A Day’s Work
Joanna Biggs reports from the workplace
On the Phone
Behind a branch of a fast-food chain in Lincoln, there is a featureless yellow brick call centre open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. From the level of noise as the call centre handlers walk in, they can often guess what’s happening across the country. Bad weather causes a surge in the number of calls: a dense, chattering sound. A terrorist attack is loud. But less dramatic worries are quieter and more frequent: anger at a lost connection, sorrow for a family member who’s died, simple loneliness. T. has spent 11 years solving problems with people’s phone and broadband connections through his headset. When we meet on his lunch break in a side room too small for the many office chairs in it, he’s already eaten the pasta he brought from home at his desk. Tucked behind his ear is a rollie with a neat twist at the tip, and he takes it down to turn it over in his hands as he talks; normally he’d smoke through his lunch hour. He’s wearing long jean shorts and a Homer Simpson T-shirt; his eyes are ringed with yellow-blue shadows. ‘To be honest, this place takes so much out of me,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to pull away when I get home. I certainly swear at home more because I’m allowed to, but other than that really, unless I’ve got a couple of days off together, I do feel I’ve lost a large part of myself working here. I just had two weeks off through sick and holiday, and it was painful coming back. I really, really had to make myself come in. Because I just didn’t want to. I know it has a detrimental effect on home life for me. I can’t talk for definite about everyone else. I know there’s quite a few people who drink a lot more since they started working here, but …’
When T. was four or five, he wanted to be a binman: ‘You get to make a hell of a mess.’ His mother was a lab technician at a secondary school and his father a civil engineer but he had ‘never been able to apply myself in an academic situation. So it took me three years to do half-decent at my A levels, whereas my sisters both cracked on, knuckled down and got excellent grades.’ He dropped out of university after four months and worked in kitchens and bars (he would work in bars if he won the lottery: ‘You’re chatting to people who actually want to talk to you not because something’s gone wrong and they have to talk to you’). He came to the call centre through an agency as a ‘stop-gap and eleven and a half years later I’m still here. So I fell into the trap.’ He thought it would be a good job for a year or so, but ‘the money just keeps you here.’ T. is married with children, and though it’s September, he reminds me Christmas is coming. ‘That’s what’s difficult to get away from because part of me wants to try different career paths, try something that’s not answering the phones, but there’s nothing with the same money for this level of qualifications.’
He gets up at 6 a.m. most days and walks the two and a half miles to work listening to music: ‘The music is to stop me thinking about the fact that I’m heading here.’ (His MP3 player is broken, so he has been borrowing his wife’s; he can’t skip quickly enough when it gets to ‘Bailamos’ by Enrique Iglesias.) When he gets to work the first thing he’ll do is have a cigarette outside: ‘You find out what’s going on here two months before the management do.’ He must be logged in and ready to take calls at 8 a.m. Somewhere between 9.15 and 10.45 a.m. he’ll have a break for 15 minutes: a coffee in the canteen is 90p, but T. brings milk from home and makes his own. He used to have a coffee every hour ‘because it was an excuse to get away from my desk’; now he has cut down to three or four a day. As he works, sitting in an ergonomic mesh chair in his headset, he’ll be reminded by large electronic screens on the wall striped green, amber or red how well he and his colleagues are doing in responding to and handling calls. The standards change but they create both time and emotional pressure: T. is supposed to answer and deal with whatever arises after a call is finished within a certain time, he has to direct the problem to the person who can solve it on the first call; he must collect details like mobile numbers, email addresses and agreement to a text message customer satisfaction survey. ‘You have customers who don’t want to listen but you’ve got managers breathing down your neck, saying you’ve got to let them speak to you like crap basically.’ A noticeboard at the entrance divides ordinary phrases into two columns: ‘I’m not sure’, ‘usually’, ‘obviously’ and ‘maybe’ are ‘below the line’ and ought to be avoided. ‘Above the line’ terms include: ‘lovely’, ‘excellent’ and ‘what can I do?’ The emotional labour of a call centre isn’t just learning to withstand a customer’s impatience but also learning to speak in a voice other than your own.
