Road to Congress: Taking calls, taking the rap

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Today, the spotlight is on Norene Pupo, director of the Centre for Research on Work & Society at York and professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts. Pupo, with researchers at York and across Canada, is involved in a research alliance that is looking at the new economy and how it has led to social, political and economic transformations.

Dealing with call centres to get information now seems to be a way of life for Canadians, but this doesn’t mean people are happy with them – least of all those who work in them.

“I can tell you, the workers are not a happy bunch,” says York Professor Norene Pupo (left), who heads a four-year, multifaceted research alliance, Restructuring Work & Labour in the New Economy, composed of 18 academics across disciplines in about a dozen universities throughout Canada, and several trade union partners.

Of some 30 projects underway through the alliance, Pupo is focusing on government call centres – “e-government” – and how job restructuring has affected the workers. She mailed four-page surveys to call-centre workers and has received a tremendous response. An “overwhelming” number of workers have also agreed to take part in a half-hour, follow-up phone interview, she says.

The survey results are disheartening, as far as workers’ comments go.

“Many public service workers, mainly women, in various federal departments have seen their jobs transformed from interfacing with the public to working behind a computer screen, ‘chained’ to a headset,” Pupo says. “They have no down time – no time to regroup between calls – and they feel they’re not doing a good job in serving the public.

“They are concerned about their working conditions, the fact that they are monitored constantly and the relentless stress of the job. ‘It’s push, push, push all day long’, they say in the surveys. They have to answer call after call without a break, using scripted answers, and aren’t supposed to take time to listen to some of the more emotional callers,” says Pupo. “And when workers get verbal abuse from callers, they have no time to recover. Instead, they must take the next caller.

Right: Government call-centre workers have responded to Pupo in ‘overwhelming’ numbers

“Over all, call-centre employees feel the loss of respect they say they had when they interacted more directly with the public. And they don’t believe they are valued for the knowledge and education they bring to the job.”

It is indicative of how concerned the workers are, says Pupo, the fact that a staggering number of surveys came back with a full page, and more, of frank comments stapled to the form, where the survey provide one-third of a page.

“The workers are upset because they feel they are not able to do a good job any more. They say they took the job to serve the public – the taxpayer – and now they are limited to a certain amount of time they’re allowed to spend with a caller,” explains Pupo. “The work has changed so much due to technology and work restructuring. Even new workers report unhappiness with their work.”

Adds Pupo, “It’s not what employees expected from a government job. Instead, the work smacks of the new economy: A highly technical, remote-access situation between the workers and the public they serve.”

Pupo says she’s in the thick of reading the surveys and compiling data, in readiness to present a report this fall. “When the facts come to light about e-government, I hope the public will realize that, when they contact government departments, there’s a good chance they will be communicating with an employee whose sole job is to stay on the line, all day,” she says. “That might put into context the type and the depth of the information they are getting.”

It’s fortunate that the research alliance is partnered with union researchers, says Pupo. “The unions will take a hard look at this take into account these working conditions and new employment structures during bargaining in the future.”

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.