On the Line

How call centers quietly became the modern epicenter of precarious, exploitative work.

Women operating a Bell telephone switchboard circa 1945. US National Archives

The next issue of Jacobin, “Journey to the Dark Side,” will be out February 21. Subscribe for the first time at a discount.

Over one million people in the United Kingdom alone are now estimated to work in call centers, often on casualized contracts and with low pay. Mark Serwotka, leader of the UK’s Public and Commercial Services union, described them as “the new dark satanic mills” and have been said to replace factories, in the Global North, as epicenters of worker exploitation.

Jamie Woodcock’s new book Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centers is a detailed study into what life is like for call-center workers. Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal for Jacobin spoke to him about the motivations for the book, the potentials for organizing, and the future of call-center work.

Your new book is an insider’s account of what it’s like inside the call center. Why do you think it’s important for us to get to grips with what’s going on inside these workplaces in particular?

The decision wasn’t so much because I wanted to study call centers — I wanted to look at low-paid casual work. If you try and get a casual job in London, every agency will try and send you to a call center, so as an example of low-paid casual work they were easy to get access to. Call centers are also symbolic of many of the changes taking place in work, such as the shift away from manufacturing to service work.

You worked in a call center for six months and the book is a result of this undercover research. What were some of the most striking things you discovered while working there? Did you find anything you weren’t expecting?

The most surprising thing is the pervasive use of surveillance technology. The moment you enter you realize everything you’re doing is being timed, collated, and turned into metrics. That is really astonishing. It’s also the visibility of targets. All across the call-center floor are whiteboards with targets and people’s names on, and television screens above you with targets. That pressure is everywhere. I assumed it would be like that but you can’t escape it while you’re there.

Do you think that the level of surveillance in the call center is higher than in other industries, or is this something that’s common to a lot of low-paid casual work?

I think increasingly everybody is being pushed by targets and metrics. I’m somebody who works in a university, where you’re graded by your students every term, you have certain metrics you have to reach to stay in the job and so on. But it happens across the service sector. What’s different about call centers is that the technology allows so much integration. It’s harder to do that, for example, in hospitality, where there’s often more human supervision required. In the call center you can literally read off every statistic because of the integration between the phone and the computer.

How did people working in the call center feel about their job? Did people invest in it at all?

The call-center work was instrumentalized as a way to pay rent and bills, with no one identifying as a “call-center worker.” The work was seen as temporary with no longer-term employment options other than being paid slightly more as a supervisor. The call center, like many others, had a very high turnover. Workers did not give notice when they wanted to leave, but walked out mid-shift or didn’t come back for next week’s shift. This widespread refusal of work was also felt in the general attitude to the work: dreading making calls and finding creative ways to reduce the time on the phones.

Did most people go into the job expecting it to be part time?

In the call center that I worked in it was not possible to work full time. Management organized the shifts on a part-time basis, with afternoon and evening slots during the week and all day over the weekend. The problem for sales is that lots of people are at work from 9 AM to 5 PM during the week, so the key times to reach people are after work or on the weekend. The emphasis on part-time work also comes from a recognition of the risk of burnout from working too much, with management seeing that it is better to have a larger pool of part-time workers.

Some of your other research looks at digital labor and the changes that technology have brought to work. Can you expand on how technology functions in the call center and helps to facilitate the surveillance you talked about?

An interesting way to think about call centers is to think about the jobs that they replaced. So, for example, you have the displacement of bank workers, tellers in banks, with call centers. You have help lines of various kinds displacing that expert knowledge. Sales call centers displace the door-to-door salesman, or the person in the shop trying to convince you to buy something.

But in a way they don’t displace those roles, because you would never have come across the life insurance product that was being sold, or the subscription to the magazine, or whatever it is now being sold down the phone. Call centers are a new attempt to try and sell to people at any possible point — not just while you’re in the shop, or when you’re looking for something. It’s an attempt to get sales more deeply into people’s lives.

I think when we look at what digital labor is being used for, it’s about creating platforms where vast quantities of data are being collected in order to profile us, in order to sell us things. The difference is that this is increasingly seen in attempts to advertise to us in various ways and not by making a direct sales encounter. But we could see in the future what might happen. Facebook can collect vast amounts of data and profile people to a very deep level. How do you use that information to extract profit? It’s going to be some kind of encounter like that which is facilitated by the call center. So I think we’ll see a deeper integration of these things.

What I think is really interesting is when we look at something like a call center, it relies on lots of other labor, most importantly the writing of scripts. This happens entirely away from the call center. Call centers now are not run on telephone lines, they’re run over the internet. There’s a whole range of digital labor that is relied upon, as well as industrial labor in the Global South which produces all the headsets and computers.

In the book you talk about the many small acts of resistance that workers do everyday and identify these as examples of struggle and refusal of work. Equally, you document your difficulties in trying to unionize your workplace. There’s a particular section of the book where you describe being unable to join the union online, and being sent just three paper sign-up forms in the post when you called them to discuss organizing.

Do you have any thoughts on what trade unions should be doing differently? Is it important for them to have a strategy around call centers and similarly casualized workplaces?

Trade unions have to try to do more. In the United Kingdom, they’re facing massive falls in membership numbers and a collapse of the subscriptions base. It would make sense for them to try and recruit new members. The problem is there isn’t the political will to do it at the moment. I think in that sense, we have to not wait around for the trade union leadership to want to organize in these areas.

