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Case History:
Call Centre in Nordrhein-Westfalen

Andrea Reischies

"ABC Europe, hello, my name is Ramona Schneider." This is the kind of greeting one is likely to hear constantly emerging from some 40 cubicles in which not much more than the women’s eyes can be seen.

To say that they are telephone operators does not adequately describe their job – because besides answering calls, they are required to type up orders on their PCs, check clients’ addresses, as well as stock up the appointment books of the bank’s sales representatives and service representatives. These are some of the responsibilities of a telephone operator, or call-center agent, as they are now called. It is a fairly new profession that is becoming popular because of the ‘Call-Center Offensive’ initiated by the federal state of Nordrhein-Westfalen.

30,000 new jobs have been created in Germany in the past year, mainly in the banking, insurance, mail order, tourism, electronic data processing, telecommunications, and energy supply sectors. It is expected that by the year 2001, another 140,000 jobs will have been created.

Call centers are, thus far, concentrated in Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Thus Quelle receives client orders from the Netherlands, Avis customers call Ireland, and since the beginning of 1999, Daimler-Benz has hired 500 assistants to answer European customer inquiries in 6 languages from their location in Maastricht. This kind of service means, in effect, that a German client can order books through from Namibia.The further relocation of German company service centers to new locations should be blocked.The Otto Versand Company, for instance, has managed to find an attractive work environment in Mecklenburg, a region with more than 30 percent unemployment, proving that favorable conditions for the service sector can still be found in Germany.

Working conditions

In April 1997, Nordrhein-Westfalen’s state government launched a ‘Call Center Offensive’, which offered the business community extensive assistance in the form of financial support, choice of location within the region, and the hiring of qualified local personnel. The attractive inducement offers took the employment situation to an absolute limit for what employees could find acceptable. The state offered companies, among other things, the rapid issuing of permits that would allow these companies to be open on Sundays and public holidays. The project leader of the Offensive from the ministry of economic affairs, Heiko Bensch, stated: We are faced with international competition. If we cannot offer call center services 365 days a year, clients may become frustrated if they call during a country’s national holiday and there is no service, meaning they may lose out on orders. This is why there is new legislation that allows call centers to be open on Sundays and public holidays. Only with this kind of concession can this sector truly develop.“ This legislation went unnoticed by the public, and set a precedent that allows more and more establishments to open their doors on Sundays.

A large proportion of the hotlines is staffed with part-time employees. The women, who make up the vast majority of the employees, cannot be expected to be on the phone non-stop for more than 4 to 6 hours and still remain courteous. Their motivation drops and their speaking voices become jumbled. In a word, the agents are exhausted and sent home. This also means that there is extra pressure per time unit.

Women, nevertheless, remain hopeful regarding advancement opportunities. Monika F., a businesswoman in the industry, quit her job because her working hours were impossible to coordinate with those of her husband and with those of her child’s kindergarten schedule. Now Monika F. works at a bank three days a week — two in the evening from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., and one on Saturday morning — hours when her husband could be with the kids. This arrangement also allowed the father to spend more hours with his children. The bank basically benefits from being able to offer its direct banking service on evenings and Saturdays without additional expenditures.

Monika F. earns 19DM per hour before taxes, at the bank. In some call centers where phones and operators serve several companies, wages often dip below 15DM per hour. As a businesswoman, Monika F. used to earn a lot more. She thinks of the call-center job as a semi-skilled occupation in which the employee or agent has no decision-making power since the entire work process is standardized and computerized. What people often forget is that companies and training centers usually offer the call-center agent training as a complementary education to an already existing apprenticeship.

They claim that most of the agents are not temps or part-timers but permanent employees. A closer look, however, reveals that this applies mainly to those who work in an ‘in-house’ center, meaning the out-sourced department of a company that works only for the parent company. While women employed by centers owned by independent contractors often earn a standard 630DM per monthwith no social benefits even if they work the equivalent number of hours of a fulltime employee.

Training and prospects of promotion

The ‘Call Center Offensive’ not only promotes the centers but also assures that the job qualifications of applicants is raised ever higher. A good telephone voice and a business background are prerequisites. Upon completion of the training program, a certificate is issued by the Chamber of Commerce.

Because of the boom in the telemarketing sector, more and more men are becoming interested in this type of employment. Michael Rohman’s experience as head of the training center in Oberhausen, is that men, after a brief training period, are soon aiming for the management positions. Women remain in demand for the generic labour.The job market is evolving quickly and although it offers some opportunities for women, it is usually very few.“

In the typical open- office plan, 40 women and perhaps two men are busy on the phone. One of the two men is a student, the other is the supervisor. While the women work 20 hours, the supervisor works 40 hours, because as a supervisor he does not only operate the phone, but also organizes, plans, and manages. His job description is not that exhausting however, and can be quite bearable on a full-time daily basis. Besides, he has a family to provide for. Women, on the other hand, have to really elbow their way through if they want to be hired for some of the professional, full-time job opportunities at the call centers now being offered mostly to men.

Do call centers create jobs?

Yes, OK, on the one hand, new services are offered to the consumer. Companies more readily accommodate their customers. This service sector development does create new jobs; the call-center market is booming. Hotlines are staffed in two to three shifts daily.

But on the other hand, the goal is to save on personnel costs, which means lower wages, which is definitely to the detriment of the employees. Departments are constantly being out-sourced and reorganized. The main purpose of these developments is to dismantle the collective bargaining agreements and eliminate workers’ rights and benefits. At Citibank, for instance, this means that employees are no longer paid according to collective bargaining wage agreements established for the banking sector, and the companies can trim their budget by economising on salaries, lower wages, the elimination of paid vacations. Meanwhile, the workweek has increased from 35 to 40 hours. But, in terms of take home pay, the average employee often earns 500DM less per month.

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