01 February 1998

'BIG BROTHER BOSSES' are invoked as the new Orwellian bogeymen in a report published today on the UK's call centre industry. Around 200,000 people now work in call centres, many handling enquiries and processing orders around the clock. The sector employs more workers than coal, steel and vehicle production put together but critics accuse the centres of being latter-day sweatshops where working conditions are akin to battery farms. The report by the Centre for Economic Performance is based on in-depth studies at three major call centres, and measures the relationship between working practices, output, and performance-related pay.

It roundly condemns Britain's fastest-growing business sector: 'The tyranny of the assembly line is but a Sunday picnic compared to the control that management can exercise in computer telephony', says author Sue Fearney. According to the study, calls at most centres are 'force fed' - as soon as one call finishes the next is connected automatically, allowing operators no opportunity to pace their work rate. Staff burn-out rates are high - according to the report, 18 months is the average maximum tolerance of the job. The study quotes the late French philosopher Michel Foucault: 'In call centres the agents are constantly visible and the supervisor's power has indeed been rendered perfect - via the computer monitoring screen.' [Debrief wonders if the report is playing a cerebral prank here? Foucault, who died in 1984, is unlikely ever to have seen a modern call centre - except from the astral plane!]

Despite the foregoing, all is not gloom and doom for the huddled masses: 'Employees appreciate the higher rates of pay they receive in call centres, and seem to become quickly acclimatised to the high levels of monitoring', the report concludes.