Unions extend hand to call centre 'sweatshops'

'Sweatshop' conditions and wages as low as $9 an hour are fuelling a drive for unionisation in the New Zealand call centre industry, say union officials.

“Sweatshop” conditions and wages as low as $9 an hour are fuelling a drive for unionisation in the New Zealand call centre industry, say union officials.

The Council of Trade Unions plans to relaunch a forum looking at call centre issues and the Finsec union says new collectives are being formed at centres.

Many traditional banks are covered by union collective agreements, but few of their call centres are - only those of National Bank and AMI Insurance. WestpacTrust Cards has just negotiated a collective and Finsec expects several more by year-end.

Finsec national organiser Gordon Webley says talks covering potentially thousands of workers with a range of banking, financial and information call centres are “delicately poised”.

Union leaders say centre managers monitor toilet visits and warn staff if they go too often. Unrealistic targets are set, staff face non-stop phone calls and often miss breaks, they say. Wages can be as low as $9 an hour and $28,000 is “exceptionally well-paid” for the industry.

“They are the white-collar factories of the 21st century,” says Webley.

For their part, call centre operators say they are generally good employers and the Labour Department reports "negligible" complaints, but a former helpdesk operator says he has never known work as intense.

Aucklander David McNickel, now an IT journalist, worked on the Xtra helpdesk when it was run by Teletech for a year until August 1999, earning a "pathetic" $26,000 to $29,000 a year. McNickel says the workflow was relentless, until management instituted two or three pauses between calls.

Calls were monitored to ensure “quality”, as was time spent away from the phone. "It was pretty stressful and so regimented," he says.

However, working conditions were clean and tidy and staff were treated with respect, McNickel adds.

Telecom spokesman Glen Sowry says a typical call centre worker day was five hours, 36 minutes as staff took ten-minute breaks every hour and there was no toilet monitoring. Base wages were "considerably more" than $28,000, with "significant" staff allowances and often extra commission selling services.

However, EPMU organiser David Kettley says when he worked at Telecom a few years ago toilet breaks were monitored. He says salaries have since fallen because of fewer bonuses.

Russell Just, chief executive of call centre operator Sitel, says his firm is a good employer, with HR strategies, staff bonuses and above-median wage rates. But he says it is a difficult business as clients tend not to pay operators well.

Contact centre Salesforce head Michael Masterson describes conditions at his centre as "almost palatial", stressing the importance of happy workers. But he brands two rivals as having "sweatshops" of "human battery hens".

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