Founded in New Zealand in 1998, Unite Union began organizing cinemas, hospitality, and fast food sectors in Auckland in the 2000s. The union’s breakthrough was the 2005 Supersize My Pay campaign, which unionized thousands of workers in Auckland’s fast-food industry by targeting employees at McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and KFC. Unite has a significant presence in call centres as well. In 2008 the union launched the “Calling for Change” campaign in cooperation with the Australian National Union of Workers, organizing consumer research call centres in Auckland that had been outsourced from Australia. The campaign utilized tactics such as brand tarnishing, picketing, wildcat, and even hunger strikes. In December of 2017, Enda Brophy sat down with Unite call centre organizer Shirley Wang at the Unite headquarters in Auckland to find out more about the union’s organizing in the call centre sector.

EBI want to start by asking you to tell me a little bit about yourself, how did you become interested in labour issues and how did you end up taking on an organising position at Unite?

SWSo I started off my first properly paid job was actually at Sky City [Casino]. As you may know Unite is the biggest on-site union at Sky City and I got very heavily involved, because I was a part time worker [with] a guarantee of eight hours, so I was essentially part of the zero hour campaign. My hours fluctuated between seventy eight hours to seventy hours depending on the week and I had no idea when my shift would be. So I contacted the union co-president at the time, she put me through and we started a campaign with Unite, and I was part of the Sky City crew. Technically not zero hours, but we were not that much better off, so through the years I got quite involved with the union. I was the delegate, I was the executive delegate, I was on the exec at Unite for the last two years and this year at the start of the year the previous call centre organiser left, she had two roles - the cinema and the call centre side - so they decided to split that into two organisers for this year, and they’ve given me call centres. I see there are similarities between call centres and Sky City, so I guess that’s why they put me into that role. And the reason I got involved in labour and workers’ rights is pretty much because I’ve worked at a multi-billion dollar company, and if you don’t mind me saying this they are a blood sucking leech in this country, it’s a casino industry in which they literally suck the life out of workers. I’ve seen how poorly they treat workers, even with a strong union on-site. Bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment was a daily occurence and it was something I wouldn’t be taking part in and I’d be fighting it, so that’s how I got involved.

EBUnite made a big push into call centres in 2007 with the “Calling for Change” campaign that organised a number of smaller call centres and so I was wondering if you could give me a bit of a bigger picture, and overview of where you’re at with call centres now? How many call centres do you have members at right now? And more-or-less how many workers do you represent?

SWSo I represent, as of last Monday, I have four hundred and ninety seven call centre members, with two big call centres which have almost two hundred each and a few other small call centres. So all together I have eight, or maybe even more call centres. A lot of them are very small call centres, a few of them we don’t actually have any collective agreement with, we call them servicing sites and so we just take care of them. The reason because, firstly it’s a small call centre and they only have about twenty or thirty staff, fifty at most, so even if we organise everyone at once, we don’t have the resources. I’m the only call centre organiser, with Hannah [Holtzclaw] helping me for about ten hours a week at most, so we don’t have the resources to, you know, organise them as well as some of the big call centres. But that doesn’t mean that if workers get into trouble we won’t represent them the same way as if they were any other of our members.

EBWhat are the bigger call centres you represent?

SWSo my two biggest call centres at the moment are Qantas Airways, the call centres, and also Salmat. Salmat are a third-party call centre, but their biggest campaign at the moment is Vodafone, the telecommunications company. They do have a government contract which is their second biggest campaign, which is actually scattered across the country. Then within themselves they have little campaigns like American Express, Woolworths, you know like all these little campaigns.

EBAnd what are the smaller call centres?

SWCall centers can be divided into two parts. Sales and customer service. Companies like Baycorp and Salmat are sales side of call center where their main focus is to sell a product. The workers are mainly on a commission bases, this means their base salaries are often lower but the company sells it as if they have the potential to gain more financially because of the potentially to sell a product.

The other side of call center are customer service. Such as The Knowledge Warehouse, Qantas and Vodafone. Workers generally are paid a bit higher than commission based call centers.

EBSo how are things at Vodafone?

SWIn 2011, Vodafone was actually one of our biggest call centres, but unfortunately due to outsourcing and the difficulty in negotiating with them, we’ve virtually lost the majority of our membership there. We’re slowly making a comeback, but it’s a very slow and painful process. But the good thing is that Vodafone has moved back into New Zealand in recent years because people were complaining about the accent, they couldn’t understand it, pretty much what every other country has faced over the years. We also represent workers at other small, very very small call centres, with about six or seven people, such as the security company ADT, bits and pieces over there.

