Strike at BT highlights union concern over conditions in call centres

In November 1999, a national one-day strike was held by British Telecommunications call centre staff in protest at their working conditions. The dispute coincides with expressions of concern over working practices in call centres more generally.

On 22 November 1999, staff at British Telecommunications (BT) call centres staged a one-day strike in protest at their "intolerable" working conditions. According to the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) which organised the strike, around 95% of its 4,000 members in 37 call centres took industrial action in what was the first national strike at BT for 13 years. The move followed a ballot in which 81% of those voting supported industrial action to highlight a range of staff concerns involving "stress, a bullying management style, unachievable targets and the widespread use of agency workers", and the failure of "11th-hour" talks between management and union officials. Following the strike, the union said that BT management had agreed to meet CWU officials to discuss the issues, but, pending a successful outcome to the talks, further days of action were planned for 10 December and early in the new year.

The CWU says the strikes reflect "mounting frustration" at the way in which BT call centre staff are managed. The union is highly critical of what it sees as insufficient staffing and rigid performance targets, including the imposition of unreasonable call-handing times. BT's "excessive and long-term" use of agency workers has also emerged as one of the CWU's principal concerns. The union argues that agency employees, many of whom are said to be CWU members, are seriously disadvantaged in terms of pay and conditions, pension rights and treatment in redundancy situations, compared to their colleagues with permanent BT contracts.

The dispute at BT highlights more general concern at working conditions in call centres - one of the most rapidly growing areas of employment in the UK where more than half of Europe's call centres are located. It is estimated that there are between 900 and 1,300 call centres in the UK, and that between 1% and 1.7% of the total UK workforce is employed in call centres - more than the combined workforce of coal mining, steel and vehicle production. This figure is predicted to increase to over 2% in the next two to three years.

Call centres have been described as the 21st century equivalent of the "sweat shop". They use automated call-distribution technology which automatically transfers incoming calls to available staff, and typically involve high levels of employee surveillance. Unions say that call centres, many of which are non-union, exhibit high staff turnover and sickness absence, reflecting poor pay and conditions and inadequate attention to health and safety issues, but that call centre staff in unionised workplaces tend to have better pay, training opportunities and quality of work. Labour market pressures are also reported to be pushing up pay in call centres.

On 29 November, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) announced it is to carry out new research into working practices in call centres. The research will measure potential physical and psychological health risks associated with call centre working practices and will explore what measures can be taken to reduce such risks. The HSE regards call centres as a "unique working environment" because of their combination of shift systems, electronic performance monitoring and extended, intensive periods of working with both a telephone and computer. An initial HSE study of call centre working showed that areas needing further research included musculoskeletal disorders and voice loss.

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