Call-centre Labour in a Global Economy

Linked on our blogs with New Unionism Network UK.

Published on Dissident Voice, by Richy Leitch, December 7th, 2009.

… Though strongly associated with processes of globalisation, the call centre is not a globally uniform phenomenon, according to the research presented here. On paper they licence service relocation, via ICT and advanced telecoms links between employer and customer across wide spatial and temporal parameters, offering employers options for outsourcing, cost cutting and avoidance of collective bargaining / unions. The reality uncovered by the Global Call Centre Industry Project, as reported here by Ursula Holtgrewe and her collaborators, is significantly different. 

“Transnationalisation” is limited and unevenly distributed – more likely where offshoring is related to English-speaking countries (Ireland, Canada, and India). There are enduring cultural constraints upon this process: many call centres are found in close proximity to the language of the customer base they serve – a trend described as ‘nearshoring’. One case study of a German-speaking call centre, which serves a US electronics TNC, found these operations had to be sited in Germany and Slovakia, rather than emulating the actual offshoring the TNC used for its English-speaking market. One lesson we can draw from this is that globalisation or call centre location is no economic juggernaut sweeping all before it: other determinants count too, opening up space for those trying to fight prospective work relocation or build union power on new sites …

… The strike itself had outsourcing at its heart, and was one of a wave of disputes affecting the whole Canadian telecoms sector at the time. Although the CEP has some success in disrupting Aliant’s operations, the union could not sustain its attack and eventually agreed to a settlement offering only temporary protection for its workforce. Post-strike, Aliant resumed its outsourcing, work centralisation and job reduction programmes – and then underwent a further corporate reorganisation (merging with Bell Canada) wherein further outsourcing occurred. The remaining unionised part of Aliant were now left in a state of slow decline, victims of a concerted employer ’war of attrition’ the CEP could not easily counter.

Brophy suggests this episode indicates a key flaw in the CEP’s application of the strategy of convergent unionism. Whilst the employer was using outsourcing to non-union firms and ‘callcenterisation’ to strike at the heart of workers’ power, the CEP were relying on traditional firm-level collective bargaining (albeit beefed up by the convergence undertaken to create more powerful bargaining units). Its weakness in the rest of the non unionised call centre sector of the New Brunswick economy – along with that of other unions – left it unable to effectively respond to Aliant’s manoeuvring. A more imaginative solution, according to Brophy, lies in adopting new organising strategies that use geographical or industry-wide approaches – along the lines of the ‘workers centre’ movement or ‘social movement unionism’ – to create new forms of workers power. A large challenge – but none the less necessary.

Again, as in the last issue of WOLG, we are left with the clear message of the need for new organising if today’s workforce is to make significant advances against the neo-liberal corporate order. In the case of the call centre, as this collection makes abundantly clear, there is a plentiful supply of political raw material (in the shape of angry, stressed and alienated workforces around the globe) for organisers to work with … (full text).   (Richy Leitch is a member of the New Unionism Network).

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