Calling for Resistance: the Electronic Panopticon of Call Centers and the Neoliberal Future of Work

by Jamie Woodcock*

For Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, I spent six months working undercover in a call centre in the UK. Taking inspiration from workers’ inquiry – a Marxist method of co-research that combines knowledge production with organising – the aim was to understand how work is organised in call centres and how workers resist in this context.
A major difficulty with this kind of critical research on work is gaining access. The only way to do so was by going undercover, experiencing the call centre from the perspective of the labour process itself. Over the six months of ethnography, the book details the day-to-day experience of the work, the management techniques, the different moments of resistance, along with attempts to organise. It also includes the serendipitous discovery of finding another researcher in the workplace, although in this case a consultant hired for a very different purpose. This poses important questions about the politics of research, particularly within contexts like workplaces with antagonistic social and economic relationships.
Working the Phones control and resistance in call centersThe call centre that is the focus of the book was an outbound sales call centre. It shared the same conditions found in many call centres, a sector in which it is estimated around one million workers are employed in the UK. Most of the work at this call centre involved calling large numbers of people to try and sell life insurance. Although given the sales encounters were scripted, the product being sold really could have been anything. However, despite the scripting, the process of selling over the phone requires workers add emotions and humour to convince people to buy. This form of affective labour places new kinds of demands on workers to perform.
These demands are experienced in a context of control and surveillance. Call centres in general have become synonymous with technological forms of management. This specific call centre was target driven, with digitally recorded all phone calls, timed each part of the work to the second (including breaks), TV screens with real-time comparisons of worker performance, while backing these up with weekly one-to-one meetings with supervisors. The book returns to the analogy of the electronic Panopticon – the application of Bentham and Foucault’s writing on the architectural prison model – and its usefulness for analysing discipline and control in the call centre. The model remains useful for drawing attention to different processes of surveillance, although they are articulated through the exploitative relationships of work.
The risk of focusing on the methods of technological surveillance and control, along with the precarious contracts that offered almost no employment protection, is that the agency of the workers themselves can be greatly understated. The popular understanding of call centres – and one shared by many trade unionists – is that these are workplaces with particularly bad conditions, structural barriers to collectively organising, and remarkably high levels of turnover. These features were shared in the call centre, but over the six months a range of different moments of resistance emerged. These would have been difficult to notice without working undercover. These points of contestation were relatively closed acts of resistance, but provided the building blocks for collective organising.
In addition to these different moments of resistance, the problem of high turnover is reconsidered. Rather than seeing this feature as a structural barrier to organising, it is reconceived as an active expression of the refusal of work. After all, leaving work without permission is the first part of a strike – the difference here is that most workers do not see any value in setting demands that would have to be met before they returned. The later parts of the book discuss an attempt at organising alongside other workers, considering how forms of successful precarious organisation can emerge from the labour process in this kind of work.
The book focuses on a specific kind of work, albeit one that has become symptomatic of the shift from industrial labour to service work. For call centres, particularly outside of London in the UK, this often involves the setting up of operations in the shells of old industrial or mining warehouses. The high stress, low pay, and precarious contracts found in call centres are becoming increasingly common across different types of work. Similarly, the spread of technological methods of surveillance and control in call centres took place comparatively early because of the integration of telephones and computers, but are increasingly being applied in new contexts.
The call centre is therefore both a product of neoliberalism, but also an early testing ground for new managerial techniques. Analysing how these methods were introduced in call centres, along with the ways they have been resisted, is an important part of understanding the future of work. These methods are being utilised extensively in the so-called “gig economy”, with GPS-enabled technologies of control allowing companies like Uber and Deliveroo to manage dispersed and precarious workforces. Working the Phones provides a snapshot of the conditions of a call centre and the ways workers can resist, but it also attempts to pose a broader argument: there is a pressing need for more critical research on work. This kind of research needs to start from the point, as Marx argued in his call for A Workers’ Inquiry, that:

“workers… alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes form which they suffer and that only they, and not saviors sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills which they are prey.”

* Dr. Jamie Woodcock is a fellow at the LSE. He is the author of Working The Phones, a study of a call centre in the UK inspired by the workers’ inquiry. His current research involves developing this method in co-research projects with Deliveroo drivers and other digital workers in the so-called gig economy. He is on the editorial board of Historical Materialism.

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