Rumours began circulating at a Probe call centre in Melbourne’s CBD on 13 July that one of the workers had tested positive for coronavirus. Two hours later, a manager called the workers into a meeting room and told them to prepare to work from home. Management didn’t inform the next shift until it finished three hours later. When a worker asked for the next day off to get a test, the boss’s response was “Why do you need to get tested?”

The cut-price, outsourced world of contract call centres is a new front line of COVID-19 spread in Victoria. Working conditions in all these centres are dire, but there is a big difference between a well-unionised site, where workers are able to win basic health and safety measures, and the non-union sites that dominate the industry. In a pandemic, this can be the difference between health and sickness and, potentially, between life and death.

Two different centres in Melbourne – one in the CBD and the other in Richmond – run by business process outsourcing company Probe, illustrate the point. Jordan, one of the CBD workers, says that, although a few more people have joined him in the Australian Services Union recently, density is still low. Probe’s Richmond site is represented by a different union, the United Workers’ Union (UWU), which has a strong presence.

Early in the pandemic, UWU representatives successfully fought for all Richmond staff to be paid to self-isolate, rather than use their annual or sick leave as CBD permanent staff have been forced to do. Casuals at the CBD site can apply only for unpaid leave, and even that is given only grudgingly.  This is not a matter of arbitrary management decisions, but reflects the differing ability of the workers to win demands.

Even with better health and safety provisions, the Richmond centre still experienced a cluster of five cases, only two fewer than the CBD centre. The reality is, unsafe conditions are industry standard.

Probe management’s handling of the virus makes this apparent. Initially, staff were told they did not need to be tested or to self-isolate. But then, 16 days after the CBD case was confirmed, the boss forwarded a Health Department email to workers advising them to get tested and isolate themselves.

In terms of personal protective equipment, the company distributed masks to all employees, but only as a one-off, Jordan says. Staff wore them for half a shift, unsure if they could wear them to make phone calls.

Most call centres require hot-desking – the sharing of desks between workers on different shifts – and the individual work spaces are too small to permit social distancing, all of which creates an ideal environment for virus transmission. Workers know they’ll get sick when they start working in a call centre, says Jess, an interviewer at another Melbourne call centre run by a different company, the Social Research Centre (SRC), based in Richmond.

At the SRC centre, which has a strong union presence, Jess and her co-workers managed to win the right to work from home early in the pandemic, and recently established a Health and Safety Representative structure with enforceable powers. Strong union membership “definitely impacted” these victories, she says.

Staff were angry that SRC management wasn’t taking safety seriously at first, refusing paid sick leave, not providing alcohol wipes and insisting staff work on site. Jess, a new delegate, organised an on-shift union meeting in response. The workers came up with demands and displayed them on the break room noticeboard: close the office, provide paid sick leave; and, until the office is closed, make alcohol wipes available.

Under pressure, SRC management called a meeting of their own. The bosses stood in front of about 100 furious staff, all wearing stickers that read “SRC: Seriously Risking Coronavirus”. Because workers showed a real willingness to walk out, and the stickers showed they’d do so en masse, the bosses were on the defensive. They were forced to field questions for 40 minutes about their own rates of pay, and about why they were entitled to paid pandemic leave but the workers weren’t.

A week after these two meetings, SRC management conceded to the workers’ demand to work from home. “Organising the on-shift union meeting and showing that the overwhelming majority of people were prepared to walk out was key to that victory”, says Jess. “That was a really good week for the union.”

But they haven’t been able to win every fight. They still haven’t won paid sick leave, for example. Although the Australian National University owns the SRC call centre, the university’s promise of paid pandemic leave for all its staff didn’t extend to SRC workers.

Added to that, neither Probe nor SRC provided monitors, keyboards or headsets when they did permit staff to work from home. SRC management is refusing to reimburse people for such equipment. Because Probe management didn’t shut down the site as soon as a case was confirmed, staff didn’t know if or when they would be expected to start working from home, which made it hard to prepare. “I’m eager to work. I need to work”, says Jordan, but without knowing whether he’ll have the proper equipment to work from home, “the situation is stressful”.

Chris is a phone operator at Serco’s Mill Park call centre, where Centrelink outsources calls. He is a believer in the importance of union organising, and often encourages his workmates and other workers to join their union.

Membership is low at Mill Park, although, as elsewhere, there’s been an influx of new members as a result of the pandemic and recession. Nevertheless, the weakness of the union meant Mill Park remained open for the duration of the first COVID-19 wave in Victoria. The centre recorded its first positive case on 11 July. It closed a full nine days later, and then only because the Health Department forced a two-week shutdown.

