doing important, fast-paced work.
“We’re the front line,” said COPE 378 Executive Board Member Nancy de Vries, who works at the BC Hydro Customer Care (Accenture) in Vernon, “We deal with everything, from someone’s power getting disconnected to trouble calls like when someone spots a downed power line. We make sure it gets passed on so things get fixed and we walk the caller through steps to make sure they’re safe.”
“Some calls are quite severe,” said COPE 378 Executive Board Member Melanie Greenlaw, who has worked at BC Hydro Customer Care (Accenture) in Burnaby for eight years, “I had a fellow who was trapped in a car accident and a power line had fallen on his car. Another time there was a man stuck in a crane that had made contact with a power line. You have to keep them calm and ask lots of questions to make sure they’re safe.”
“In an emergency sometimes people call in nonchalantly, not aware that it really is an emergency. And sometimes someone calls in hysterical, thinking their house might explode. We get lots of calls from fire departments, for instance if they need gas shut off or if they’re the first emergency responders on site if a gas line ruptures. You have to ask all the right questions to make sure the people are safe and get the information our workers need to get out to the right place quickly,” Janie McDougall explained.
Unfortunately call centre workers’ skills and professionalism aren’t always recognized in their wages and working conditions. It wasn’t uncommon for members to talk about how the stress caused by excessive monitoring, fear of unreasonable discipline and/or exposure to harassment from the public was causing high turnover amon the their coworkers.
“In many call centres … employees are frequently under pressure to meet a quota while having very little control over their own schedules or work flow. Threats, heavy monitoring and the pace of work lead to quick burnout,” UNI’s report notes.
COPE 378 members working in call centres face challenges seen across the sector. Executive Board Member Stephanie Smith says she hears from members who are stressed and burned out by overly strict and punitive monitoring of employees’ work while dealing with nearly impossible targets.
The UNI report notes that high turnover not only hurts employees, but also costs employers:
“On average [in the business process outsourcing industry], replacing one agent equals 16 per cent of the gross annual earnings of a call centre worker.”
The presence of a union can make a significant difference. UNI found median annual pay in union call centres was about seven per cent higher. Union call centres also tended to invest more in training and place limits on performance monitoring. It’s not just workers who benefit: customers receive better service when they’re talking to someone who’s properly trained, and companies see a much lower turnover rate.
COPE 378 members share in that union advantage. Of CMBC, Von Sychowski explained: “There are always things that can be improved, but it wasn’t like the horror stories you hear about non-union call centres. Through the union we got fairer wages, a regular work schedule and benefits.”
de Vries agrees, “Day-to-day, it definitely helps to have a union to make sure the employer is being fair overall.”
Croatian Telecommunication Union joined the Call Center Action Month this year as well.
Our shop stewards visited workers in call centers during October, and through discussions with employees they identified the following groups of problems workers are facing:
Employment (the type of employment and the nature of the work)
Employers resolve their labor requirements in a way that workers employed through:
- informal type of work (student contracts)
- temporary employment agencies, and
- service contracts at a specific time;
justifying the need for a more flexible labor agents and increased workload. In the last 5 years 99% of workers are employed in call centers are employed in this way. Permanent employment is just an exception, although the scope of work has not changed significantly for years! Among all mentioned only temporary workers enjoys benefits from collective agreements, while others are exposed to arbitrariness of employers, which reduce the already low cost of labor. At the same time the number of permanent employees is reduced, and it’s negatively impacts the social position of workers in call centers.
Professionals (managing staff)
Employers too often change managing staff. They put them in a position for a year or two. Usually, they request the realization of ambitious goals and objectives and in a case of non-achievement of the goals, they replace them with obedient and not capable. Vertical communication among managing personnel is usually a one-way (towards a subordinate), and it often happens that the real operating parameters are ignored! Managers are forced to implement austerity measures, including saving on training of workers!
Training and education
Due to the implementation of austerity measures trainings are rarer and shorter. The vast majority of information workers be marketed through a web interface, but it’s time to learn from the web workers not insured! As conversations are recorded due to education purposes, workers feel insecure, so they learn new services and processes at home in their spare time. In this way, workers feel increased pressure that causes stress; it reduces the amount of free time, which greatly affects the quality of life, which ultimately affects the health of workers!
Through these sets of issues shows the immense greed of employers and exclusive desire for profit! HST believes that workers should be more important than the profit! Therefore we will try to resolve the issues by the collective agreement, but also by changing the legislation. In the upcoming bargaining for a collective agreement, we will try to:
- Identify jobs and number of employees that can be employed in previously mentioned ways;
- Apply benefits from collective agreement to the management staff;
- Identify workers’ rights to education and training, and ways to implement it.
By changing the law we’ll try to better and more accurately define the status of student work, temporary agency work and temporary employment, in order to stop treating such workers as second-class workers!
To paraphrase our Deutsche Telecom campaign: We expect better! from our employers, and we’ll make them to do so!
