Government Study Likens UK Call Centres to 'Satanic Mills'

09 January 2004

Working for certain British call centres can be almost as detrimental to the human psyche as the endurance test implicit in phoning a centre to obtain information or resolve a problem.

The latest report on the industry from government agency, the Health and Safety Executive, compares some call centres to William Blake's "dark Satanic mills". The business employs an estimated 790,000 workers within the UK.

The report, prepared for the HSE by its Health and Safety Laboratory, justified use of the pejorative description by citing low wages, poor working conditions and repetitive tasks.

Workers in the worst UK call centres felt powerless and chained to their workstations, with little job satisfaction and high levels of depression, the report's author Christine Sprigg told the BBC. "People felt very depressed and demoralized," she said.

This is an all too familiar situation, claims trade union Unifi. "Automated systems mean workers only have a couple of seconds between calls. This isn't long enough, particularly if they have just been sworn at by a frustrated customer."

Said a Unifi spokeswoman: "Workers should be able to choose when they are ready to receive a call -- it is no surprise people working in the industry only stay in it for just two years on average," she added.

Call Centre Association chief executive Anne Marie Forsythe was not best pleased at the Blake analogy: "The comparison with Satanic mills is very disappointing," she said. "Most of our members are trying to empower their workers and create career paths for them … there are bad employers in all parts of UK industry."

Data sourced from: BBC Online Business News (UK); additional content by WARC staff