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Evidence from contact centre staff survey harnessed by Unions to improve working conditions

Workers sitting at computers

Research into call centre conditions during the pandemic by the University of Strathclyde involving almost 3,000 staff nationwide is being used as evidence to improve working conditions by trade unions.

Phil Taylor, Professor of Work and Employment Studies in the Department of Human Resource Management at Strathclyde, carried out a confidential survey involving 2,750 call centre workers across the UK, who also provided almost 200,000 words of testimony.

Pandemic working

The survey was designed to capture data on the realities of contact centre working during the pandemic, and a key aim was to gather to evidence that could expose bad practice but also to identify good practice, such as homeworking.

Some of the anonymous personal testimonies are now being evidenced by trade unions to improve ‘unsanitary’ and ‘unsafe’ workplaces and conditions, as well as providing the basis for how any full return to work needs to be managed.

Global contact centre research expert Professor Taylor said that at the project’s height he was fielding at least four calls a day from ‘terrified’ staff who feared they would catch the virus from their workplace and who dreaded turning up for work. As many as 78 per cent thought they would catch COVID-19 at their workplace and 91 per cent were worried that would give COVID-19 to family or friends.

The survey was launched in April and has continued throughout the crisis, and Professor Taylor said: “The severity of the hazards from COVID-19 and the effects on these workers make for shocking reading.

“Workers were phoning up and the dread and horror of it all for them is palpable. In at least in one case I’ve had to direct someone to the Samaritans who came to speak to me in a shift break.

“The dangers are real. I have researched white-collar work, health and safety and call/contact centres for 25 years and I can’t think I’ve done anything as important as this in my life.

“I have testimony where workers reveal there have been deaths of colleagues from COVID-19, and in one case workers only actually found out from a local newspaper, which is appalling.

“Some statistical evidence and the testimonies are being presented to companies – none publicly named – through the trade unions so they can intervene to make workers safe.

“I am pleased if the research will contribute to improving the situation and stop exposing workers to real hazards, which is still happening. The survey link is still open and I will track developments as they occur.”

Workplace distancing

The research records workers’ claims that social distancing is impossible in their workplaces, despite regulations in Scotland that at least two metres should be left between people. Only a third of workers said their employer was successful in implementing workplace distancing.

Almost three-quarters believed that social distancing when moving around the building was either ‘hazardous’ or ‘very hazardous’.

One worker said: “Call centres are like petri dishes and it is very easy for something to be passed around, especially during a pandemic’, while more than eighty per cent of respondents said they believed it was likely they will catch Covid-19.

The survey, supported by the Scottish Trade Unions Congress and other unions and bodies, also revealed that while two-thirds of staff still working in the sector have asked bosses to work from home, but just four per cent of all requests have been granted.

The research was also cited in a House of Commons debate by Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran in a debate over COVID-19 restrictions in England.

Home working

Professor Taylor added: “The other thing that I think is important in the study is the sheer volume of workers who wish to work from home. But for a whole number of reasons they aren’t being permitted to.

“Some of the reported appear flimsy and spurious. The necessity of placing workers in a safe environment – that is at home – at the moment is extremely important. “

Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary of the STUC, said: “The pre-existing conditions are at best precarious when it comes to the transmission of disease and illness and the information from the survey will provide unions and non-unionised work places with the information and tools they need to negotiate proper safe practices.

“By shining a spotlight on the conditions that call centre workers were facing as the country went into lockdown, the survey also provides the basis for how any return to work needs to be managed.

“If necessary they will also help pressure employers to slow down the return to work and ensure the health of workers is their priority.”