Our affiliates have published a range of informational materials for Call Center Action Month to announce the month and their upcoming actions. Here are some flyers produced by our affiliates:
From CNE, LBC-NVK and SETCa-BBTK, Belgium:
From F1RST Union, New Zealand:
From FeS-UGT, Spain:
From FD CGT Sociétés d’Etudes, France:
Low pay an insult to highly-skilled call centre workers
Low wages and poor working conditions in call centers are failing to reflect the number of university educated and skilled professionals working in the industry, a new report finds.
The report, Answer the Call: Raising wages and professionalism in call centres, released today by UNI Global Union, analyzed wages and professionalism in nine countries with important call center industries. The report found that despite the fact that in the majority of countries surveyed more than 50 per cent of call center workers had received a university education, wages rarely reached higher than 60-70 per cent of the national average. Of the nine countries analyzed, France had the highest proportion of university educated call center workers, at 72 per cent, but wages were just 64 per cent of the national average.
Some two-thirds of all interactions between companies and customers today take place in call centers via groups of highly trained, professional workers. The job of a call center agent requires an array of skills that take months to master, including being able to absorb new product knowledge, manipulate databases, and communicate effectively with a variety of clients. Some jobs, such as providing service advice and diagnostics for technology companies, require even more highly specialized knowledge.
UNI Global Union Head of ICTS Alan Tate said, “Employees with critical roles in this valuable industry should be compensated above – not well below – the national average wage. These men and women are professional workers who are well-educated, well trained and skilled in serving their customers diverse needs.”
In the United States, around 60 per cent of all call center employees have attended at least a year of university, and in Netherlands, 52 per cent, the report says.
In India, more than 60 per cent of centers hire primarily university educated staff and call center wages are higher than the national average. However, the average Indian salary is low with 22 per cent of Indians live on less than 32 rupees (55 US cents) per day in urban areas and 27 rupees (45 US cents) in rural areas.
Research shows that call centers with union contracts have higher wages – median annual pay in centers with union presence is about 7 per cent higher than non-union centers. In addition, workplaces represented by unions tend to invest more in training, place limits on performance monitoring, and have negotiated rules for sales and performance. The average turnover rates in unionized call centers are also 40 per cent lower than non-union sites worldwide.
Tate added, “Our message to these workers is simple; the evidence shows that joining a trade union leads to higher wages, more investment in training and better job security.”
The report points to the Netherlands as an example of how to improve conditions for call center workers and businesses alike. Although wages are still low, at 75 per cent of the national average, the Dutch industry has instituted a system of certificates and quality standards that focus on customer service and thus increase professionalism. Continuous monitoring of workers is almost unheard of, and the use of a script is mandatory in only about 25 per cent of center.
On Saturday 3rd November the CWU and IBOA jointly held a Call Centre Forum organised to mark UNI Global Union’s annual Call Centre Action Month. The theme of this year’s event was ‘Performance Management – from the bottom up’. This topic was chosen to reflect the fact that this aspect of phone-based working has long been recognised as a challenge for workers in the contact centre industry.
The goal of the forum was to engage with Call Centre workers to discuss the effects of Performance Management on their daily work. It was also hoped that the event would identify issues and goals and bring members from diverse workplaces together. Both unions believe that everyone should enjoy a work environment where employees are treated as professionals, with dignity and respect. Numerous studies have shown that workers that are given more control over their work enjoy greater job satisfaction as a result.
The event was held on a Saturday specifically to accommodate as many members as possible. Workers from call centres as diverse as eircom, First Source, ATOS, AIB, Ulster Bank and the Bank of Ireland participated in the day.
The day started with a general discussion on what the participants understood performance management to be. This led to some fascinating discussions on the similarities and differences between the various employments. It became clear that while workers may experience variations of management styles, there was a clear theme across all centres of the use of performance management tools. In some cases, these tools can cause difficulties for workers including unreachable targets, poorly understood processes and the stress and health issues that result.
The conversation then moved on to best practice in performance management. Participants were asked to look at the way in which performance management is used in their workplace and identify areas where it could be developed. The key conclusions of this topic were that fairness was central to a positive performance management structure. Agreed and achievable targets, clear procedures and adequate time to perform required duties were all identified as crucial features.
The aim of the CWU Call Centre Forum is to develop strategies that encourage call centres to operate according to the principles of quality employment. The IBOA’s CSi campaign is specifically campaigning on issues identified by members in finance call centres.
The information gathered on the day will be used to direct the Union’s campaigning into the future. For a union to truly represent the interests of its members, it is vital that those members are given the opportunity to tell the union what is important to them and what issues are affecting them in their workplace. It is hoped that members will continue to engage with their union to work toward a better future for all call centre workers.
The Call Centre Forum was a great success. Participants expressed their genuine enjoyment of the day and appreciated the opportunity to meet other workers who faced the same challenges in their daily work. The CWU and IBOA will continue to engage with their members to address the challenges faced by call centre workers and will work toward changing the landscape for the better.
