Call centres charter agreed
In May 2004, the EU-level social partners in the telecommunications sector published a newly-agreed charter for employers and workers in the call centre sector. The charter sets out good practice guidelines in areas such as health and safety, working time and workload, surveillance, pay and benefits, training and worker representation.
On 5 May 2004, the European-level social partners in the telecommunications sector - the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) for employers, and UNI-Europa Telecom for trade unions - announced that they had reached agreement on joint guidelines to cover customer centres, or call centres, across the European Union. The guidelines, which take the form of a 'call centres charter', were concluded after some months of negotiations within the framework of the sector's European social dialogue process (EU0212203N). The charter was to be officially launched on 15 June 2004 in Brussels.
The charter lays down a set of broad principles for the call centre industry, with the aim of setting a 'reasonable industry standard'. It states that those call centres that make a commitment to adhere to the principles of the charter will be publicly acknowledged on the Union Network International (UNI) website, by UNI’s affiliated trade unions and by the industry. The charter sets out a range of key principles, before listing a number of minimum standards for call centres and their workers.
The charter lists the following key principles:
- call centres should provide for the minimum workplace conditions and pay and benefits, as set out in the charter (see below);
- any performance targets should be based on providing high-quality customer service rather than on the quantity of calls taken or made;
- training and development should be increased, in order to provide employees with skills and product training so that they can develop meaningful careers and quality customer service. Training should also be portable and accredited;
- call centres should make it a priority to train and retrain existing staff if new technologies or products, requiring new skills or qualifications, are introduced;
- work should be organised in such a way as to enable changes in company policy and product developments to be communicated prior to implementation. This should enable employees to participate in key decisions relating to the improvement of the provision of customer service;
- when decisions are being made on the location of a call centre, these should not merely be based on cost, but also on elements such as being close to the customer base, the demand for skilled and multilingual staff and access to a competitive telecommunications infrastructure;
- call centres should ensure that staffing levels are sufficient to ensure that there are enough staff to handle customer requirements effectively, that employees are able to attend training and staff meetings, that leave and other absences can be 'backfilled', and that employees are able to manage work, family and community responsibilities; and
- core labour standards, as set out in the 1998 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work are respected.
The charter states that employees should have a written employment contract or document detailing their terms of employment. Further, national legislation and agreements must be respected and call centres should try to create stable employment, wherever possible.
Managers and supervisors should support employees’ commitment to quality customer service. This should include providing all employees with adequate support and advice and taking a 'flexible approach to performance reviews' .
Health and safety
The charter states that light, ventilation, air filtering and heating systems need to be designed 'to cope with continued occupation, also at night-time' . In order to avoid back strain and repetitive strain injury (RSI), workers should be given training on how to sit, work and use their equipment safety. Chairs, desks, telephones and computer equipment should be designed ergonomically. Further, call centres should provide protection for workers using visual display units (VDUs) so as to avoid eyestrain and voice and hearing loss. There should be a 10-minute screen break at least every two hours. Employers should assess the risks of working with VDUs and comply with the EU Directive on display screen equipment.
Workers should spend no more than between 60% and 70% of their time actually taking calls - performance targets should be based on providing high-quality customer service rather than solely on the number of calls taken or made. There should also be protection from violence at work and abusive callers.
General health and safety provisions included in the charter refer to call centres providing: a dedicated space for breaks; food and drink (also for night workers); adequate toilets and washing facilities; a smoking policy; and first aid and employee security, particularly if staff are arriving or leaving very late at night. It notes that a large percentage of call centre staff may be women.
Working time and workload
Working time should be a maximum of 40 hours a week. There should be a rest period of 12 hours every day and a continuous 48-hour break every seven days. The charter states that flexible working hours can benefit both employees and management, but must be introduced by agreement. Further, call centre staff need to have influence over the hours and shifts that they work and shift rosters should be drawn up with adequate notice.
The charter adds that employees must be able to take time away from work (eg to care for dependants) and that staffing levels must be sufficient to ensure that there are enough staff to handle customer requirements, that employees can attend training and meetings, that absences can be filled and that employees can manage work, family and community responsibilities.
Surveillance and monitoring
The charter sets out a guidelines on monitoring of employees and their rights to privacy. It states that monitoring may only be allowed when the purpose is 'known and acceptable' and that any data collected may be used only for that purpose. The employees must know that they are being or may be monitored and any listening-in may take place only 'incidentally' , not continuously.
Employees must be allowed access to registered data and be able to correct inaccuracies. Finally, tapes must be destroyed after a certain period of time.
Pay and benefits
Pay levels must, it is stated, be linked to demonstrable skills and there should be direct pay comparisons with 'traditional' employees and clear pay structures in order to avoid high staff turnover. There should be extra premia for working on evenings, weekends or public holidays. Bonus payments should make up no more than 10% of gross wages.
The charter states that paid holidays should be granted according to national law, but should not be less than four weeks a year. Pay for holidays should be at least what the employee earned on average over the 12 months before the holiday.
Employees should be entitled to sick pay, maternity and paternity pay and leave, two months’ notice of dismissal and statutory redundancy pay after one year of service.
The charter sets out a range of employee rights in the area of training. It states that all employees should receive 'regular, broad-based portable and accredited training and skills development' . Training and retraining of staff should be a priority if new technology or products are introduced.
Call centres should provide employees with the tools to resolve, as far as practicable, a customer’s concern in one call.
There should be a right for workers to form and join trade unions and a right fir trade unions to represent workers in collective bargaining, the settlement of disputes, and negotiations and consultations in all matters affecting jobs and training.
Worker representatives should not be discriminated against and should be allowed full access to workplaces to enable them to carry out their duties. They should be allowed to negotiate specific collective workplace agreements that meet the particular needs of the company.
Call centres should communicate changes in company policy and product developments prior to implementation so that employees can have an input into the decision-making process.
Employees, trade unions and works councils should be able to access corporate e-mail facilities and the internet.
The new charter is significant, in that it represents the first agreement of its kind setting out a detailed charter of rights and duties for employers and employees working in the call centre sector. This sector has grown rapidly over recent years and now represents an important part of the telecommunications sector. The charter addresses all the main concerns that unions have about employment in call centres, ensuring that health and safety, workplace stress and workload issues are monitored. It also devotes a section to the issue of monitoring and surveillance, setting out guidelines for good practice in this area. It places significant emphasis on the issue of training and ensuring that employees can keep their skills up to date and that their skills are transferable. This is part of moves to ensure that the call centre sector provides high-quality employment and that employees can develop careers in this sector.
The UNI general secretary, Philip Jennings, stated that: 'We welcome this initiative which shows just what the social dialogue process that is built into the workings of the European Union can bring. We hope the guidelines will have influence well beyond the telecom sector and help drive out any cowboy employer tempted to ignore the well being of their employees.' The UK Communication Workers Union (CWU) also welcomed the accord, stating that the provisions on worker representation will ensure that employees and unions will be involved in any discussions to move the location of call centres. A significant number of UK companies have in recent years moved some or all of their call centre operations from the UK to countries such as India, a trend that has been a source of concern to trade unions (UK0405103F). (Andrea Broughton, IRS).