Who’s speaking?

I work as a customer service representative at an international call centre operating for a global video streaming platform. Yes, Netflix. I am not hired directly by Netflix though. I used to be, when I started, but at the beginning of 2019 the whole operation was sold and outsourced to an external customer relations company, a Benelux division of a global German corporation. All employment contracts were transferred together with the ownership of the Amsterdam site.

The Amsterdam site delivers customer service in multiple languages covering the EMEA business region (Europe, Middle East and Africa). The streaming platform’s customer services are spread out between several call centres all over the world. We work in massive open-space environments covering almost all of a 12-floor building near Sloterdijk station in Amsterdam. We sit at desks that are grouped in “islands”, typically of 6 or 7 desks, divided by small separation walls from other desks to filter some noise out. Those groups of desks don’t necessarily reflect teams. we move around and sit at a desk we find not yet taken, bringing to the desk, from a locker nearby, a box with our tools – a headset, a personal electronic identification key to sign into the system on computers (there is a Chromebox, two screens, a keyboard and a mouse at every desk).

We are available to take calls straight from the start of the shift. We take only incoming calls – Netflix does not call anyone back. We solve customers’ problems (from Netflix freezing on their devices to failed payments to hijacked accounts) by being connected to an immense searchable database of user accounts and technical knowledge about all sorts of devices, as well as errors and issues that can possibly happen on them. We, the 1st line of support (CSR1) workers, look for a solution by searching the database for the most up-to-date information about that issue and steps to solve it. When we cannot figure out the solution to the problem, we escalate for help to the 2nd line of support (CSR2), a much smaller set of experienced, tech savvy agents who take on our escalations and have access to a more restricted database of new issues and errors that are still being researched by Technical Research teams, the solutions to which have not yet been concluded, and are subject to more research. There are around 400, more or less (the numbers fluctuate) of CSR1 and CSR2 agents on our site. The gross pay per month for a CSR1 is $2100, before any additions for work on weekends or holidays.

Even on teams that support English language, many of us are not native speakers. Recruiters have a preference for bi- or tri-lingual people, and native Anglo-Saxons rarely are. The reason for recruiters to have such a preference is that having people who speak fluent English along with at least one more language at the same level of mastery, gives them more flexible resources at their disposal. Work volumes fluctuate all the time and they do so unevenly – some markets get busier, while others get dull, for reasons very specific to those markets. A multilingual workforce can be shifted around, switched from German or Dutch or Romanian or Polish to English, and vice versa, without having to hire and train someone new again. Instead of having to suffer someone else suddenly doing nothing for half a day, or even for weeks, they can promptly move them from one language team to another or simply switch the language in which they receive calls.

So, who are we? Most agents are young, in their twenties, in their early thirties, a few are around forty. There are agents from the Netherlands, they cover almost uniquely the Dutch market which is small but the most popular method of payment in the country (what they call an iDeal payment) often fails or produces processing delays and therefore generates disproportionately more customer calls than payments from most other countries. There are agents from Romania and Poland as well as from the UK and Canada, occasionally from Australia and South Africa, and an odd one from the US, every now and then. They are often young, in Amsterdam to discover Europe or with someone they moved here with. There are teams of Turkish people, but they handle Turkish only – it’s quite a big market and one where people like to make a phone call quite a lot. There are also agents from Germany, Sweden and Finland, and quite recently new teams were added: Czech and Hungarian. Teams are of varying sizes, from around 12 to maybe 19. There is a significant number of Greeks, even though their language is not supported from the site. This may be because there are, in general, quite a few young immigrants from the crisis-stricken country in Amsterdam. As is probably a rule in customer services everywhere, the workforce is predominantly female. I have no way to make a reliable calculation but from my observations I’d estimate the women to men ratio as somewhere around 7:3.

There are more patterns, some quite peculiar, that one can observe when comparing different teams and “origin countries” of agents. Among teams and agents from peripheral European countries (Eastern Europe and Greece), there tends to be more men than among “Western” teams and agents. Average age of agents is higher in Eastern European and Turkish teams, as well as a number of agents aged around 40. It seems to reflect a discrepancy of job opportunities based on national and ethnic origin, in the Netherlands just like in any other “Western” EU country, despite all the lip service paid to open borders and equal treatment. Agents from the UK, Germany, Netherlands, and Nordic countries are younger, sometimes it’s their first job, or only an adventure. They quit after a few months, or more often after just a year, because they go to university, can find other, better employment, and can do so more easily than those from Eastern Europe or Greece or Turkey.

