Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Call centers: A new front in the class struggle

By Caleb T. Maupin
Published Aug 21, 2011 8:22 PM

Across the world, as capitalism adjusts to its newly strengthened ability to force workers to accept wages lower than ever, “call centers” are a growing area of employment.

This growing industry involves workers who receive or make phone calls. They either sell products or deal with customer complaints and concerns.

The lowest paid call center employees in the world are in Somalia, according to the CIA World Factbook. The political situation allowing these extremely low wages for Somali telephone workers has been enforced with U.S. bombs and cruise missiles.

India is also the site of a growing number of call centers, as are Bangladesh, the Philippines and many other impoverished countries throughout the world.

But call centers are also numerous and big in the imperialist countries. In Britain, 3.5 percent of the entire workforce is made up of call center workers. The BBC has even referred to call centers as “the factories of the 21st century.” (March 10)

In the U.S., hundreds of thousands if not millions of young people are finding themselves not standing on an assembly line, but sitting in front of a computer screen wearing a headset. In exchange for this dull and often highly stressful labor, they are collecting much lower wages than unionized factory workers did two earlier generations.

Call center workers often depend on commissions to receive anything higher than minimum wage, and in some cases they are forbidden from contesting the amount of commission they receive, even if statistically their results merit higher wages according to the company’s own regulations. Many call center workers are college graduates.

The tasks of call center workers can be very difficult. Their jobs can involve making “cold calls” to people, randomly asking them to buy a product or make a donation. A worker’s commission can depend on her or his ability to convince someone, who calls in to make a complaint, to instead upgrade their cable TV or buy a new product from the company they are complaining to.

A foreperson or “manager” often walks up and down the aisles of call centers, watching workers’ every move and driving them to produce better results with threats and scolding.

Some call centers require their workers to purchase headsets, uniforms and necessary tools for doing the job from the company itself. It is also very difficult to get full-time employment at a call center. Often workers cannot get enough hours to make ends meet.

Efforts to unionize call center workers in the U.S. have begun. In 2010, the Communication Workers of America announced that unionizing call center workers was a top priority. (Search “improving call center jobs” at www.cwa-union.org/news)

Many of the Verizon workers along the East Coast of the U.S. who are now striking for better wages normally work in Verizon’s call centers, answering the phone when complaints about Verizon land lines are made, or changes in service are required.

In the lead-up to strike, Verizon workers held joint “stand ups,” in which they refused to sit down for brief periods, standing at their desks in solidarity. They also wore bright red — the colors of their union — to work.

It is clear that as capitalism seeks to thrust a “low wage” future on the workers of the U.S., the struggle of call center workers against the harshness of this new field will intensify.

Maupin, a Workers World Party organizer, has worked in several different call centers.

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