Over the years, multiple of my friends started working in call-centers, picking up the phone when an angry customer will call about a problem with their television. A great part of them worked as sales agents, talking to Americans phoning in about internet problems. My friends would help them from across the world, and in the meantime, they would try to sell them a package: an antivirus, a VPN, a subscription service.
Working in call-centers is definitely a tedious job requiring the people doing it to have a smile always on their face, a certain intonation of the voice and to follow a very strict procedure. The level of surveillance at the workplace is more subtle, varying from supervisors walking across the room, looking at what you are doing, at the way you are sitting, to people listening in to the calls you are receiving.
Working in a call center is different from having an industrial job in which your task is to repeat a certain task over and over again. In the manufacture, you have the task to produce a good to be sold. In the call centers, you repeat the same script over and over again, maintain the correct posture, keep the right intonation, with the aim of giving the customers emotions, feelings, and convincing them that they need a certain product.
An industrial worker feels alienated from his work, feels like the hand he uses to hammer the bolts on the car rooftop is not his anymore. He does the task so many times, that he feels the hand moving robotically, leaving him without control. He feels himself only when outside of work, always dreaming of the shift to be done, so he could return home. For people working the phones, the situation is similar, but they feel their emotions, their facial expressions alienated from their bodies. They keep on the smile on their face, despite feeling like throwing up or fatigued from the conversations. They maintain the smile, because the supervisors push forward the believe that the customers can see whether or not they are smiling.
… Working the Phones, a book written by Jamie Woodcock, represents a workers’ inquiry into the call-center industry. Jamies finds himself a job in the industry, and reports from the floor on the labor conditions, the social relations and the role that surveillance plays in the process. In doing that, he argues that the introduction of technology and the argument around making customers’ lives easier, is not a neutral process. We should rather look how technology aids capitalism in expanding itself and how does it contribute to the surveillance machine.
In his book, Jamie recalls the experiences of having to go through mandatory “Buzz Times”, during which the supervisors will make the workers play certain games or sing childish songs. Those moments were meant to uplift the mood, to make everyone feel more energetic, while in his case, it contributed to workers feeling ashamed of their actions. Those “Buzz Times” provided another layer of surveillance, targeting those who refused to partake in the activity or those who looked dissatisfied.
In working the phones, Jamie argues that the job is different from that of a worker in an industrial plant. The output is different, and also the process of globalization and outsourcing takes different shape. Call centers aren’t spread all over the world where the costs are minimum. They take into account also the linguistic abilities of the people residing there, as well as the links to the country from where the customers will dial in. The British might interact more often with someone working at a cell centre in India, the same as the Americans interacting with Romanian workers during one of their night shifts.
Despite the surveillance, workers exhibit acts of resistance, such as prolonging their breaks if possible, playing games during the calls or even trying to address the problems they are facing. In showing their resistance, they are not fighting directly with the CEO of the company, but rather with the team supervisor who internalizes the behavior of the CEO, and regards himself in control, ready to police any activity that is not desirable. The team leader is there to police, to tell the workers that they are not doing well enough, pushing them to sell more, and to make sure they do not leave early. Their ability to sell give the team leader a bonus, and the latter tries to make sure that they will get it every month, despite of circumstances.
Jamie’s analysis is a necessary one in the current labor context, in which the typical jobs a 18-25 years old would pick up are different from that of our parents. While our parents would have gone into factories, we would join the ranks of customer service call centers, answering the phones over and over again. His method of work inquiry allows the workers’ voices to be taken into account, and grassroots experience to be the starting point of analysis. Following in the footsteps of the Italian workerists, such as Tronti and Hardt, he starts from class struggle, and goes to the capital.
In starting from class struggle, we are able to understand the social dynamics that working people engage in, both at their workplace and in the greater society. If we would have started with certain assumptions deriving from the analysis of capital, we might have been proven wrong after talking to workers about their own experience.