We, Eastern Europeans, Turks and Greeks, often have no choice but to stay in this job for long, to take this job despite having master’s degrees or years of work experience, sometimes even in what is commonly referred to as “professional” occupations. One Romanian agent has worked in film production back home. Another one was a marketing manager. A Polish worker used to work in web and media localisation. One tried to be a journalist back home. A Lithuanian woman, who just left because she couldn’t take some types of customers any longer, had a degree in supply chain management. Someone’s got a degree in anthropology. Some were English teachers back home. And so on.

Hidden work

Our work affects, in the first place, obviously, Netflix customers who are struggling with a problem, which they cannot or don’t know how to fix. But here’s the thing: only 2% of all Netflix users globally ever contact the company’s customer service. Like many online platforms, everything is designed so that everything goes as smoothly as possible and a user does everything for herself. The most important target on the basis of which our individual and team performances are measured is what we know as Return Call Rate (RCR) – how many customers have to call back within 7 days. We are supposed to keep that rate as low as possible, the target being 15%. Our ideal is to get everything fixed in one call, even if it takes an hour, as long as they don’t need to call again. For a platform with hundreds of millions of users globally, the less actual service its customers need, the less resources it takes and those resources can go to more directly “productive” parts of the business (developing the IT side of the platform, apps for more devices, improving their functionalities and removing bugs; producing and commissioning content, acquiring content licenses).

What if the biggest secret of our job is that, in a way, assisting customers, is only a mask for something else where the real value that we “produce” for Netflix lies? After all, we are trained and constantly reminded to assist customers in such a way that they ideally never need to call again, and most technical errors on most devices already have instructions on how to fix them – published, ready for everyone to use, on the company’s Help Centre pages. The customer is meant to do most of the work themselves. It’s as if we were there in order to minimise any need for our own work in future.

Perhaps we are some sort of foot soldiers on the frontline of information gathering. We mark each call with a category of the issue that brought the customer to the phone – to create statistics for trends. We tag calls with specific hashtags for problems too narrow for those categories or for issues that are currently being investigated (like, how many people get through to us in a language that we do not support yet, or outside the hours during which we support those languages at the moment, what languages are they, and what product feedback do the customers give). We have a chat channel specifically for reporting these things, and whenever a new trend is spotted, other agents leave marks to confirm if they also just have had similar cases or where to add more context that transpired from their contacts.

We report that payments suddenly keep failing from one specific market and when this is spotted, we can dig deeper, ask the next customer having the same issue for more context, like what type of card they use, or which bank issued this card, has she already spoken to the bank and what the bank said.

Maybe even more crucial element of the information-gathering aspect of our job is when we encounter a new error, or an error not so new but one that suddenly doesn’t get fixed the way it used to, or started happening on devices that it never happened on before. A CSR1 then escalates to a CSR2 who opens up a ticket that the research team may already have on the new behaviour or, if not, reports the new behaviour. We then start collecting more information from other customers reporting the issue, as well as try and test with them troubleshooting steps that Netflix IT guys want to try out. Sometimes the customer, if he or she is willing to cooperate, may be called back, in an arranged timeframe, after this initial information undergoes some preliminary analysis, by a technical researcher who will then continue with more advanced research, while having the affected customer in front of their affected device.

This is why it feels like even though we are officially doing customer service, the real value that Netflix extracts from us is much higher and totally different, and lies in reality in that information assembly process. The work of information research got outsourced not only onto outsourced agents paid only for customer service, but also clandestinely onto the customer who believes he’s just being assisted.

Discipline and punish

Some ways through which we are being kept disciplined are technological, through the use of electronic tools. Our time is logged and recorded throughout the day. Have we been logged in and ready to call from the very first minute of our shift, and if not, how many minutes late were we? Have we exceeded our lunch break by a minute or two (we’ve got 30 minutes)? Have we exceeded the time we’ve got for small breaks throughout the shift (3x10 minutes if on an 8 hours shift)? Those small breaks are not up for grabs whenever we want or need them, they are planned for us by the workforce management team whose main concern is to ensure sufficient coverage in accordance with market predictions based on historical, statistical data (what days in what months are busier, or less busy, at what times of the day).

