is what the mobilisations for EuroMayday1
and many publications2
about the issue of precarity come up with in their
search for a missing link between very different life
situations in neoliberalised Empire – and maybe even a
basis for a shared, radical consciousness. The picture
emerging from writings about cognitariat and migration,
from the struggles of the US-based "Justice for
Janitors" campaign and the intermittents in France,
from the intoxicating demonstrations3
of the EuroMayday Parades and their connectedness with
mobilisations for migrant rights, seems to lend
justification to the more theoretical reflections.
is a report about the callcenter where I have worked
on and off since 2001 – quite happily falling back on
it whenever other jobs didn't materialise, but also
increasingly frustrated about the demands of this monotonous
and increasingly controlled occupation. I would have
found it easier to write a leaflet about the issue of
precarisation, rather than this report. Everyday experience
in a callcenter is somehow reluctant to being used as
an illustration of political convictions. The connections
between boring everyday life at work and the colourful
practice on planet activism obviously don't emerge by
the concern of the following montage is humble: To describe
work in one of the many callcenters in London from the
perspective of some collegues and my own. It is based
on the notes in my diary, conversations and interviews
with collegues. All names have been changed.
"We are all
in London trying to make the best of it"
make it clear right away: I am not a callcenter worker.
Actually, I am like most others in this place, something completely
different. We are actors and webdesigners, marketing-people,
social workers, sound-engineers, students, filmmakers,
artists, journalists, writers and many other things.
"Most people who
live in London who are speaking foreign languages, who
are young and therefore who would want to do this job,
are living downtown. They are right in the thick of
people here in the callcenter have been attracted by the
promises of metropolitan London with its lively music,
entertainment and media scenes. In a small village in
Sicily, its not that easy to live as an openly gay man.
For a punk musician, it is easier to find likeminded
people in London than in provincial Germany. Anyway, a
job in a callcenter in London is better than no job at
all in the north of England, in Cuba, Poland or
"[The job is
suitable for] somebody who has not been on a career
beforehand or anything like that, a student for instance,
who is doing it as a means of getting by, and it is a
downside of getting another job. It is also nine to five,
in fact many think they have a good deal, because they
get 3 pds over the minimum wage, which allows a social
are working in the callcenter, because, other than in
catering, we get paid more than the minimum wage, which
wouldn't even pay for a daily travelcard in London;
we are busy with completely different projects, and we
don't want to commit to a permanent job; because we
don't have any formal qualifications beyond our
multilinguality and our friendly telephone voices; or
because we are new in London and can't sell the
qualifications we might have.
is used as a stepping stone to whatever the individual
who passes through doors is in between and going
and Erdem from Germany have just finished studying law
and are looking for a proper Job. Eduard from Ukraine is
a business student and always turns up in a formal suit.
Dean is teaching himself to make websites. Meanwhile,
his work in the callcenter earns him more than his old
job as social worker – and it is less stressful. Simon
and Russel lost their well-paid jobs, because their
companies folded. Sabrina wanted to get out of the
provincial town in Germany, where she was trained as a
someone who was doing it as a proper job... it is not
going to work."
some people are still with the same company after four
years. Some have been promoted to supervisors, or are
even hoping to get a permanent contract. After all, our
managers have once started as interviewers as well...
We are seated in 8 rows with 6 Terminals each. On both
ends of this block of terminals, there is a supervisor.
No matter where you sit, one of them always has her
sights on your screen and on yourself. Neighbouring
screens are arranged so that they are facing away from
each other. If you want to talk to your neighbour, you
have to turn around. Partitions between the screens
opposite one another prevent us from seeing each other.