EBCan you describe the demographics of the call centre workforce these days? What kind of people end up working at call centres?

SWSo in the past a lot of migrants worked in call centres, but New Zealand has changed a lot, a lot of these big employers can no longer support visas, so companies like Salmat no longer hire migrant workers. If you don’t have a permanent residency then you’re not the first pick. Also the same with Qantas, with Baycorp, because of the law change, its changed quite a lot from the traditional, from the migrant worker base of the sector. It’s now a lot of local New Zealanders working in these industries, not saying that there’s no migrant workers there, but they just tend to be locals.

EBWhat about the ethnic breakdown? At least when I was here in 2011, there was a good number of Maori and Pacific Islanders working in call centres.

SWIt’s, I would say it’s the same. What’s interesting is in the past, the call centre has always been looked at as a slightly, the age group is slightly older, but what’s interesting is that if you look at Salmat, if you look at Baycorp, it’s a bit different. If you look at the two biggest call centres, Qantas and Salmat, the average age of my workers is actually about twenty-five. I have workers who are eighteen years old! So that’s very very interesting, it’s not something that ten years ago you’d think they would be in their middle ages people so that’s really interesting and so ethnic wise there’s still a lot of Pacific Islanders working in call centres, maybe its because it’s a language thing maybe because it’s an accent thing but there are not many Asians. You could count the number of Asians that’s including Chinese, Filipinos, any other Koreans you can count them on about one hand–we are a very small minority in the call centres we represent.

EBIs the trend of fewer migrants working in call centres also related to New Zealand cutting down on the number of migrants it takes in?

SWI don’t think so, I don’t think East Asians was ever a big population for call centres.

EBWas it more South Asians?

SWYeah, South Asian. Even if you look at the Indian population for call centres which is traditionally the big call centre sector, compared to the non-Indians, it’s still a very, it’s still 25% or less.

EBHave you been doing organising drives at new call centres lately, or are you more focused on defending and consolidating what you have?

SWSo we actually hit a brick wall at the start of the year. One of the biggest issues we face in call centres is the hours of work, especially a lot of call centres like Qantas or Vodafone where they actually operate 24/7. Not the, you know, calling people up to see if you want a sale, but internal based, it’s 24 hours. So there’s a lot of roster change. So we actually lost about a third of our Qantas membership in July of this year, due to a roster change made by management at Qantas, from managers not based in New Zealand. Now we’ve made a huge comeback, we’re actually one member off from what we had at the start of the year. So we spend a lot of energy actually getting back membership that we’ve lost through resignations and case battles with call centres. But lately we’ve been expanding into a few new call centres. As I mentioned, we’re trying to gain back Vodafone which we had originally but then we due to outsourcing and the difficulty in negotiating with them. It was put on hold in 2013 so we’re making a slow, very very slow come back to that.

EBDoes the Auckland Vodafone serve customers in New Zealand?

SWYes. But back then they had the sales as well so they split that off. Most of it was outsourced to South Africa, but a lot of them has come back. Vodafone New Zealand only services Vodafone’s New Zealand customers. We also have South African call centres taking excess calls that New Zealand ones cannot accommodate.

EBThe sales was outsourced?

SWYes, the sales – well the sales was outsourced, but it was still outsourced within the country. It was more of the IT side of things, so support, support has slowly moved back to New Zealand. More and more support teams [have been brought back] in the past five years, so that’s a start somewhere.

EBThat kind of confirms patterns that are happening elsewhere.

SWBut there are other call centres, including another big telecommunications company. Actually workers at two call centres have contacted us in the past month, wanting to be unionised. So now they used to be a really highly-unionised site but they’ve moved overseas. New Zealand customers and Australian customers complained that they didn’t like the accent so they’ve now moved back. We’ve seen some very disgusting things that are happening in the call centres. So the priority is that we get those and then we try to change them.

EBI want to talk about that too. What percentage of the work in the call centres that you represent is actually transnational call centre work? It sounds like you’ve got at least a portion of work at these call centres that is coming in from Australia.

