An introduction to the issue on call centres


February 14, 2019

In this special issue, edited by Jamie Woodcock and Enda Brophy, we present a short collection of articles on call centres.

By the late 1990s, call centres had come to symbolise the shift from industrial to service work that was underway in developed countries of the Global North. Significant portions of the workforce in these countries, millions upon millions of souls, found themselves making a wage by communicating with others at a distance. In parts of the North of the UK, this shift to service work has been particularly obvious, with call centres setting up in the husks of abandoned industrial buildings. In North America call centres were established in the non-descript commercial buildings of suburban tech parks, plugged into the fibre optic networks of newly-privatized telecommunications companies.

Call centres became the focus of much academic attention in 2000s, catalysing labour process debates about technology, surveillance, and control in the workplace. From a different perspective, these workspaces became the focus of post-workerist theorising on the valourisation of immaterial labour and new forms of worker subjectivity amid the increasing communicativity of capitalism. By conducting a disconnected but parallel series of worker inquiries in call centres of different nations, scholar-activist collectives like Kolinko and Colectivo Situaciones attempted to grapple with what it meant for workers to sit behind a desk, have their communication dictated by a script, make or receive calls according to the relentless dictates of a machine, and embody the voice of the corporation over the phone.

As the technology advanced and long distance charges declined, call centres became the preferred method of customer interaction for companies across the broader economy, and these functions were increasingly hived off to an emergent and specialized call centre industry. This in turn drove pressures on costs, increasing centralisation in the sector. Ultimately it spurred a wave of transnational outsourcing that retraced the histories of imperialism by drawing on pools of linguistic labour in former colonies like Canada, Ireland, and India. Call centres were the precursor to capitalism’s broader turn toward the offshoring of immaterial labour, forging paths and processes for the digital transfer of other forms of work nestled higher up the value chain. By the 2000s the call centre had become a strategic focal point for making sense of the shifts happening within an increasingly communicative and globalized capitalism.

To be fair, the only groups celebrating the arrival of call centres were business owners, governments, and a handful of management scholars. Decently-paid office workers who saw their employment vapourized by these workspaces put up significant resistance to their arrival. Call centres are widely reviled by those on both ends of the phone. For employees they tend to be difficult, draining, and dead-end workplaces - the ultimate example of a bullshit job. For customers, the scripted encounters these workspaces dictate often lead us into what Mark Fisher once described as a

…crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth… a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in a mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is a miracle that anything happens, and you lose hope of ever passing back over to the other side, where things seem to function smoothly . . . the repeating of the same dreary details many times to poorly trained and badly informed operatives, the building rage that must remain impotent because it can have no legitimate object, since – as is very quickly clear to the caller – there is no-one who knows, and no-one who could do anything even if they could.1

These days many academics and most critical journals in the labour studies field seem to have moved on from researching call centres. The workers themselves, still there in their millions, do not have the same options. Despite promises of automation and vanishing jobs, the industry is expanding. In Mexico the call centre sector is booming as US companies respond to rising xenophobia among domestic customers and shift their customer service needs just south of the border where they can take advantage a freshly-deported and desperate digital proletariat. Even as they remain trapped within the Kafkaesque labyrinth however, workers are still finding ways to resist and organise. In one recent example, temporary workers at the Nelson Mandela Bay Service Delivery Call Centre in South Africa struck for permanent employment in the early days of 2019.2 In another, workers at Teleperformance (which employs over 217,000 employees in more than 65 countries) in the Dominican Republic unionized through SITRATEL (Sindicato de Trabajadores de Teleperformance) in 2018 after a year of struggles.3 Labour activists and trade unionists continue to fight against relocation and for better wages and conditions of employment in call centres.

In this issue, we present a series of articles and pieces that probe the contemporary class composition of call centre work, approaching it from below, from the perspective of the workers, trade unionists and labour activists struggling within and against such work. The technical composition of call centre work remains highly machinic, controlled, and supervised, using those methods of electronic surveillance that have been by now well documented. Using the analytic framework proposed by Notes from Below, we intend this issue as a collective reflection on how the technical composition in call centres interacts with the social and political composition therein, starting from the experiences of workers who do this kind of work:

  • For “Breaking the Cycle”, Bob Elliot discusses his inquiry into call centre work in the North East of England. He connects platform capitalism to the composition of the call centre floor, exploring what workplace organising looks like today.

  • Jamie interviews members of the Kolinko collective about their inquiry into call centres in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They reflect on the experience and practice of inquiry, discussing the Hotlines project.

  • In “A Factory of Words and Smiles”, Francesco Maria Pezzulli describes the worker inquiries conducted by the Gruppo d’Inchiesta su Precarietà e il Comune on call centre work in the southern Italian region of Calabria.

  • Enda Brophy interviewed Shirley Wang, New Zealand Unite Unions call centre organiser, for “Slowly Making a Comeback”: Unite Union Fights to Organize Call Centre Workers in Auckland. More than a decade after Unite executed one of the boldest outsourced call centre organizing campaigns of the 2000s, Wang reflects on how Unite is coming to terms with member attrition and adapting to broader trends in call centre work, including call centres moving back from Philippines and India to New Zealand.

  • In “Predictive dialling for dollars”, Gifford Hartman discusses his experiences of working in call centres in the 1990s, a history of struggle in the Bay Area, and reflects on Sorry to Bother You.

  • Wendy Liu reviews Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, taking the film as an allegory for tech worker organising.

  • “Working the Phones: The Game” is a short, interactive game about working in a call centre. While not meant to be “fun” in a conventional sense, Jamie has adapted part of his book to bring the experience of working the phones to life. See how long you can last in a high-pressure sales call centre.



  1. Mark Fisher (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books. P63. 

  2. See more here

  3. See more here


authors

Enda Brophy (@enda_b)

Enda Brophy teaches in the School of Communication and the Labour Studies program at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Language Put to Work: The Making of the Global Call Centre Workforce (2017). With Greig de Peuter, Nicole Cohen, Kate Oakley and Marisol Sandoval he collaborates on culturalworkersorganize.org.

Jamie Woodcock (@jamie_woodcock)

Jamie Woodcock works as a researcher.