But they don't prevent us from chatting through the
The callcenter does market research. More than 40 interviewers
are calling companies to ask employees responsible for
a certain area about their opinions and the practices
of their companies. Only rarely do we have to call people
at home, and we don't need to sell anything.
standard procedures are always the same, 80, 100, 150
times a day:
"You bring up a
new piece of sample on the screen, enter the phone
number into the phone, wait for a connection, say your
little sentence: "hello, my name is soandso from xy,
can i please talk to the person responsible for
electrotransmittercyclification?", bear with the
dreadful music in the electronic queue, ask the same
question to the next person,
being turned down, enter a note into the system:
respondent not in office, call back. Respondent on
holiday, call back. Refusal – company policy. Refusal,
too busy." Put down the phone, close the sample,
bring up new sample, make the next call."
you have the names of potential respondents, it is
easier to get through. Sometimes you find something
useful in google. After a while, you get to know your
way through the various company structures, you lern the
magic formulas that help you to get past the gatekeepers
of the individual departments.
than 100 calls per day rarely result in more than five
Interviews. The questionnaire must be read verbatim
from the screen. If you are caught using your own words,
you get told off by the supervisor. The answers – ratings
on a scale from one to five, answers to multiple choice
questions etc, are entered directly into the computer.
Then the program brings up the next question.
"like Charly Chaplin in Modern Times"
you are making phonecalls, eight hours a day with one
hour for lunch, your body is locked in technological
"Your eyes are
stuck to the screen, an earpiece is plugged into your
ears, a microphone in front of your mouth, your fingers
are on the keyboard, the numberpad, the mouse. Seeing,
hearing, talking, touching are made available for work,
reduced in an almost chaplinesque way to the
requirements of the Caty system. "Taste" is
disabled, for you need your mouth for talking."
after work, this cyborglike condition can remain
inscribed in your body:
"After the first
week of incessantly staring at the screen, my eyes could
not focus anymore. When I tried to keep eye contact with
people during conversations, my eyes hurt. As a
consequence, communication became difficult altogether.
I found it irritating to talk to people without eye
contact, for a while, I avoided conversations. By now,
my eyes have got used to this. Acknowledging this, the
company provided a special offer for glasses – two
pairs of glasses for 50 pounds. "
"When I'm making
calls in the evening, after work, or during the weekend,
my fingers still automatically type in the prefix
"9" before the number. Sometimes I nearly
continue my little recital from work, as soon as I am at
are nurturing a downright hatred against the headset:
"There is the
headset, which I always found embarrasing as well, that
was callcenter uniform. And I always used to worry
wearing that damned thing that it (laughs) would be
obvious at the end of the day if I went out into town,
that someone would see that I had been wearing a headset
all day, from what it had done to your hair."
like being in the military"
Every evening, we have to clear our desks and put the
minimal paperwork in a special basket. Apart from the
phone and the computer, nothing must remain on the desks:
no paperwork, no mug, no pens, photos, folders, hole-puncher,
bits of paper. Offences are being avenged by way of
little yellow post-it notes, which we find the next
morning on the keyboard.
almost like being in the military, where they take away
your individuality, down to the... they might as well
shave off your hair as well. And uniform – you are not
allowed to have anything on the desk that is
personalised. There is nothing personalised."
We are not allowed to eat at the desk. For this
activity, we are asked to use the kitchen, which is
separated from the office by glass panels. What happens
in the kitchen can be viewed from the office. Some
collegues are heating up their lunches in the microwave,
which produces a whiff of spaghetti with tuna or
veggie-rice between the desks. The management is always
at pains to train us to get our supply of coffee or tea
only in the assigned breaks or before work.
The office manager decides who will sit at which desk.
In some companies, the desks are assigned daily on a
first come, first served basis. Here, at least we have
the same desk for the duration of one project.
Like in the military, there are small victories: One
collegue fought like a lioness for a permanent desk.
Another one has managed to secure the only screen in
the office, which cannot be seen by a supervisor.
Some supervisors are not exactly happy about this quasi-military
regime. One reproved me for a coffee-cup trifle, only
to add: "I feel like a policeman".
measured, thats the thing about that job, its measured
at every turn. One, you get can your telephone conversations
listened to, secondly, somebody else can see your screen.