SWThat’s what I mean, my call centres are very different. Even within the same company you and the person next to you could be calling two different countries. With sales, even if it’s sales related, you’re pretty much calling a local person. If you’re market research you’re most likely not calling people in New Zealand. And the debt collecting company like Baycorp, maybe it’s due to protection of their own workers but you’re actually not calling New Zealanders, you actually call overseas, or the majority of your calls are overseas to Australia. As far a call centre like Qantas, South Africa might have opened a 24 hour call centre, but in the past we’ve been the only 24/7 call centres. So that means we handle anything that is outside of human hours, any country in the world, and Qantas had five call centres, you’re calling New Zealand, so essentially it’s international. And of course, we are the country, even with a lot of the international businesses, we are the overflow, so any overflows comes to New Zealand.

EBWhat kinds of density are you achieving in the call centres where you represent workers?

SWIn the large call centres? At Qantas I can say we’re about seventy to eighty percent, and seventy-five to eighty [percent] membership at Salmat, because it’s spread out nationally. We’re a bit weak on the regionals but with Auckland I can say we’re about sixty to seventy percent unionised there as well. Baycorp is about seventy percent unionised as well. Some of the small call centres because there employment is not a fixed term employment, they’re more of a casual employment basis, even given the casual basis we’re about fifty percent, so we actually have a fairly good density in most call centres.

EBWhat kinds of complaints do you tend to field from workers?

SWIn regards to the managers? Or the jobs?

EBThe jobs, the working conditions… What are the main categories of complaints that you get these days?

SWHours of work, that is the biggest one. I guess hours of work is not just a call centre thing, it’s more of a national thing, or maybe even an international thing, but call centres feel it the most, because a lot of the call centres operate 24 hours and on their contract, because the zero hour law is very poorly written, a lot of contracts state that you’re expected to work 24/7/365. And when employers choose to change a worker’s hours, they turn around and go “well, you signed a 24-hours contract.” And we have to say, “well no they didn’t.” It’s a very long and painful battle that we’re actually fighting with a few of the call centres at the moment.

EBSo winning that zero hours contract battle in New Zealand was just the beginning of a longer struggle around scheduling, it sounds like.

SW[laughter] That was just the beginning, there fight goes way deeper than that… But in call centres overall, there’s not that much, the other, there’s not that much complaints and stuff with these workers, a lot of the call centre workers really just want to get on with their jobs really. And a lot of them are paid on commission so I guess that’s the other driver to workers–do I want to complain or do I just want to earn some money? And that, in a way, makes these workers kind of difficult to organise as well.

EBSo that raises the other question that I wanted to ask you, what are your main barriers to organising, main challenges that you face?

SWSo one of the biggest issues, like I said, is the age group of call centre workers has changed significantly there are lots of younger workers working at call centres between the age of 18 to about 30 and when you’re in that age bracket you don’t care, you really don’t care: “oh I have a job, great, if I don’t, I don’t, who cares, I’m still living at home.” So getting these young workers to care is a huge deal, we need a very strong delegate, who’s pretty much like you’re going to sign this for your own protection. Because you will need it six months down the track. That’s one of the biggest issues, even just getting your young workers to be aware of the situation that’s happening. An example of a team leader at Qantas when you call in sick, you’re supposed to call the district health board and for privacy reasons you don’t have to disclose the reason you’re sick, but this one particular team leader called one of the members on site, I think she was about 26 or 27 years old and she had a young, well about ten month old son who was very sick for a couple of days. The team leader pretty much trawled her for information: what kind of medication did you give him? How much medication did you give him? How long was the duration of the medication? Blah blah. Which is a breach of privacy, but she didn’t know that. It wasn’t until she talked to a delegate, at the time a senior member of her team, that she realised her team leader can’t do that. The delegate said go talk to Shirley, this is a breach of your privacy. So it’s these kinds of issues, a lack of union education.

EBIs that difficulty in organizing workers exacerbated by turnover?

SWNot really, this is [at Qantas] a call centre that has a very stable membership turnover is about 18% a year at most.

EBis that consistent across call centres?

SW[laughter] No! In some call centres it is 100%! I’m talking about, this is a call centre that people are there for like 20 years. I have members serving up 20 years service this year. Actually I have one who is serving up 25 years so I thought wow that’s almost as long as I’ve lived [laughter].

EBYeah that’s a long time to be employed in a call centre! [laughter]

SWBut there are also other issues, because even though a lot of call centre members are New Zealanders or with residency, a lot of them still come from a migrant background and if you know anything about migrant workers, we’ve always been told just do your job, don’t cause any trouble, just do your job. So the idea of a union is almost a foreign concept to them, and in their mind, if I join a union I’m going to piss off my boss and I could lose my job, but in reality they can’t. In New Zealand no one can be discouraged from joining a union and you can’t be discriminated against for joining a union, but because where they come from it’s a different mentality.