From the day the department shut the site down, Chris says, Serco has been demanding it be allowed to reopen before the two weeks are up. It now has a cluster of six confirmed cases. Initially, management told staff only nine people had been identified as close contacts of that initial case. The department has since declared every Mill Park employee a close contact. Given Serco is also contracted to run many prisons and the brutal refugee detention regime, this callousness towards people’s wellbeing is hardly surprising.

The company has also not applied for Jobkeeper, which means that, since the Mill Park centre has been closed, staff haven’t received any pay for cancelled shifts.

The workers are also grossly underpaid. Outsourced Serco Centrelink call centre workers are performing work equivalent to a level four federal public service employee, but being paid less than two-thirds of the pay. Under the Services Australia Enterprise Agreement, the minimum rate for a level four “general employment” stream is $64,368. For permanent full time work, that translates into an hourly rate of at least $33, with four weeks’ leave, sick pay, a 15 percent loading on any shift that ends after 7pm and reasonable job security. Serco trainees and customer contact officers at level one are paid a minimum wage, $20.82 and $21.54 an hour respectively.

Workers covered by the agreement also receive much better training: six weeks as a trainee, then a further six weeks’ consolidation period, when every worker is assigned their own assistant for support. At Serco, workers get just four weeks’ training, after which they are expected to perform like any other worker.

To put this into context, Chris says it took him about nine months to be confident about the protocols of Centrelink calls. Yet at the company’s Essendon centre, he says, staff recently received only 10 days’ training, and for or seven of those, they had no access to the internet. “The situation at Mill Park has been untenable for a long time”, Chris says. “Even before the Health Department shut the centre down. Staff don’t receive proper support or pay.”

When rapidly rising unemployment hit Australia in March, there was an influx of calls to Centrelink, and more work available at the call centre. Chris explains that the staff were permitted to work overtime, up to 60 hours a week. Many had to accept this extra voluntary work to make ends meet. “Is it really voluntary when you can’t pay your rent or mortgage if you don’t work 10 hours a day?”, Chris says.

As with SRC workers, hot-desking means Serco employees have to arrive early to wipe down workstations themselves before starting work – they are expected to be ready for their first call as soon as they clock on. Even before the pandemic, they had to arrive early in order to claim a desk and set it up to start work. Chris says desks don’t seem to be cleaned overnight – or if they are, the cleaning team must be overrun and understaffed. Serco claims the centre is now deep-cleaned during the day as well as at night. But Chris says the Mill Park centre couldn’t possibly be properly sanitised in the middle of people’s shifts – every desk is occupied throughout the workday and could not possibly be properly cleaned.

He says social distancing at Mill Park is also impossible: “The way the centre is laid out is just not equipped for a virus”. There are 12 to 15 workstations on each shared desk. Management installed plastic partitions, but they’re inadequate. There still aren’t enough desks for staff to work at the recommended 1.5 metres apart; the space between each workstation is just 70 centimetres.

Serco denies that there has been any transmission of COVID-19 within its call centres. The company argues that the Mill Park centre’s cluster is due to community spread outside the centre, and points to the plastic partitions and temperature checks as precautions management is taking to protect staff. Chris confirms there were temperature checks by the Health Department last week. But, he adds, people can be infected without experiencing fever, meaning it’s possible many workers with the virus passed their temperature checks and went in to work. He also says that the temperature checks end at noon, even though many people start their shifts in the afternoon.

Before the pandemic, hand sanitiser was available on every group workstation at Serco’s Mill Park call centre. When hand sanitiser started selling out of shops, Serco stopped providing it – according to Chris, because management thought staff would steal it. When management eventually started making it available again, the Mill Park workers noticed the same brand now had a thinner consistency. Workers believe management had watered it down.

It’s the negligence and denial from management, Chris says, that must be the reason Serco’s Mill Park centre has developed a cluster of six known cases. Likewise, Jordan says Probe bosses’ intimidating workers against getting tested has allowed the virus to spread largely unchecked. “They can’t be bothered dealing with multiple positive cases”, he says. Even on the days he had to take off to get tested, he was more anxious about the response from management to him taking time off. “Will work be angry? Will I still get shifts?”

Compounding the fear of losing work is the fear of contracting the virus, and of passing it on to loved ones and the broader community. Chris remembers the feeling in the centre when workers had to keep working after learning of a confirmed case: “There were about 250 people there that day. The mood was tense. Everybody was scared about being at work”.

Call centres should have been closed months ago. The nature of the work makes it relatively easy to do from home, with the right support and the provision of necessary equipment. Workers have an interest in doing the work but doing it safely, unlike the bosses, who care only about getting things done as cheaply as possible. It’s workers’ collective organising, like those first outbursts of defiance at the SRC call centre, that we need to build to get closer to a world where ordinary people can make decisions about not only our work, but our lives and society as well.