What I try to do in the book is say that those small acts of resistance are the building blocks from which organization is formed. The problem is, as the example of joining the union in the book shows, it’s very difficult to link that organization on the shop floor to a trade union. I think the challenge is how to build sustainable organization and I don’t think that always means joining one of the existing trade unions. I think things like the IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) at the moment are proving that there are very successful worker-led models, with the campaign around Deliveroo for example. I think what we need to figure out is which of these is generalizable, which elements can spread further, but to not put all of our faith in the trade union bureaucracy.

You talk a lot about the emotional and affective labor aspect of call-center work and the damaging impact this can have on the people working there: exhaustion, burnout, etc. It’s clear that management needs workers to use their expressive and emotional faculties, but equally they don’t know how to manage this aspect of the work effectively. Can you talk about the role these elements play in the job and how they impact the relationship with management?

The emotional labor aspect is incredibly draining. It’s one of those things that management are unable to effectively manage because you get this tension between the quantitative demands — number of sales, number of calls made — and then the qualitative aspect — how good is the sales encounter, how well have you used the emotions? Management finds it very difficult to do the qualitative aspect.

You see elements of it with the “buzz session” to try to encourage people, but ultimately these skills vary from every sales encounter and they vary with every worker. How to successfully flog bad insurance is a very complex skill. In the book I talk about the deployment of “packages of affect” that have to be combined in various ways in order to carry out that sale.

There’s a recognition from management about how stressful this is, and this is reflected in the fact that the job is always part time. There are some inbound call center jobs that you can probably do for longer, but in high sales call centers, you can’t do the job full time.

Did the people working in your call center find any ways of coping or managing this particular aspect of the job?

You have to be able to compartmentalize it in order to survive a shift. During the calls you will often hear these horrible examples of tragedies in people’s lives, or people just telling you to fuck off. It requires a performance that you’re able to put on so that it isn’t you on the phone and you feel that when you’re being shouted at it’s not really you that’s being shouted at. But that creates a dissonance because you’re feeling and displaying emotions that you aren’t feeling internally.

I think it’s something that brings people together, you have that shared experience so that when you leave work you can vent for a bit, go and do something else, and it creates a solidarity between people because you’ve been through that collective experience.

You identify call centers as illustrative of the desperation of capital, a drive towards sales at a time of a crisis in profitability. Do you think they are sustainable and what do you think the future of these workplaces is? How do you see the explosion of these workplaces as relating to the current crisis?

I think sales call centers are an attempt to realize profit from products or services that wouldn’t otherwise be bought. Insurance is a very good example of this. If that insurance package is not bought, it doesn’t sit on a shelf or go bad, but if you can squeeze further sales out of this repackaged product then you can try to regain some sense of profitability.

What will happen to call centers in the future I think is interesting because increasingly non-sales call centers are becoming automated. There’s an example of a UK university now that doesn’t have a call center, because people don’t call it. They tweet or they send an email. Lots of those kinds of jobs are going to disappear. The difficulty is thinking will sales will disappear.

Yes, because it seems like the affective element in the sales call center is too central to the work. Can you automate that kind of call center when it’s so reliant on the performance of the worker and their ability to make the sale?

If you just had an automated reading out of a script, no-one would buy your product. We’re not yet at the point yet where artificial intelligence can convince people to buy things they don’t need. Perhaps in the future we’ll get to the point where these things can be done, but for now it requires human interaction. But this is human interaction stripped of all the things that make it worthwhile and converted into a tool to sell things over the phone. So I think we will see sales call centers continue at least for a while.

There is such a level of frustration and anger generated by inbound call centers when you’re put through option after option, trapped on a call with no way of speaking to a human operator. Will there be an inevitable backlash against automated services and will such a backlash mean anything significant?

The experience of trying to reach someone who can help in a call center is a particularly difficult one. It brings to mind Kafka’s The Castle, and a feeling of just shouting into a void. Increasingly, these kinds of inbound services are being moved onto online platforms and becoming part automated. This is fine if you don’t have a time sensitive issue — you can raise a complaint online and wait for a response.

However, when there is an urgent need is when a backlash is most likely — but also when it is least likely to be heard! The negative experiences of automated customer services will just become another part of the experience of contemporary capitalism, albeit with niche and expensive services offering the opportunity to speak to a real person.

Now that you’ve done a workers’ inquiry into call centers, are there others jobs, workplaces, or sections of the economy that you think we need to do inquiries into, or look at more closely from the labor process point of view?

The first part of the book is an argument for doing this kind of fine-grained analysis of a particular type of work from the perspective of the people who do that work. This used to be done much more commonly and Marxists used to have more of an interest in what people did for their work. With call centers, they are not the most advanced or particularly militant section of the economy, but there are a huge number of people working there. It’s currently estimated to be about a million in the United Kingdom.

But there are clearly other sectors that require a deeper understanding. Catering and hospitality, for example. I also think universities — the linking between academic, administrative, and cleaning staff needs to be done, as well as looking at the role of students today. I think we need to start unpicking what the transformation of capitalism recently means for work, resistance, and organization. We can try to be strategic about what places should be studied, but we should also do studies where we work, where we know people already.

Ultimately, it’s a project of knowledge creation, but one that’s tied to organization. We shouldn’t do these things just because we’re interested and want to find out things. That’s important, but we also do it because we want to change things and that means building new kinds of organization. Hopefully, experiments like this book can offer us ways and point us in the right direction.

Our next issue, “Journey to the Dark Side,” will be out February 21. Subscribe today.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.