EBWhat kinds of action have call centre workers undertaken?

SWNot a lot. Even though we have high densities in a lot of call centres, a lot of them have this fear and it’s there are also a lot of restrictions in place for us pulling industrial actions in call centres as well. For example, Qantas, I keep referring back to them because they’re the biggest one and one of the most nasty ones out there. We have to give them 14 days notice of any strike action. Just about BPA, that’s the law. That defeats the purpose of a strike. What’s the point of telling someone and they have 14 days to prepare for a strike? There are other call centres like Baycorp which have high membership, high density, but they don’t want to go on strike because they want to earn their commission. Money talks at the end of the day.

EBAnd what kinds of relationships do you have with call centre employers now?

SWBecause of that, we’ve actually taken a whole different approach, we try to build a relationship with them instead of taking the hard road. It’s very different from fast food where if you piss us off, we’ll walk out and go on strike. We can’t with call centres, a lot of the membership, even if they’re in their 20s, you’ll find that a lot of them will have kids, will have children, will have somebody they need to support. Very few of them are just me, myself and I, just have to care about myself and that’s it, it’s not really the culture for call centres, so we try to build that relationship with the employer and do it through that way. I’m not saying there haven’t been times that workers walked off or stopped answering calls because they were pissed off at something. They still do that, they can still do that if we have to, but that’s not our first priority.

EBDo you need to give 14-day notice in other sectors, like fast food? That wasn’t the case previously.

SWNo, it’s because Qantas is in the transportation sector.

EBSo you’re ability to strike would vary by call centre depending on the sector it serves?

SWYes, it varies by call centre.

EBOne of the things that has always interested me about call centre work, is the many kinds of informal kinds of resistance that people use, everything from just quitting to slacking…

SWYou’ll find call centre staff are very stubborn and they’re very staunch about things. They will, you’re right. If I don’t get what I want, I’m just going to walk off or I’m just going to sit there and not answer my calls. And what are you going to do about it? [laughter]

EBSo that happens?

SWIt happens [laughter] it happens [laughter]

EBAnd so that’s when you get called in I guess?

SWIt’s, I, yeah [laughter]

EBSo what kinds of situations do you have to deal with?

SWI’ve had members who’ve had meetings with their team leader and it was a very disastrous meeting and they’ve gone, nope, I’m having a mental breakdown and I’m just going to sit there for two hours and not do any work. I’ve had quite a few members do that. It’s very effective, they totally got what they wanted, but its… [laughter]

EBSounds like an individual strike?

SW[laughter] Yes! I had nothing to do with that.

EBWhat kinds of achievements has Unite been winning for these workers would you say?

SWOne of the big ones is a lot of our call centres are no longer on the 90 day trial. Are you aware of the 90 day trial in New Zealand? In New Zealand, under the national government, an employer can hire an employee and go well I’m going to test you out for 90 days and fire you if I don’t like you. So many many of our call centres don’t have the 90 day trial. There are variations of the 90 day trial but to fire someone actually on the 90 day trial is almost impossible. So this is a great protection, especially for migrant workers, that they can’t fire you. You’re protected under the union contract.

EBOk, so the collective agreement takes care of that?

SWYeah it takes care of it. And also a lot of, I’m not sure if you’re aware of the matrix system for pay. That your pay percentage is based on your performance, I don’t know what the technical term is but we call it a matrix system. It means that everyone is actually getting a different percentage of pay, but we managed to actually stop that in a few of the call centres, so everyone gets the same increases. Which in reality you’ll find about 80% of the population will be below that and maybe one or two who is actually above that percentage increase that we’ve got.

EBWhat is your biggest priority for the call centre workforce? What’s the most important?

SWTo try to make sure they don’t lose their job. Because call centre work is different. Every day we’re faced with this threat of being outsourced, even though I’ve been telling my members - and I know this, for a fact - that they’re probably not going to outsource us to the Philippines or India, because people will have complained, they’ve bought call centres back from these countries. So they’re not going to go back there and waste their money again, but there’s still that fear. It’s a fear that makes a lot of workers think twice before going on strike.


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

Shirley Wang

Shirley Wang is a Unite call centre organiser in Auckland.