Sweatshops taking hold- John Minto

Can you imagine turning up for work to do a six-hour shift only to be sent home with just an hour's pay because your computer breaks down. What about being sent home without pay when the person doing the roster has booked too many staff and there aren't enough computers for everyone. Or imagine a scramble at the start of each shift to get a pair of reasonable headphones rather than be left with broken gear through your shift.

Welcome to work in a call centre. They have sprung up all over the country and are our fastest growing area of employment. They mark the transition in New Zealand's economy from manufacturing to servicing . . . However, unlike relatively well-paid jobs associated with manufacturing, these jobs are not so flash.

Just looking around some of these centres is an eye-opener. Cheap tables covered with phones and no cubicles. They are noisy workplaces and workers frequently end up with ringing ears after a few hours.

Typically people have targets to meet and the pressure is on. At several centres if you miss the target you simply don't get shifts allocated to you the next week. No shifts, no income. At another the staff have a target for each day and a monthly target. However, once the monthly target is reached the workers are sent home two or three days with no pay until the start of the following month.

The work is poorly paid, the hours uncertain and week-by- week income is unpredictable.

Employers like this casualised employment because it reduces their employment responsibilities. They like having a large pool of workers to choose from, all working on day-by-day rostered employment and earning on or just above the minimum wage of $12 per hour.

They can use the employees labour as and when they want without concern for the employees' welfare or income.

There is no doubt the flexibility of many call centres suits some workers. A few hours each day or evening for students is a welcome source of income, but for those raising families it's hopeless.

Turnover is huge. One worker told me of his call centre where from a staff of 50 most weeks will see 10 people leave and 10 new people start. We're not a charity, says the owner of one centre when staff request to go to the toilet during a shift.

It's our 21st century equivalent of Dickensian England.

Unite Union has embarked on a campaign to unionise call centres in New Zealand to support moves by Australian unions faced with threats from their bosses to take the call centre work to New Zealand where the pay and conditions are poorer. So concerned have the Australian unions been that they sent a union organiser to New Zealand for several weeks earlier his year to help kick off the campaign.

Inbound call centres, such as telephone faults or telephone banking, are increasingly being shifted to countries such as New Zealand, India, Korea or Thailand where pay rates and conditions of work are particularly poor. Outbound call centres, such as political polling, market research surveys are less likely to be outsourced because ability with the English language is more important.

Call centres compete for contracts with price as a key component. This means wages are held artificially low by market pressures and call centres effectively compete on their wage costs with the workers the losers. Competition to keep wages low is just the sort of competition New Zealand doesn't need. Hence the union is attempting to negotiate a MECA (Multi Employer Collective Agreement). If pay rates can be stabilised across the sector then companies will compete on the basis of factors other than wages. It could be a win-win situation, but the employers are either negative or hostile to the idea. Their commitment to their employees extends as far as next week's roster.

The Labour Government talks fondly of the large number of extra jobs which have been created in the economy in the last decade and proudly boasts when New Zealand appears close to the top of the list of the easiest countries in which to do business.

These low-paid call centre jobs are what the government is talking about while being near the top of this easiest-place-to- do-business-list means New Zealand has pathetic labour laws, endemic low pay and narrowly-based trade unions. With both National and Labour adopting employer-comes-first policies nothing here will change quickly.


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