At the age of 11, Charles Dickens' father's bankruptcy forced the 19th-century novelist to work in a boot-blacking factory for three months – an experience which scarred him for life and influenced his creative output. Two centuries later, you would expect working conditions to have improved considerably. But call centres have been branded the 21st-century equivalent of Dickens' blacking factory. Is this fair? Are brokers and insurers treating their staff like slaves?

It is not in any company's interest to treat its call centre staff like Victorian factory workers. The people who answer the phone are the public face of a business, on the front line of customer service. Since excellent customer service is a key differentiator and one of the most important ways to gain a competitive advantage, a call centre operation can be critical to business success.

Call centres are big business for Britain. The UK has emerged as the call centre capital of Europe – almost half of all European call centres are in this country. Recent figures put the growth of tele business in the UK at around 40%, making it the country's fastest-growing occupational sector. Nationally, call centres employ more than 400,000 people, which is more than the coal, steel and vehicle manufacturing industries put together.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) recently ran “It's your call”, a campaign encouraging unhappy call centre employees to recount their experiences. About 750 agents called the freephone number in February this year, anonymously telling tales of too much supervision, too few breaks, potential health and safety violations, petty economies and pay withheld for trivial reasons.

While the confidential nature of the hotline made it impossible for the TUC to verify the complaints, some seemed consistent – 25% of callers reported extreme monitoring, even sometimes having to ask permission to go to the toilet, and 15.5% said they were not allowed proper breaks on their shift, in violation of the Working Time Directive.

Anecdotal evidence gathered over the two weeks of the campaign was more lurid. One agent, working in a contact centre for a pay-TV service, sometimes took abusive calls from men wanting to subscribe to the company's adult channel and felt she was not given sufficient protection.

Another agent complained that employees at her call centre were charged 5p for cups of water and another that agents were under orders to come in ten minutes early, with no extra pay, to log on to their computers.

Bad pay for workers
Low rates of pay are common, according to the TUC. It discovered the majority of call centre workers earned £8,000 per annum less than the national average salary, with some starting salaries as little as £7,500. In the words of the report, “too many call centre workers are the victims of low wages, repetitive work and extreme targets”.

In response to the publication of “It's your call”, the Call Centre Association took issue with this bleak view of the industry. While not denying that rogue operators exist – though many problems arise from inadequate management and are not confined to the call centre industry – the association prefers to advocate positive promotion of its best practice standards. It says staff benefit from regular training, setting clear goals and encouraging good communication between agents and team leaders.

Call centres are accused of being unhealthy places to work. While screen glare, symptoms of sick building syndrome, repetitive strain injury and acoustic shock may not come into the same league as the health and safety hazards of 19th-century sweatshops, they are legitimate concerns for today's workforce. Are these hazards unique to call centres or could they arise in any badly-planned office environment?

Typically, call centre agents use a telephone headset, a VDU monitor and a keyboard. But they are certainly not alone in working in front of computer monitors all day – the majority of office employees these days probably do.

Screen glare can cause headaches, eyestrain, and – in extreme cases – epilepsy. In certain situations, such as when they are required to continuously enter information on callers into a database, agents can be at risk of repetitive strain injury, caused by small, repeated movements at the keyboard or mouse. But again, this can be a problem for any keyboard user in any industry.

Both EC and UK legislation on VDU work requires employers to allow staff regular breaks from their display screens. The Health & Safety Executive (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 state that, “where the job unavoidably contains spells of intensive display screen-work, these should be broken up by periods of non-intensive, non-display screen work. Where such work cannot be scheduled, deliberate breaks or pauses must be introduced.” Repetitive strain injury can also be kept at bay by frequent changes of activity.

Sick building syndrome is a catch-all term for the discomforts experienced by employees in a poor work environment, whether a call centre or an office building.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) investigated these and other risks in its 1999 research into working practices in call centres. The report emphasised the vital importance of good environmental conditions for call centre workers, since they are required to sit at their workstations for long periods without a break. Findings included complaints about overcrowded work areas and poor temperature control in the buildings. Although all the companies studied by the HSE had introduced new recruits to health and safety working practices during their induction training, there was a general lack of understanding as to why measures such as changing position and standing up and stretching were so important. The HSE concluded that better communication was vital to ensure staff helped themselves in this respect.

The perception that the work is repetitive, monotonous and unrelentingly mechanical is one of the main reasons call centres are likened to Victorian factories. Most studies into the attitudes of call centre workers have found some agents express dissatisfaction with the nature of the work, but that there are several strategies for making the job more interesting and improving moral.

The London School of Economics conducted research in call centres belonging to three major financial institutions, seeking to establish whether reports of sweatshop conditions were accurate. It found stress levels and job dissatisfaction were no higher in call centres than in comparable office or factory work. During the survey, researchers had access to a database of 40,000 respondents, built up by the Institute of Work Psychology over the past 25 years.

The nature of the job
Call centre managers can do little to change the inherent nature of an agent's job. The commercial reality is that as many calls, or other contacts, as possible must be handled successfully in the shortest feasible time. The key word here, however, is successfully. The call centre's raison d'être – to provide good customer service – can only be undermined by treating agents like machines.

Are call centres sweatshops? The use of emotive terminology also demeans the professionalism of today's call centre agents, many of whom are highly skilled and have chosen to work in customer service. But if organisations regard their customer service centres as factories, they will not get the best out of their valuable staff – nor will the facility itself present an appropriate face to customers.

  • Philip Hunter is event director of Call Centre Expo 2001. Call Centre Expo takes place from October 9 to 10 at the NEC, Birmingham.