Call centres getting organised

Young people have come to expect the worst from working life. For many of us, our first experience of work is in the hospitality industry, where we are lucky if we are paid legal, award wages. Workers aged 20 to 24 are the worst unionised of any age group in Australia: only 7 percent belong to unions, according to 2017 figures. 

That’s why I am proud to be a delegate at one of the best unionised workplaces for young people in the country: a call centre in the Melbourne suburb of Cremorne where 96 percent of workers are members of the National Union of Workers. 

Having a few socialists in the workplace has been key to getting the place organised. For months, we have been signing people up to the union, taking action in defence of our rights on the job, taking a stand around broader political questions and showing that the best kind of union is an active one in which members feel a sense of solidarity and collective identity. 

Outsourcing work to call centres is an easy way for companies to save money. A lot of the surveys we do are on behalf of the government, and formerly would have been done by workers in the public sector in more secure employment and on higher wages.  

Call centres are often called the satanic mills of the 21st century. The work is repetitive. We dial numbers over and over and read through the same script throughout the shift. Our behaviour is constantly monitored, our conversations are recorded, and how long we spend on the toilet, on break, waiting between one call and the next, is all timed. 

Market research is a billion dollar industry, and as in all workplaces, the bosses need workers to make that profit for them. 

It has taken hard work and time to build up a culture of unionism at work. One of the main ways we have done it has been through taking solidarity photos for social causes. In recent months we’ve taken photos in solidarity with the Indigenous families of the victims of the Bowraville murders, with whistleblower hero Chelsea Manning when she was barred from entering the country and with refugees in offshore detention camps for the #kidsoffalloff campaign. 

But the biggest show of our collective strength as unionised workers came when we campaigned to defend our right to read at our desks and save my job. 

A few months ago, I was sent home early on a shift one night when a supervisor told me to put my book away until I got two more surveys. I argued that we all had the right to read. 

Later I was pulled into a disciplinary meeting and told that I would no longer be given shifts. In response, a core team of union activists organised an emergency meeting. Eighty percent of workers on the job simultaneously left their desks to go to the emergency meeting. There was widespread outrage that someone could be sacked for reading at their desk – something we all do. The feeling was that if this could happen to one of us, it could happen to any of us, so it was important that we collectively took a stand. 

Our campaign was successful. The management backed off and we saved my job. Now, another call centre has started its own campaign to read. As per our tradition, we sent them a solidarity photo to spur them on. 

We’ve now got a team of delegates at our call centre. We were some of the youngest members of the NUW contingent at the recent Change the Rules rally. 

To build on our success, there is a plan in the works to start an industry-wide newsletter to spread the word about our campaign and to help improve working conditions across the industry.