So the level of stress, because you are constantly under
scrutiny, is vast. I mean, the first few weeks you sweat,
you are worried the whole time. So at the end of the
day, by the end of the day, you get, your neck hurts,
and your back hurts, and your ears hurt, and
your eyes hurt, and everything hurts, for something
that is actually quite thankless."
collegue looks over my shoulder and says: "Why, you
are being monitored!" I ask her: "How do you
know?". She point to a small icon at the bottom of
the screen. When I put the cursor on it, the name of my
watcher appears. Not everybody in the office know to
interpret this icon:
"I would imagine
that those people who come from the agency don't
understand that that's the fact. So they just live in
fear and get on with things, because they don't know if
they are watched or not, but experienced people can tell
wether someone is logged on to their screen and is
watching what they are doing."
is a matter of routine to have supervisors listen to
some of the interviews. But I was not aware that the
screens are being watched as well. According to a new
law, you cannot be supervised without you being aware of
it. At least, now I know who can follow every single
step I do on this computer. I just hope that nobody was
watching when I updated the Indymedia Website, and that
nobody realised the open chatroom-window...
Kolinko call centre inquiry describes how agents have
to enter even the breaks you take to have a pee into
the system, or how the system switches itself to "absent
without reason" if a call doesn't get taken although
the agent is logged on.4
However, in this call center here, a weird combination
of highly technological and antiquated methods of control
prevails. Technically speaking, the management is able
to generate statistics about all sorts of things: How
long we surfed the web, how often we failed to come
to work as a percentage of the standard monthly hours,
how many minutes on average someone was late, how many
interviews every agent completed on average and in comparison
to others, and so forth. Sometimes, statistics for each
project are being printed out on the colour printer,
displayed on the office wall and consequently ignored
by most interviewers.
is no mechanical or electronic time clock. Its function
is assumed by the supervisors, who manually make a note
of the arrival of every single interviewer, then transfer
the data into a spreadsheet. If you are late, you are
being called back while heading to your desk and asked
to justify yourself:
- You are four minutes
late – why?
- I missed the train.
- Why didn't you call?
- Because I didn't
want to miss the next train as well.
- Please remember next
time: If you are going to be late, you must call.
rains from the top" : Distinction und preservation
of the self
individual's position within the complex internal
hierarchy is denoted in the signs provided by everyday
life in the office: Where you are being seated, which
rules you have to keep and which ones you can flout,
which projects you get assigned to, which kind of
contract you have, with whom you go for a smoke. Or
rather, these are also the signs we use to define our
own position within the hierarchy.
the bottom of the pile are the people from the temping
agency. One step above are those who receive their
contracts directly from the company, and those who are
not assigned to projects that require the use of the
Caty call center software, for example those who conduct
so-called qualitative Interviews. A collegue highlights
"That's qualitative stuff. You are not on a script
anymore. You are expected to use your mouth, you are
expected to be an individual, that's a completely
different ballgame (...)
When you are talking to CEOs, you can't be scared. You
have to talk to them as if you are a CEO yourself.
He makes a point of holding his ground when it comes to
preserving a certain degree of freedom, to which he is
in his oppinion entitled:
actually having two different sets of rules side by side
is a struggle in the office, because there is one rule
for one and one rule for the other. Now
and again, they try to correct that balance, and bring
those old caty rules back into the in-depth, or
qualitative research. And that just doesn't flow.
Because you can't have somebody who is expected to use
their own initiative to then follow guidelines about
The working environment in the call center blatantly
contradicts the task of talking to senior managers of
large corporations on a peer to peer level:
When you are dealing with executive interviews, you have
to steer away from it coming out of what seems to be a
callcenter. (...) So it becomes a bit of a sham. And the
whole thing feels fake, well, it is fake. It is. And you
have that sense all the time, if they could actually
just see you on the other end of the phone, see what is
going on in the environment of the other end, they'd put
the phone down and never deal with us again.
(...) But they don't see your desk,
they don't see your shabby outfit, they don't see
that you haven't shaved, they don't see your headset,
(laughs) that would kill it. That would definitely kill
Supervisors are clearly separated from interviewers.
Here is the perspective of one interviewer:
supervisors are all blocked off and walled off, and they
face you as if they are going to battle. That is what it
looks like. It's this sea of interviewers, and then this
wall of supervisors. (...)
It's a walled society, there is "us and
them" kind of thing. You might as well put them on
a platform with glass-screens and let them look down on
The office architecture reflects these metaphorical
walls: Larger desks with blinds for the supervisors, a
separate office for a handfull of programmers and
managers, and on top of the pyramid is the head of the
department in his own office-cubicle. The wall facing
the rest of the office is a glass panel, partly frosted,
so that it allows him to view the entrance area, the
length of the office and the entrance to the kitchen.
