Hold The Line.

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Author Enda Brophy has spent the past decade researching call centres. His book Language Put To Work chronicles how the industry has transformed the world of communications and looks at how workers fight back within it. Paul Dillon took his call.

You write how, in the first decade of the 21st century one in every 3 jobs created in Ireland was a call centre job. And you define the call centre economy as part of the “Cyberteriat”? Can you tell readers who forms the Cyberteriat and what role they play in economic life today?

The cybertariat is a concept I borrow from the feminist labour scholar Ursula Huws. The way I use the cybertariat in this book is to name a different set of working subjects and cultures. The case I make is that while it is strikingly diverse in its composition, the cybertariat’s labour processes tend to be mediated by information technology, highly routinized, disciplinary, and almost entirely lacking the passion and autonomy one hears so much about in descriptions of work in the creative industries. The cybertariat is not doing what it loves.

These are workforces assembled to carry out the miserable jobs that communicative capitalism depends on, workers who input the data, take care of the communication, deliver the products, maintain the consumer relationships, offer the support, and execute the sales. They are just as proletarianized as workforces have always been in capitalism in the sense that they have no other way to make money other than by selling their labour, but this relationship occurs in increasingly cybernetic environments.

One final point I would make is that I am not suggesting the first group of “creative workers” are not proletarianized—they most certainly are, but their working cultures are often markedly different than those generated by the drab, workaday lives of the cybertariat.

What acts of resistance in call centres stand out for you as acts that might be copied by others who work in call centers, or taken up by those organising call centre workers?

The book focuses on three cases of collective organization by call centre workers culminating in outright conflict with employers: a strike in Atlantic Canada by call centre workers belonging to an established trade union, innovations in labour struggles developed at the margins of the labour movement by a rank and file union in New Zealand, and a form of self-organization forged by workers operating outside of the established trade union movement altogether in Italy.

In all of these cases, workers relied on some of the classic tools used by labour against employers: dis-identification with management’s goals, quitting, slacking, and refusing work, circulating counter-perspectives on the work they were doing via electronic communication or alternative media, and sabotaging the labour process. One of the arguments I tried to make is that while some of the scholarly literature writes off individualized and informal forms of resistance like slacking off or quitting your job as minor and ineffectual, they are actually very important in that they can support, or even become the foundation for, more threatening and collective forms of action.

Other than this, I catalogue a great number of specific forms of resistance by call centre workers, from flexible strikes, to coordinated campaigns aiming to overload call centres with bogus calls during peak times, or workplace occupations. Those examples and many others will, I hope, be helpful to call centre workers depending on their specific situation.

There is no one size fits all approach—sabotage may advance workers’ positions in some cases, while collective organizing through a union may be the best solution in others. I certainly don’t advocate outright conflict unless the situation is favourable, since management has a formidable array of weapons trained at insubordinate call centre workers, including intense surveillance, temporary contracts so workers can be let go at will, and disciplinary enforcement of infractions.

You raise the question of “whether the established union movement in its present form is an adequate vehicle for collective organisation of the cyberteriat.” What do you mean by that, and what conclusions are you willing to draw around that from your research?

Established unions do crucial work and in the majority of cases they remain the best solution possible for a workforce that is clearly on the back foot. I have organized through established unions in the past and have appreciated the resources they can provide to unorganized workers trying to improve their working conditions.

At the same time, I am sympathetic to critiques of the unions that were founded before the rise of neoliberalism, including that they can be too bound by legislation, by organizational culture, and by conservative hierarchies which are averse to conflictual action, organizing the unorganized, and addressing gendered and racialized injustices generated through labour markets. In my research I found that the boldest, most creative, and effective actions from workers came through organizations at the margins of the established labour movement, or operating beyond it altogether. This may be a coincidence and it could speak to my choice of case studies, but I don’t think so.

The Italian case of the workers at Atesia is particularly eye-opening: here a small group of workers, organizing against both the bosses and the established trade unions that were signing contracts enshrining the workers’ precarious employment, forced a nationally-binding regularization of precarious call centre employment in the country, the broadest I’ve heard of in the sector.

