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Case: Call Centers –
The Reality of this Promising Job Market of the Future for Women“

Examples of Union-Based Resistance from Two Countries

Sabine Morgenroth

Live Wire

In the fall of last year, workers in the trade union, HBV (trade, banks, and insurance companies), came together at both the Citifinanzberatungs GmbH Bochum (better known as Citiphone-banking Bochum), and the Fachhändler-Service in Duisburg. Here they united to fight against the shutdown and integration of their companies into a new Citibank office building in Duisburg. Citifinanzberatungs, or Citibank’s financial consulting department, and the Fachhändler-Service, or the retail service department in Duisburg, are both Citibank call centers. The workers united under the slogan ‘Auf Draht’, which is a play on words which combines ‘on the ball’ with ‘on the phone’ and is best expressed by the notion of a ‘live wire’).

My name is Sabine Morgenroth; I am 35 years old, and I am one of the employees who worked for the Citiphone banking Center Bochum. I have worked there at 20 hours per week since August 1991. The paychecks were used to cover my expenses as a student, and now as a Ph.D. candidate.

The call center I would like to profile here is atypical in several respects. On the one hand, a very active workers committee has imposed social standards and working conditions that must be considered as exemplary, as far as call centers go.But on the other hand, the workers here are not predominantly women working low wage jobs. Furthermore, it was the first call center in the banking sector which was going to be shut down, and the first one against which strikes were launched.

In August 1998, 450 employees were working the phones, 24 hours per day, 6 days per week. The common greeting we use when answering the phones has also become the slogan popularized in Citibank’s advertising: ‘Greetings with Citibank. My name is How can I help you?’ On the other end of the line you’d find one of the 500,000 German customers with an account at Citibank. Or, maybe it’s a potential new client who has some questions about opening an account. My phones, as well as those of the 20 other colleagues on my shift, were constantly ringing. Depending on the clients’ wishes one can easily have up to 30 to 50 ‘conversations’ in an hour. This, of course, means that the phone rings 30 to 50 times; that one repeats the standard Citibank greeting 30 to 50 times per hour; that one hears 30 to 50 different voices, different demands, problems, dialects and even different languages. Some clients whisper; while others let their dogs bark into the phone; or you might hear a parrot screeching; or a baby crying. One person might be calling from a factory workshop, standing next to some loud machinery, while the next client might be standing on a busy train station platform.And, since the invention of the mobile phone, people have been calling us from just about anywhere. More than a few times per day one’s eardrums were in danger of being damaged.

The job thus requires the utmost concentration, strong nerves, and lots of patience. In addition, it demands competence, quick reactions, and requires one to be in a constant state of accommodating cheeriness. It’s not always easy to remain friendly when the person on the other end doesn’t even offer you a greeting or his or her name, or a ‘Thank you!’, let alone some other common courtesy, especially when they use us as scapegoats for the umpteenth time because of systemic errors, missing entries, long transfer times, long waiting times, or other inconveniences.

The employees work in 4-, 6-, or 8-hour shifts. For the night shift, Sunday and holiday shifts we received a bonus. These shifts were voluntary. Most of the shifts were filled by part-time employees with flexible working hours. Over the years, however, the management began to discover that with an all part-time staff, work plans and schedules required a great deal more effort to coordinate. In response, management hired many full-time employees with fixed working hours.

The remuneration for this backbreaking piecework took the form of an hourly wage that was based on seniority and job classification. Compared to other call centers, the maximum hourly wage of 19.67 DM (10 USD) for a telephone operator was good. But if you take into account that we were performing duties previously done by qualified bank clerks in the branch offices, the salary is very low.

There have always been more female employees than male. But the proportion of women to men has never been too high because of the many students — both male and female — who work there. Because the Ruhr University Bochum is nearby, a large share of the staff has always been students. The selection of team leaders and supervisors has always been gender-neutral. In fact, there were often more women supervisors than men. Meanwhile, the ever-changing composition of the management included as many women as men. In this respect, the Citiphone banking call center is something of an exception. Because wages are lower in other call centers the predominantly part-time jobs there go disproportionately to women.These women are usually not the breadwinners for their families.They work because many of them do not want to stay at home all day, while many others find it desirable or necessary to supplement their household incomes. The flexible working hours makes it possible to combine job, children, and household.

