Contact centres in the crisis   

Thursday 2 July 2020

Contact centre workers around Europe have and continue to face grave dangers throughout the coronavirus crisis, with many forced to work in dangerous conditions and fearing for their lives.

Across the continent there have been reports of call centres failing to ensure workers are able to adopt appropriate social distancing measures. Moreover, the lack of paid sick leave is incentivising call handlers to come to work while displaying symptoms of COVID-19.

A recent report surveying call centre workers in Scotland shows that dangerous conditions further evidenced the poor conditions in the sector. The research, conducted by Professor Phil Taylor of Strathclyde University is based on thousands of survey responses in call centres across Scotland, highlights many grave concerns.

Many workers report being forced to work in confined workplaces with few or no windows, long shifts, face-to-face contact, hot-desking, and problems with heating ventilation and air conditioning systems.

A major challenge that workers and their unions in the sector have faced is the opaque and ambiguous way in which governments have designated essential and key workers. Contact centre employers and their clients have seized on these ambiguities to label ever-greater groups essential and so deny them teleworking arrangements that may save their lives.

Two out of every three workers surveyed remain unconvinced that the service they provide justifies the designation of essential (or emergency) work. How many sales activities can be designated essential? Are cancellations of digital TV services really an emergency? As one respondent puts it, “Any time the government advise us to stay at home we get an email or text telling us we’re essential and we’re expected to be in.

Almost three quarters of those surveyed confirmed that they are expected to come to work no-matter-what and that pressure is put on them that they might either lose their job or receive only statutory sick pay (£95.85 a week: €107.46) if they don’t come to work, despite the UK government’s furlough scheme to pay 80% of workers’ wages if the contact centre closes. As one respondent puts it, “I am of the opinion that my life isn’t as important as a customers’ inconvenience”.

 *Picture credit: MikeDotta / Shutterstock

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