As a result of the excellent contributions from members at last year’s Call Centre Forum, a wealth of information was collected. All this feedback was then analysed and assembled into a Charter for call centre working. This document can be used to engage with employers to adopt best practice and to recognise where there is room for improvement in workplaces. The CWU Call Centre Charter was launched at this year’s event and is available on the CWU’s dedicated call centre website at www.callcentreunion.ie
Details of IBOA’s CSi campaign are available to members at http://www.iboa.ie/my/currentcamp/campaignnews/2012/10/02/csi-answering-your-call/
CWU and IBOA The Finance Union
Members of UNI’s U.S. affiliate the Communication Workers of America (CWA) gathered last week for the 2012 Customer Service Conference in St. Louis – just one of the many events coinciding with Call Center Action Month worldwide.
The conference featured panel discussions about contractual language, offshoring and organizing. The 150 participants talked about the industry’s challenges and the political environment.
Speakers included CWA President Larry Cohen, District 6 Vice President Claude Cummings, Piedmont Airlines ramp agent and CWA leader Abdur Bilal and Missouri State Rep. Karla May.
“There are more than 5 million customer service workers in the United States, employing more than 4 percent of the American workforce,” said Chief of Staff Ron Collins. “The more CWA can grow and organize this key sector, the better we can reduce workplace stress, negotiate better working conditions for our members and, most importantly, challenge offshoring. Too many companies have shipped jobs overseas to low-wage countries, devastating the domestic call center industry. But bringing these good jobs back home will help jumpstart our economy — building stronger communities, quality jobs and enhanced security for consumers’ personal information. That’s why we’re telling Congress to pass the U.S. Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act.”
During the conference, attendees participated in three different actions. Some leafleted an AT&T worksite. Others did an action at Wells Fargo, which is expanding its call center operation in the Philippines after laying off hundreds of American workers. And a number of activists, including Cohen and T-Mobile workers, made phone calls in support of Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is running for re-election against Rep. Todd Akin. (Compare McCaskill and Akin’s records at www.cwavotes.org.)
CWA, in partnership with UNI Global Union, kicked off October with two new reports, “Why Shipping Call Center Jobs Overseas Hurts Us Back Home” and “Making the Right Call — Redesigning Call Centres from the Bottom Up.” CWA has launched a campaign to build public support for the call center bills introduced by Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) and Sen. Robert Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.). Locals across the country have also planned demonstrations, such as pre- and post-shift parking lot rallies and lunchtime workshops on issues of importance to call center workers.
Read more on CWA’s web site: http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwaers_take_action_for_call_center_jobs#.UIjWAcXA9IE
The Communications Workers’ Union (Ireland) is proud to support UNI’s Call Centre Action Month by visiting its call centre members in their workplaces to highlight this year’s theme ‘Performance Management – From the bottom up’.
As the premier union for call centre workers in Ireland, the CWU has been at the forefront of advising and guiding its call centre members on how best to deal with oppressive performance management, which can often be a fact of life in call centres. The Union has developed and re-launched an important document ‘Survival Guide to Performance Management’ to complement the Call Centre Action Month and this has been very well received by our members.
To highlight this international month of activity, being coordinated by UNI in call centres across the globe, the CWU has been visiting its members in their call centres with this important message. This has allowed the Union to engage directly with its members on the ground and to discuss our performance management Survival Guide, as well as encouraging members to complete the online survey being coordinated by UNI on call centre conditions and work practices.
All of this activity is leading to a key event being organised by the CWU in conjunction with IBOA – The Finance Union, which is a seminar for call centre activists on the theme of performance management. This seminar will bring together activists from financial, telecoms, IT and postal/courier call centres to discuss their experiences with performance management in the workplace. The intention is that the day will be relaxed and informal, and will encourage members to openly discuss issues they feel affect their daily work. We anticipate a very engaging, lively and honest discussion and look forward to highlighting the outputs of this seminar in November.
CCAM in Croatia
As a part of Call Centre Action Month, UNI’s affiliate HST organized a round table on work in call centers in Croatia. Workers and trade union representatives discussed the main challenges that call centers workers face in their work.
The biggest problems in Croatian call centers are stress, burnout, anxiety and insufficient training. Constant changes to the service specification cause stress among the workers; they feel insecure, leading to depression and anxiety. In order to save costs, the employers are cutting the number and the length of the trainings, which makes workers’ life even harder.
Coaching methods, including call recordings and feedback to the worker, are quite often misused as tools to punish workers instead of improve their knowledge and performance. Most of the workers who experienced such practices felt de-motivated and they find their job uncertain!
Employers hire many students with lower salaries, offering them more complex jobs. It decreases the price of the work, putting more pressure on permanently employed workers – especially in the case of different standards in the performance assessment process!
Croatian Telecom (Croatian affiliate of Deutsche Telekom) has brought in a new strategy for customer services with the main focus being on sales. This has created additional problems for call center workers as they have to sell services which are not always the best choice for the customer!
Therefore, Croatian call center workers request from the employer an opportunity to have their voices heard and their opinions taken into consideration. Only when workers are satisfied can they make the customers satisfied!
During the month of October, HST will start collective bargaining in Croatian Telecom and this will be a good opportunity to deal with all the issues mentioned above.
HST also posts CCAM info our web page (www.hst.hr), translated in Croatian and available to all our members and call centre workers. We have also sent an e-mail to all our members in call centers with CCAM info and link for the survey and call to participate in it.
Croatian Trade Union of Telecommunications