If we need an urgent break at other times of our shift – say, for the toilet – we have the right to take it by changing our status in the system we are logged into to Personal Care. But beware, your right to it is very limited and you may have to explain yourself if you do so too often. It is largely discretional, based on your relationship with your Team Leader. And you keep in the back of your head that if you use it too much, this may one day be used against you. When the end of your current contract approaches and market predictions say that there are currently a bit too many agents and letting some of them go would be beneficial for the business, HR may use this as one of the factors to determine who’s not going to have their contract extended.

Other ways of keeping the workforce disciplined are linked to that very fact: that most CSR1s and a good number of CSR2s are working on the basis of fixed-term contracts. That is how everyone is initially hired: one-month probation, 6 months for the first contract, 8 months for the second and 9 months for the third one.

If the volumes drop significantly and prediction algorithms don’t see them picking up again any time soon, nothing easier than to locate a number of agents whose current contracts are about to expire, be it next month, or the following one. They are going to hear some excuse about why their contracts cannot be extended. “You’ve been on Personal Care breaks too often”; “You’ve lasted too long on dead air calls” (instead of hanging up after 30 seconds);“You didn’t integrate enough with the team” - these are all real reasons people were given. There is little room for promotion – out of almost 400 agents on the site, perhaps 8 of them, maybe 9, got a promotion last year, mostly to the role of CSR2. Promotions to Team Leader or to other departments, like workforce management or administration, are much rarer.

Organise, organise not

We are grouped into teams but these teams don’t work together much, as strange as this may sound. They are mainly a framework for individual management by team leaders and by the software that monitors our performance and time adherence. Within each team, shifts are distributed in a way that its members cover all seven days of the week and the whole span of business hours for their language on the site. If the team has, say, 15 members, each month every member will have two days a week off. Their shifts will also start and end at different times, as smaller languages may have shorter support hours than English. We can’t just leave work at the same time and stay together for a pint in the nearest pub or bar. We can’t just arrange for all of us to meet somewhere at the same time, without some of us taking a day off, some swapping their shifts with someone else, and so on. It takes a while to learn names of your team members in such conditions, not to mention get to know one another and create meaningful bonds.

Workers who have to take so long to get to know one another won’t set up a union any time soon. Hence we are not unionised and haven’t had a pay rise in years. But it’s a double-edged sword. A workplace full of hundreds of workers totally estranged, alienated from one another, is not great in the long run either. Eventually, the risk grows of everyone not giving a toss about anything anymore, nobody helping anyone, nobody caring about personal and team targets.

One remedy to this risk is “projects”. One would need to raise the idea with a Team Leader, have it written down to fit the format designed for those ideas, and ask for approval. These projects can range from something very creative – like making an internal newsletter or organising an exhibition for artworks made by employees – to something very organisational.

The insidious thing about this, on the side of the company, is that it turns a lot of tasks, from admin to organisation to team building, into something that can just be outsourced to people paid only for their customer service job. In the end, this is one reason why the company can do with so few promotions: so much work that would otherwise require promoting people to other departments or roles, and giving them a pay rise, gets done by agents who never get either.

One reason why people take up these projects is that they give us a break from the monotony of speaking to customers 8 hours a day. The other one is that agents realise that they need to gain “visibility” if they ever want to get noticed and appreciated enough to stand a chance when applying for a promotion. They have to get involved, be seen, be proactive, be inventive - even though projects are, quite possibly, precisely the reason why there can be so few promotions. While, not enough of it can deprive you of your next contract, can make you a target of your team leader’s complaints. I’d call it additional emotional extortion.

It is hard to implement any form of collective resistance in these conditions. Atomising shifts distribution, competition in “engagement”, fear of not getting the contract extended when it expires, huge rotation of staff.

The only ways to resist, then, remain just as individualistic and lonely as the work itself. Some come to refuse to be nice to awful or irritating customers. Or speak for too long, even during an hour, to a particularly nice customer. Some may also change their status in the system to After Contact Work, designed for the situations when you have to complete doing something (leave notes on the accounts, close all tabs and actions on a complicated investigation) when in fact they don’t have any more actions to complete. Just to have a moment of quiet, just to be able to step away from the desk and get a coffee or a snack – as this status stops new calls from coming in. The advantage of this status is that when the statistics of your work and time adherence are later aggregated, this status leaves no trace in them, these minutes go counted as Busy work, the same as when you actually speak to someone, no difference. The disadvantage – or the risk – is that when you are on that status, you may be caught by a particularly keen team leaders or Real Time Analysts. Other individual resistance strategies involve distancing oneself from work, learning to think of it as temporary, and soon start looking for another job, hoping it will come.

