The humanity and inhumanity of a call centre

The 3–6pm Friday shift is known as one of the worst. Personally, I prefer it to Monday morning, maybe because I sympathise with people being leaving work, not getting to it. Anyway, Friday shifts are intense. They’re busy. School has finished. People leave work early. It’s the shift change for drivers. Trains are usually out somewhere. It’s bloody awful for everyone. The night before, people had waited 15–20 minutes on the phone to even order a cab; they weren’t joyous about it.

Working in a call centre has taught me a lot, but it’s also bloody hard work. Calls are less than a minute. For 6–8 hour shifts. With strict, timed 10-minute breaks, and 20–30 minutes for meals. You are not allowed to log out of phones outside of that. And every second you’re not available to take a call is logged, and printed out and posted on a noticeboard in the foyer where we all clock in, for everyone to see. Most of us walk straight past the list, but it just being there is a reminder of the constant surveillance and monitoring.

We clock in using our hands. There is CCTV throughout the building. I once queried a three-minute pay deduction (yes, they’re that petty) – my computer had been fucking up and I couldn’t log in. They checked the CCTV to see what time I sat down. Yes, they paid someone a lot of money to check an expensive CCTV system to refund me three minutes of minimum wage.

Taking around 400 calls a night, with less than a second for breathing space, is hard to explain. I tend to sit with my fingers on the Alt-A to make myself available again immediately, that way I clock up time for a toilet break or a breather when I really need it. In that way, it’s an easier job than checkouts or a pub, where there’s no way to take a break: you can’t pause the queue in those jobs. I imagine it’s easier than factory work for the same reason: on a production line you don’t even get a half-second break between the routines.

The first eight-hour shift I worked I was incredibly pumped – the urgency is kind of exciting in a way – but also found the act of being stuck to a desk and headset really hard on the body. You’re pumped with adrenalin with nowhere for it to go. My nervous system tingled. I stood up and felt stiff in a way I had rarely in my life. My body is not good at still. I have to do yoga to get to a state of still meditation. I move and stretch every half hour or so when working at a desk. That is not possible on a busy call centre shift.

The hardest part about such work? The concentrated over-stimulus that gets in your head: light, sound, light, sound, light, SOUND SOUND SOUND (fuck, turn the volume down), light (adjust screen to warm and half the brightness), sound sound sound (adjust volume up again). Then you add the customers.

Before a hello: ‘I’ve been fucking waiting for nearly 20 minutes and why the hell should I? I have’ – insert a long, shouty, often-entitled explanation – ‘and THIS IS WHY EVERYONE IS USING UBER.’

The irony of them saying this while ordering a taxi is apparently lost on them. The irony of saying this to a staff member who possibly dislikes the taxi company more than them? Not even in the field of vision.

I would like to say: ‘I fucking hate this system too, and did you know they only paid me $33 an hour to put up with your bullshit on Christmas Day.’

I would like to say: ‘Your problems are not problems. You’ve been waiting 15 minutes, my queue monitor says. Your delay getting to drinks to ‘pick up a chick’ is not a problem. My friend waiting two hours for a cab because the wheelchair taxis are currently all booked is a problem.’

I would like to say: ‘I know, I catch Uber. I can’t afford to catch taxis home after midnight and my company neither pays me enough, nor gives me discounts on fares, even on a late shift.’

I would like to say: ‘Do I sound like someone who cares?’ Because it’s often hard to care.

Instead, I say: ‘I am sorry. Yes the wait time is awful. Can we see if we can get a taxi for you now? What is your pickup address? Yes I know. Would you like to speak to a supervisor? Great, can I have a pickup address then, so we can speed things up for you? Sorry, can you maybe not speak right into the phone, it’s distorting reception. Yes I can hear you. Maybe just speak in a lower volume. A lower volume. Great! What is your pickup address? We can’t give an accurate estimate of wait time until a driver has picked up a job. OK, yes, go ahead, hail the taxi there. Not a problem. I’ll cancel that booking for you. Hope the rest of your night improves. Yep, passing that feedback on, thank you.’

Most of the other staff are incredibly lovely. We support each other, check-in with each other. Notice if someone runs from the room in tears. Notice if someone on our normal shift has been around for a while. Write notes to each other. Play games on paper and using the calculator – one of the few things we have access to on the computer. Draw pictures. Play dictionary, or guess the band from the lyric. We nod in acknowledgement when a call has been hard (while your can’t hear it in the voice, you can always see it in the face). We smile in acknowledgement when the call has clearly been good.

No-one does this work as a career of choice. You do it because your other options are worse, it’s not too painful for you, and the hours are convenient. The rostering system at Silvertop is very flexible and very staff-controlled. It’s possibly the main reason people choose this kind of call centre work over other shit-work.

A lot of the staff are mums. They work after they’ve put their kids to bed, or before they get home to do shopping and the school pickup. The others on my shifts (evenings, nights and weekends) are mainly young, queer and/or people of colour – although of late that seems to have shifted and I’m wondering if there’s some bizarre positive discrimination policy for white men. Weekend and night staff are studying, working a second job, or just trying to get by in a world where the old union jobs don’t exist anymore, and for many young people it’s this or somewhere with less stability and customers literally in your face.