At lunch he’ll smoke or he’ll call his wife, his kids or his grandparents: there’s ‘someone to ring every day’. Everyone who works there gets free broadband and there are landlines provided in the atrium, under nursery-bright murals of slogans like ‘Let’s Pull Together – We’re One Big Team’ and ‘We Don’t Shift the Blame’ and ‘Do Something Brilliant’. In the yellow-walled staff canteen, most sit alone, eating in front of a propped-up tablet computer, or hunched over a smartphone. The next break is around 2 p.m. If there’s been a particularly nasty call, he’ll go out and smoke, hoping someone will be out there: ‘That’s really the only way to survive it when you’re getting calls like that. You need to vent about them.’ If you get stuck on a call at 4 p.m. – the end of the shift – you can’t tell the customer, and managers don’t always notice the ends of shifts. T. doesn’t feel satisfied at close of day: ‘You’ve got no vision of what will happen to a call once you put the phone down. It goes off somewhere else, someone else deals with it and whether they get things right, get things wrong, get it fixed, you don’t know.’ At the end of the day, T. will walk home again, or maybe stop for a drink with a colleague. ‘I couldn’t tell you the amount of people I’ve been friends with, gone out drinking with and whatever and I never see now because they don’t work here.’ The next morning as T. gets ready for work again, his young son might tell him: ‘No Daddy – no work. Work’s closed. No. Work’s closed.’
T. earns £10.90 an hour, which brings him a salary of £22,105 a year without overtime, a figure above the UK living wage of close to £16,000 but below the median wage of £27,000 a year. He’s still employed via the agency that got him the job when he was twenty. (Young people increasingly use an agency to find their first job, as permanent contracts become rarer.) Sometimes, as for T., the permanent contract doesn’t come; perhaps it will never come. He can’t count on his hours or claim sick pay and doesn’t have access to all the services more secure employees do; he sits alongside colleagues on permanent contracts who are paid £3, £4 or £5 an hour more than him. A campaign led by his union, the Communication Workers’ Union, led to him being put on the same accelerating pay scale as permanent employees three years ago, following EU legislation on temporary workers. He was lucky to get in before agencies developed ‘Pay Between Assignments’ contracts, which keep agency workers on less money because of the way they got the job. These new zero-hours arrangements use a legal loophole to stop workers claiming equal pay with their colleagues after the three-month trial period; several agency workers on PBA contracts I approached felt too vulnerable to talk to me. A contract is seen as a ‘golden ticket’ by workers and a ‘carrot’ by managers, according to Jonathan Bellshaw, the CWU representative for T.’s call centre. It seems that for each new generation coming into the workplace, the conditions get worse.
On 5 January, the first working day of the year, adverts appeared on London Underground trains where adverts for Match.com normally are. In black type on canary yellow, there was a sentence – ‘It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working’ – from an article by David Graeber for Strike! magazine about ‘bullshit jobs’. Productive jobs, he argues, have been automated away and replaced by administrative ones which masquerade as service: HR, PR, financial services, ancillary industries like dog-washing and all-night pizza delivery. These bullshit jobs are very like T.’s. It’s work that looks like work – it fills up a forty-hour week – but feels pointless to the people doing it and wouldn’t be missed if it disappeared. ‘The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound,’ Graeber writes. ‘It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.’
‘When the stress of it all gets to you, it doesn’t matter what you do to separate work from home,’ T. said. ‘I’ve been on antidepressants twice at least here. You can’t separate home from work, and because I’m agency there’s no sick pay for it. So when I’ve had that, I’ve just had to put up and shut up. It’s not like I can take off a month to pull my head together, because there’s just no financial way to be able to do it. I had a rough spell of it recently with an interaction with my manager but I’m hopefully getting beyond that because that really did have a negative effect on me, to the point where I was contemplating not coming back in. I was really close to saying: “Sod it. It’s not worth it. I’d rather have something minimum wage and not deal with that.” But I came back and I’m still here.’ Unqualified or low-skilled workers used to be valued for the things they did – work that may have exacted a physical toll, but might leave them enough mental space for the life they wanted to live outside of it. Now they are valued for emotional resilience, and the shortfall is left to Seroxat and Heineken. Would T. be happy to think that his identity came from what he does all day? ‘I really hope not. I could not say enough how I hope not. I used to like who I was, and if this place is now my identity, then I don’t like myself. Literally, apart from the few people that I can sit and have a chat with and a gas with, the money is only just passable as the reason I come here. So, if the money changed, or certain people didn’t work here any more, I can safely say I would probably be at the Job Centre looking.’
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