A TUC report shows that many call centre workers are badly paid and treated little better than battery hens. Insurers are employing more and more call centre staff. It is in employers' interests to improve conditions if they are to retain the best staff in a competitive market. Amanda Swinburn reports....

A report published last month by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) on working conditions in call centres around the UK has forced the insurance industry to take stock of its employment practices.

The report revealed problems such as staff having just three seconds between calls, trips to the lavatory monitored and insufficient breaks during the working day.

As a result of the report a Call Centre Workers Campaign hotline was set up by the TUC to allow employees to air their views. And complaints have been flooding in – the hotline took 400 calls in its first week alone.

One worker said he had been disciplined for being idle, after he left a six-second break between calls. According to another caller, one manager took disposable nappies into work, saying the staff using the toilet too frequently would be told to wear one. In addition, one call centre had a “shame” board to monitor staff progress. Anyone whose name appeared on the board for more than three weeks, was dismissed.

Several callers rang to say they were on long-term sick leave, and even taking anti-depressants, because of the stress of the job. Others report an openly hostile attitude to unions.

TUC general secretary, John Monks, says in the report: “Many call centres already treat their staff with respect, and others are making a real effort to clean up their act. But these figures show there are still too many centres using bullying tactics to pressurise and intimidate employees. According to reports on our hotline, some call centres seem to be openly flouting the law.”

A recent survey of call centre operators reveals 88% feel pressurised by targets and 61% feel there is not enough time between calls. The TUC report also shows that the average call centre worker is paid 40% less than the national average at £12,850, compared to £21,800.

In regions where call centres have replaced much of the employment lost in the decline of traditional industries, the pay rate is lower. Call handlers earn an average of £11,100 in Wales and £11,450 in Yorkshire.

However, the TUC says that the picture in call centres is mixed, as some companies are forced to increase pay to retain staff. The industry, which now employs 400,000 people, offers starting salaries of as little as £7,500 or as much as £20,000 in areas where call centres compete for staff.

Companies which operate an outsourcing service on behalf of other firms tend to be the worst payers.

Managing director of Inter Group Insurance Andrew Blowers, which employs 70 people in its call centres, is quick to admit that workers have a heavy workload.

“Our call centre workers can suffer fatigue, as there are high volumes of calls that they need to answer – about 80 per day.”

However, he says that insurers can do their best to make working conditions as pleasant as possible.

“We run competitions to create a fun working environment, we make sure people get regular breaks and they are paid well – our top call operator makes £25,000 after commission,” he says.

However, according to the TUC report, stress in the workplace is just the tip of the iceberg. It says call centre employers also need to look at health and safety, after a number of operators have brought claims for a condition called acoustic shock syndrome (ASS), a hearing condition caused by staff being subjected to sudden acoustic noises through their headsets.

Symptoms include short-term memory loss and continuous tinnitus leading to constant tiredness.

A number of insurers are investing in new technology to prevent ASS. Direct Line, which currently employs 3,000 call centre operators, is offering new employees three kinds of headsets, all of which filter out background noise. A spokesman says: “Southampton University has recently carried out audio testing at Direct Line, and we have been given a clean bill of health.”

According to Datamonitor, 400,000 people in the UK are employed in call centres, with financial services the biggest employer at 20%. It predicts the figure will increase by 100,000 by the year 2003.

The demand for call centre operators in insurance seems to be increasing. This year has seen Norwich Union, Axa and the Insurance Advisory Service each boost call centre staff by over 100.

However, competing analysis suggests that growth may not be as fast as predicted. Consultants, Organisation and Technology Research says that two in five call centre workers will be replaced by speech recognition software by 2004, as it becomes more relevant and cheaper to install.

There is also the fact more and more insurers are launching websites offering online purchasing, therefore reducing the need for call centre staff.

The Call Centre Association published a “standard for best practice” in November 2000, which it says all 450 members should support in principle. The guidelines include commitment to training and better consultation with employees. There are also plans to implement formal processes for resolving workplace disputes, raising standards to protect customers and ensuring management complies with employment laws.

The association says it will be making the code of practice mandatory in the future.

Executive director of the Call Centre Association, Anne-Marie Forsyth, issued a warning to insurers who are not complying with the guidelines. “There are good and bad players, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and keep good staff, as unemployment levels fall.

“If the operators are not getting decent working conditions, then customers don't get good service and this can be very damaging to business.” The TUC has made its own recommendation on “best practice”. These include implementing flexible hours, paying overtime for hours worked outside 8am-6pm and staffing bank holidays on a voluntary basis.

The TUC is still gathering evidence against the worst employers in the call centre industry. It has not yet set a date for the publication of its investigation.

However, a spokeswoman said the TUC hopes that by publishing the results of the investigation, employees will be encouraged to join a union, and employers will be forced to clean up their act.