Some shifts I have to just give up on the stats and the fast calls. There comes a point where I can’t be robot enough. There are too many calls from people who are actually in dire need of transport; who are alone, sick, injured, disabled, or a carer. After a lengthy call from a person yelling at me about all the things taxis have done wrong, and repeatedly changing their address and then yelling at me about that – ‘no not unit 22 at 28, unit 28 at 22, no I mean the other way around, why couldn’t you just listen the first time’ – I decided to completely disconnect from company expectations and just help those who needed it. I sat and just listened to this person and waited for them to calm down. I took ages on calls. I ignored the growing phone queue. I decided to try to enjoy the job.

I tracked every wheelchair booking I made, to make sure the passenger got their taxi. It is not uncommon for the wait times to be over an hour for these passengers. I tracked one the other night that saw four taxis reject the booking, all because their M31 card was a copy. (An M31 card gives a driver a bonus for the time it takes them to assist someone in a chair into the cab. Many drivers will only take the booking if the passenger has one of these. The bureaucracy around getting one is long and tedious and hard to negotiate and I know many passengers who are due one but have been struggling with the system for months.) Another staff member on radio finally found a car and the customer was picked up in 30 minutes. The time I took to track this booking was taken out of my stats.

I assisted several people with their airport booking, putting copious notes about arrival times and luggage, so the drivers would know the exact booking details. I advised every airport booking to call on the time of their booking if they hadn’t seen the cab. This also comes out of my call stats.

One drunk phone caller was being assisted by a passerby. The good Samaritan and I both spent quite a bit of time getting a destination address out of the drunk person, who could barely talk. I knew he’d be speechless by the time the driver arrived, and that the driver would need to know where to take him. I wrote notes in the booking to explain to our call centre staff what had happened, in case the poor driver called in with someone drunk passed-out in their car.

One woman rang and mid-sentence had an aggressive man yell at her to ‘just give them the fucking address will you?’. Her voice started to shake. I responded to her: ‘No I think it is excellent you are giving us the new address. Thank you for all the details, I’ve updated it and you won’t have to provide this again now.’ We chatted. I heard her say as she got off the phone: ‘Why did you have to yell at me like that while I was on the phone?’ Yes, I thought, another job done. That chat came off my call stats, too.

I’ve had countless, well, nearly 400 a shift, calls like these. I stayed on the phone one night while a woman who was drunk was being taken somewhere by a male voice – she had accidentally left her phone on and from the sounds of it, could barely walk. It was near the now infamous Hope Street in Brunswick. My shift supervisor was incredibly supportive and agreed I should stay on the line. I had to stay on the phone and take notes for about 20 minutes. We don’t know what happened, but at least we were there if something had happened, or was reported later.

Another night, an elderly woman rang, completely confused, not making a lot of sense. She mentioned ‘emergency’ and ‘hospital’. I ordered the taxi but called the supervisor straight away. The shift supervisor called an ambulance. I don’t know the outcome, but the ambulance called back to say we did the right thing. That was my second shift.

Whenever I can (and have the will, after some of the calls that drain and demoralise), I help. But I also know I can. My longer call stats – 70 seconds on average, compared to 40 for others – and my close – 85% availability, compared to 90% for others – are possible because ultimately I don’t care about the job.

That’s the irony of capitalism with all its quantitative counting and reporting and statistics and surveillance: I am doing a good job according to these reports, when I’m doing a bad job. I can’t collect the information required for a driver, I can’t stop to really listen to a passenger, I can’t check that a driver has in fact picked up the person in a wheelchair, without stuffing my statistics. I can only do this because it’s not my main job. And I don’t have financial dependents. Just a credit card debt. It’s easier for me to screw the stats.

I don’t think I’ll ever call a call centre again with the same voice, or even the same thoughts in my head.

It’s incredibly hard work. I completely admire the staff who’ve been here 30 years. That have worked in this environment for 30 years, yet still stop to take care of passengers – have managed to hold on to their humanity.

It is these human beings that make me a Marxist. They are our actual future. Not the Uber-users, who treat call centre staff like shit while pontificating about the politics of public transport.

Theorist Gordon Marino, in his piece in the collection Philosophy of Sport, asks: ‘How can you be honest or just if you don’t have the mettle to take a hit?’ I feel the same about work.

How do you know you can be honest and just if you haven’t experienced the circumstances where being present so risks something of yourself?

To be human in conditions of inhumanity is, to me, the ultimate test.

It is in these people our future lives.


This reflection has an illustrated companion piece, ‘How to organise a call centre’, by Michael Roberts and the Workers’ Art Collective


Image: Andrea Castelli / flickr


Polly Bennett

Polly Bennett is a PhD candidate at Victoria University, and one of the precariously employed masses. She works as a researcher, tutor, writer, administrator, customer service staffer, driver, data entry clerk, whatever. She is a long-time activist, is queer, and dabbles in circus and singing. You can follow her on Insta @pollytext

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