One collegue was promoted from interviewer to supervisor.
For him, many things have changed:
a supervisor, you loose touch with your collegues. You
can’t laugh with them anymore. You have all these
meetings and you realise that it is all about profit.
You continue thinking about work, even when you are not
working. Your personality changes."
Demands and Creativity
We are expected to work with the precision and predictability
of a robot. Standardisation of working procedures is
an important concern for the management. Interviewers
should be replaceable at any given time. Standardisation
measures begin with the clear desk policy and extend
as far as the colours to mark various Excel spreadsheets.
Every activity should be logged in the computer. We
are instructed to conclude every interview with the
same sentence. Specialised knowledge about the respective
topics is not necessary:
are not expected to know, that's not your job. There are
bigger and better people than you, called analysts and
consultants, who are expected to know, and the people
that you are calling are expected to know what you are
asking about. You are just the monkey in the middle, who
is repeating things parrot-fashion, hoping that whoever
has designed the questionnaire, or whoever has designed
it, generally does know what they are talking about, and
isn't making you look like a fool."
Some collegues are countering being effectively reduced
to the role of an answerphone by preserving a sense of
thing about being on the end of the telephone, you still
feel responsible as an individual or as a human being,
about getting something right."
Even though it is monotonous, the job requires creative
communication skills. Interviewers must be able to give
the person at the other end of the telephone line the
impression that their concern is in any way valid to be
transferred. Receptionists and departmental secretaries
are often instructed not to transfer market research or
sales calls. They, as well as the afflicted respondents,
need to be convinced to participate by all means
possible: tone of voice, charme, (pretended) competency,
authority. A collegue presents her strategy:
concentrates on BEING that really interesting
representative of a high-profile research company. You
concentrate on finding the study you are working on
REALLY interesting. You make your voice sound
truthworthy, excited, professional, nice, serious. You
rephrase, reformulate the arguments provided by your
employer on WHY people should give you 30 minutes of
their valuable time, or you invent new ones. I found
that one of the inherent arguments in my strategy was
social – we understand each other, we are really
interested in the same subject."
While you are reading out the often repetitive
questionnaire, you need to keep the respondent happy.
Here is one way of doing this:
"You have to keep
up the fiction that you ARE a real person, you make
remarks about the weather or the upcoming weekend, you
say encouraging things like very interesting, yes, that
connects to my next question. If you have finished the
interview, you press "complete" and feel
rather good – your reputation within the office relies
on "getting" many interviews"
As an interviewer, it is possible to achieve a sense of
professional self-esteem from your own communication
skills. However, this can be ambiguous, for example,
when an interviewer is using a flirtatious approach:
female voice being incredibly interested in the
important work of an important professional. It felt
almost like a mild form of prostitution.When I realised
this, I switched my strategy. I had sold my language
skills, but not my charme, the soft tones of my voice,
my sense of humour. Not for this pay."
Men have to deal with gender relations as well,
although in a different way:
"When I have
females on the other end of the phone, flirtation comes
into play. When it's a male on the other end of the
phone, I have to talk to them peer to peer, which is
very difficult to do. I find it very difficult to do
caty-interviews with men, because I felt, ehm, the
underdog. I felt a they were probably having a private
laugh on the other end of the phone, who is this idiot,
who is on... you know."
hunting for willing respondents, many rules are being
subverted. Some interviewers are "reserving"
the contacts they have traced down for themselves, by
"hiding" them within the shared database. Some
are keeping notes on paper. In a "paperless
office", this is not desirable and contradicts the
"clear desk policy" as well as the request to
log all activities. One collegue avoided the headset and
conducted interviews simply on the receiver. Another one
can spend hours designing standardised emails. She
argues that this will help her to convince respondents
to participate in market research.
one hand, such breaching of rules is being avenged,
however on the other hand, it is also silently being
tolerated. This way, the management can have the cake
and eat it: The strict regime is kept intact, breaching
it is being tolerated if it leads to results, and the
interviewers are bearing the risk of being caught. I
presume that this also explains why the many small ways
of rulebreaching selfmotivation are to a certain degree
being tolerated: secretly surfing the web, writing personal
emails, unannounced private phonecalls and so forth.