The most radical of those personal strategies is claiming that one is experiencing a burn-out. This is treated very seriously by Dutch doctors and the Dutch state. The work may be so draining mentally and emotionally that it is not so difficult to convince a doctor that you are experiencing a burn-out and some agents go for it as an act of ultimate resistance. In some extreme cases agents stay on this burn-out sick leave for a number of months, and use this time to restore their sanity, apply for other jobs, prepare and go to interviews.


As I said earlier, I was initially employed by Netflix itself, by its Customer Service division. Later it was announced to us that the whole site would be sold off, and then operations outsourced, to another entity, an outsourcing customer service division of Bertelsmann that was still seeking a new name in a massive merging/rebranding coup. Our employment contracts were meant to be transferred, with all conditions unchanged, if we agreed to be part of the transfer. We could say no and go somewhere else, or accept and sign new contracts. Those who did accept were to receive a retention bonus, equal to one month’s salary, spread-out in three monthly instalments after the official transition. This is one example of an individual resistance strategy: many agents stayed as long as the retention bonus was paid out, and left just after.

What we’ve experienced from almost day one of this transition is that ways were being sought to deliver the same service while squeezing more out of us. This must have been the most significant expertise of our new employer.

Booking any time off suddenly became a challenge. Balances of time available were taking forever to update from one system to another, making agents lose a lot of room we had previously had with planning our future holidays or just days off. It was enough that we were constantly confused as to how many days off we still had available to take within our current contract and our requests were delayed or interrupted by an impressive avalanche of errors in the system. Intended or not, it was yet another de facto tool of increasing the rate of our exploitation, forcing us to suspend or constrain our requests for holidays or just single days off until the new system was clarified.

During a few months of this transition, an incredible amount of errors and delays happened to our overtime and extra pay : portions of the salary paid a week or a month later, overtime gone missing from the calculations, “under investigation” for months. All this was subsidising our employer with an interest-free credit in the form of hundreds of payments delayed without any penalty.

When this mess was over, there came another shock. Even though our Netflix contracts stated that we were entitled to get our work schedules with at least one-month notice, in reality schedules were released even 3 months in advance. However inconvenient they might have been, we had some time to plan our lives in advance. Hidden in an all-site email was a line informing us that the future notice about our working hours would be reduced to two weeks. Only a couple of weeks after the email was sent round did some colleagues (with kids they have to arrange care for in advance) actually got back to that correspondence and read it carefully. They started pointing out that line, questioning it in group and private chats and we all looked back into our contracts to see what it said. Once the issue was discovered, the discontent spread immediately.

Eventually we managed to defend what was written down in our contracts – one month’s notice – but nothing more. We lost a lot of control over our own lives, over our work-life balance, over our freedom to arrange our life outside work.

Time of the Plague

I am writing these words in the time of the novel coronavirus pandemic. When it eventually got to the Netherlands as well, some of us were really troubled by the level of inaction Majorel displayed. When the company did react in March, did the company introduce hand sanitiser dispensers (one per floor) – and some precautions were taken in how the food was handled in the canteen. This only happened because of the pressure from the agents. None of this came from management’s own initiative. When the decision to equip us so to work from home was finally made, even this was done taking into account only what is easier for the management to organise, instead of what a decent sanitary protocol would advise.

As time went on, even though Netflix is one of the businesses considered to have made a killing during the pandemic, a wave of membership cancellations took place. New users stopped arriving as Netflix halted all production of new content due to the pandemic. Many subscribers watched everything they wanted and seeing not enough new content flowing in, went somewhere else. Others lost their jobs and had no choice but to reduce their spending..

In July significant headcount reductions were announced, across many language teams, from English, to Polish and Turkish. Just as performance or work seniority play no role in our pay, none of this played any role in reductions either. HR just located those agents who were still on probation (like a dozen or so Polish people), and those whose temporary contracts were about to expire this summer, no matter if they had been working only for a few months or were approaching two years and were expecting to finally get their permanent contract. We were all told that our contracts would not be extended. It was simply easier this way, legally speaking. Once more we were shown how disposable of a resource we are for the employer and for Netflix.


Igor Burtan

Igor works at a call centre.