Labour organizations should always keep creative and confrontational tactics in the toolkit, including brand-tarnishing, and direct actions like picketing call centre company customers or even occupying workplaces and taking them over if possible. All of these tactics have been used to great success in the examples explored in my research.

The figures on “churn” in call centres are startling. You quote a statistic saying that Ireland’s call centres may have a churn of a third over a year. What does this high level of staff turnover mean for workers organising in call centres?

I’ve tried to challenge the predominant understanding of workplace churn as a sign of labour’s weakness in the workplace. Rather, I argue that workplace turnover is a manifestation of one of the most basic forms of labour resistance under capitalism: refusing a job that is unacceptable. When looked at from this perspective the massive ongoing exodus from the call centre is not a sign of labour’s subjection but rather of its resistance and autonomy. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that labour turnover is expensive and difficult to handle for call centre management.

One solution to the problem generated by workplace churn lies in recognizing that workers with experience in organizing a union could bring the seeds of unionization from one workplace to the next. In New Zealand, Maori and Pacific Islander workers organized in the fast food sector by the Unite Union in its Supersize My Pay campaign of 2005, popped up in call centres a couple of years later and hit the ground running in the Calling for Change campaign organizing outsourced call centres.

What will automation mean for the future of call centre work? Does automation threaten the future of call centre workers, in a very fundamental way, in that it may mean that huge numbers of call centre workers are replaced?

For call centre companies the automation of call centre work offers a tempting alternative to the cost and effort associated with shaping, disciplining, and supporting an often unpredictable labour force. In fact, this kind of labour is already partially automated and the work has been downloaded to the consumer, who is forced to press buttons as they navigate through automated menus to access the information, services, or people they need. And a cutting-edge industry is developing around the goal of expanding on this first, rudimentary stage of call centre automation, drawing on advances in AI, database mining, and computer-processing speed.

On the other hand, the more you know about call centre work the more you appreciate the degree of complex, culturally-sensitive, and emotionally intelligent labour that often goes into it when it is performed well. Even training workers from the Indian subcontinent around the cultural nuances of the consumers they’ll be speaking to in the United States is immensely complicated.

But the prospect of automation should nonetheless be taken very seriously by workers and their organizations.

When describing the composition of the call centre labour you use the words “feminisation, precarity, mobility” and you note that women are overrepresented on the call centre floor, and underrepresented in management positions and in high tech sector. Can you elaborate on this?

I see call centre work as a clear example of a broader labour market transformation, what has been called the “feminization” of labour. This is a double process involving growing participation by women in the waged workforce and an expansion of the formal economy to include jobs that are female-associated (nursing, care-giving, child rearing, etc.).

Most estimates put the info-service workforce in call centres globally at somewhere around 70% female, and this statistic is surprisingly consistent globally. So the call centre is a feminized space, but this doesn’t mean that it is an egalitarian one by any means—these workspaces institute and consolidate new forms of patriarchal and class relationships.

You end the book on a hopeful note by arguing that “another call centre is possible”. You note that discussion of how call centres could be transformed by and for the cybertarian workforce are few and far between. Why is this the case?

I’m genuinely stumped at the lack of research on examples of socially progressive applications of the call centre. Nor do scholars seem to be interested in examples of the call centre or similar workspaces being organized democratically in a genuinely democratic fashion. So there’s an immense amount of academic research on call centres, but virtually none of it has explored the relevant historical and contemporary examples of workers running the phone lines without bosses, whether through collectives, cooperatives, or during labour occupations.

To give just one example, the NGO Women on Waves runs, among other services, a safe abortion hotline for women in Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Thailand, Poland, and Morocco. These examples are really important and we should be paying attention to them.

The buke is called Language Put to Work: The Making of the Global Call Centre Workforce. Out on Palgrave Macmillan. Photo by William Brawley on Flickr.

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