Maybe it is this tension, which led one collegue to make
the following statement about his work in the call center:
- "What did it
make you feel like, when you first started working in
- "Embarrassed. I
was very embarrassed about where I was working. Couldn't
tell anyone what I was doing. I was mortified."
peanuts, you get monkeys"
who are directly paid by the company rather from a temping
agency receive a temporary, so-called "zero hours
contract". This contract determins that we should
be on call at all times, but are not entitled to regular
"A: It's so
noncommital, the contract. The contract is such that the
employer has any right and you have none, basically.
They are able to call you into work, they are
able to have you work fulltime, they are able to treat
you like a fulltime employee, without any of the
benefits. (...) In the same breath you have to run the
risk all the time of actually not having any work. (...)
And that, that is a very anxious state of affaires, for
everybody. It doesn't matter how many years you've been
there, there is a constant feeling that next week, you
might be out of work. (...) You don't have time to react
to that, and get a job somewhere else. You need to have
a second job, if that's the kind of environment you work
in. And in the same breath, you don't get holidays, you
have to call in sick, you have to call in and say you
are not coming in, you have to give notice if you want a
day off, whereas the other way round, they don't have to
give you notice at all. That's it."
the beginning, introductory trainings to call center
work took place outside working hours:
have a days induction, on a saturday, unpaid, which is
another unnecessary about these sort of things,
everything is done to protect the bottomline, everything
is done to protect the dollar-interest. So, you give up
your time on a saturday, you go and get trained."
these circumstances, motivation plummets to a minimum.
The gap between the company's demands to the
interviewers and what it offers in exchange is growing:
cheeky from the company to expect any sort of commitment
from the employee to treat their timekeeping properly.
Because if you're not there, you don't get paid. (...)
You don't get paid for
an hour late, but you still get a telling
Since I worked for the first time for this company in
2001, it has changed office twice. The work remained
the same, but each time, the internal hierarchies have
become more defined, and control was intensified.
In the first office, hierarchies were relatively flat.
Supervisors, management and interviewers had the same
type of contract, sometimes with largely minimally different
wages. Occasionally, interviewers were used as supervisors,
and managers would conduct the odd interview. The then
office manager made sure that the tea-kitchen was always
stacked with nice herbal teas, and organised occasional
excursions to the recycling box around the corner.
We had acces to documents on the company servers and
to our own harddrives as well. When the computers were
being checked due to the move to another office, it
emerged that we had appreciated the access to the internet
and found ways to use it: Vast amounts of software,
images and mp3s were found on the harddrives, including
standard applications like realplayer and acrobatreader
as well as gaming and image manipulation software.
doesn't come as a surprise, because after all, the office
turned into some kind of internet cafe after 5pm. Those
who are still around at this time are lighting a cigarette,
write some mails or make a phonecall, someone plays
Kylie Minogue songs on the computer, someone else finishes
the design for a party flyer. People show each other
how to download and install programs, how to open a
hotmail account, how to manipulate images or post to
indymedia. Most people have their own, personlised wallpaper
on the screen. Later, we go for a drink to finish off
the day – Silicon Valley. Many collegues have used this
time to get some basic internet and computer skills.
The dream ended when an evening shift was introduced.
second stop was a luxurious "managed office".
Young women in office suits replaced the stocks of tea
and coffee. Ergonomical desks made from light wood were
pleasingly arranged in accommodating small groups, without
partitions, thus encouraging communication. When we
had moved in and had, still in the spirit of silicon
valley, connected our boxes, the office manager made
a point of personally wiping every single receive with
a desinfected piece of tissue. We had lockeable drawers
at our desks. The tea kitchen was small, but outside
the office proper, so that you didn't constantly feel
under surveillance. You could help yourself to stationary
– only for office use, of course. We had cards that
allowed us to open the main entrance – we didn't need
to ask for admission through the intercom. Those who
felt like it could cherish the illusion to have a "proper"
two years, the management concluded that a lack of control
had lead to interviewers taking advantage of their employer.
Consequently, the next office was laid out in a way
to resemble the plans for a foucauldian panopticum:
welcome to the call center!