Sunday, June 4, 2017

Your call is important to us

They are the face of multinational corporations, particularly airlines, banks, and credit card companies. They are the call centres, usually of the third world, where scripts tell the person on the other end of the line to reassure us with phrases such as “certainly” and “not a problem”, even though we, usually dialling from the comfort of our kitchens, know darn well there’s a problem, otherwise we wouldn’t be on the line with them in the first place.


“Call centre workers are the emblematic workers of the digital economy”, said Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalization at University of Hertfordshire. “They sit at the interface of the digital and the real, and at a place of tension, because people only contact call centres when something has gone wrong. And yet, they are, paradoxically, the public face of the company, where a standardized script sits in for customer service.”

The occasion for the consideration of life behind the 1-800 number was a book launch for Enda Brophy's “Language Put To Work: The Making of the Global Call Centre Workforce”. “I did the project to get away from the binary view of one of the world’s fastest growing professions”, revealed Brophy. On the one hand we have the modern, digitally connected information worker, and on the other we have the exploited outsourced labourer. “So I looked at the call centre from below, from the point of view of the worker”, said Brophy, referencing the work of historian of the British working classes E.P. Thompson.

A cornerstone of the outsourcing industry, in which business functions that don’t necessarily need to be conducted in Western countries are effectively sent overseas, the global call centre industry is a juggernaut with a value approaching $10 billion annually. Terms such as 'cyber proletariat', 'digital capitalism', and 'immaterial labour' have been used to described the provision of offshore workforces for functions such as customer service, billing, and assorted back office duties.

Call centres have traditionally been associated with Indian cities such as Delhi, Bangalore, Chandigarh, and Hyderabad, where a parallel industry of accent reduction and ‘call centre English’ has sprouted up. On top of learning how to twist vowels and phrases so they are more mellifluous to American ears, call centre workers also strive to pass as Westerners by taking on Anglicized names such as Robin, Karen, and Shawn. But not everything goes smoothly in the headsetted life of the cubicle farm. As part of his history of call centres from the bottom up Brophy also documented worker resistance, whether in the form of casual slacking or more organized activism.


For a more in depth look at the life of arguably today’s quintessential globalized worker, the call centre operator, you can check out these two documentaries, one on the call centres of India, the other on the call centres of The Philippines, the new capital of outsourced customer service.