This essentially positive element — flexibility — comes with a serious drawback, however, because call centers are set up to save on overhead in the form of wage costs. The Citibank call center is a prime example of this. Already back during the time of KKBcertain activities previously performed in the branch offices were beginning to be transferred to call centers. This is called ‘out-sourcing’. The call center, which was a later development like the KKB before it, was taken over by Citibank. It was incorporated as an independent GmbH (limited liability company; corresponds to the British Plc – Public limited company). This was the case from the beginning, and thus call centers were excluded from all collective bargaining agreements in the banking sector. This meant, for instance, that salaries below those fixed by the collective bargaining agreement could now be paid for banking activities. It also meant that vacations and Christmas bonuses could be eliminated.

The entire work environment — work place, working hours, break times, mechanisms of control and so on — could now be regulated by company regulations negotiated between the management and the works councils. The lack of legally binding regulations for call-centers has made a strong works council absolutely essential. Thank God ours was strong. Most call centers don’t have any representation at all, or it is ineffective. Consequently, working conditions in most call centers are bad.

In the eyes of Citibank, our workers committee was too effective, and the highly qualified, long-term employees among us, too expensive. The problem was solved very simply. Management in August 1998 simply announced that it was proud and glad to inform us at that early a stage that the call center would be closed down on June 30, 1999 and we would all be laid off. They added that those who wished to could apply for a job in the newly created company. There was no job description, but it was clear that the working conditions would be worse than before. Some, nonetheless, applied and were rejected because they were considered overqualified! Some of them, however, received contract offers, provided that they had not been among those protesting the shutdown. This is how they isolated the black sheep from the rest of the flock.

Indeed, we were not about to be bullied by the threat of a shutdown. We contacted newspapers, radio and TV stations; we protested and went on strike several times. We also set up an action committee and managed to draw public attention to Citibank’s machinations and to our situation with a number of actions. We covered an advertising kiosk with our protest demands, had leaflets printed, carried out a signature drive, a postcard action, and collected declarations of solidarity. We visited the head of Citicorp Dtl. AG (which our company was part of) at his home in Belgium. We also approached all the political parties represented in the city council of Bochum as well as those in the towns of Clement, Schröder, and Blüm. But, in the end, we could not save our jobs. Not even the workers from Duisburg managed to save theirs. What we did achieve in Bochum, however, was to negotiate an acceptable plan that secured employee compensation, which somewhat absorbed the shock of stepping into the world of unemployment. We also managed to prevent Citibank from rationalizing away our jobs while securing a tax abatement plan of 7 million DM for its new building. And personally, an important factor for us was that we did not go down quietly and unnoticed — we went with style and a major fuss!

But what did the impending layoff and the offer to come to Duisburg mean for the employees? The women with children were forced to forego that job in Duisburg. For those who could only work four hours per day because they had children returning from school or kindergarten, the commute to Duisburg was too long. But also the women with no children who also only worked a few hours per day rejected the move into the new building. They had no desire to spend two hours per day on public transportation or commuting on the B1 highway. Students were not interested in the Duisburg office either because the longer commute would make it almost impossible for them to combine their university studies with their part-time jobs. In addition to that, they’d be compelled to sign new contracts and would have to pay social security and join a pension plan. This would mean less take-home pay and would thus mean that they’d have to work even longer hours to cover their tuition and living expenses. In this sense, the female students with children were hit doubly hard. However, the general feeling that people came away with, was that these people will ‘never again work for Citibank’. The manner in which this company has dealt with, and continues to deal with, long-term employees is dehumanizing. Thus, only 90 former Bochum employees have opted to seek employment at the new Citibank offices in Duisburg. For many of the younger employees it won’t be difficult to find a another job at another call center. In general, however, they are going to have to accept a pay cut, longer commuting times, and worse working conditions. Call center jobs are usually low-paying jobs. Older employees have already experienced difficulties in finding another job and will probably remain unemployed for the time being.

Citibank is but one example of how call centers treat their employees. In call centers out-sourced by other corporations the situation is usually no better. A majority of the employees that are affected by these situations are women. Call center work is hard work. The phone rings constantly – not just your own, but also those of your colleagues. The noise levels are always high and the work is usually monotonous. It demands great concentration because you must operate the phone and computer simultaneously. There are never enough breaks and the pay is much too low. As a rule, call centers are not bound to any established wage agreements. Trade unions are only now just beginning to become active in call centers. I do not see call center work as the future of employment — yet! — unless, of course, we want to turn Germany into a low-wage country.

Call centers encompass an extremely broad range of topics. Regrettably, only a few of those aspects could be touched upon here. I hope, however, that the readers managed to gain an impression and recognized that much remains to be done in this area. Let’s do it!

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