Call Center Workers in Australia Are Unionizing to Demand Better Pay and Conditions

In Australia, call center work is notoriously precarious, atomized, and poorly paid. Through a rank-and-file union drive, hundreds of workers across over 90 workplaces are organizing to change that.

Call centers are one of the most highly casualized and transient industries in Australia. (International Labour Organization / Flickr)

I work at one of the largest social and market research call centers in Australia where I’m also a delegate with the United Workers Union (UWU). Working conditions and pay in the sector are some of the worst in the country and the precarity of the industry often means that many of my colleagues are forced to live hand-to-mouth.

In an all-staff email, management encouraged workers to “channel your inner mind” to overcome the stress caused by the job. For most call center employees this self-care approach to bad working conditions is patronizing and offensive. In response to the email one of my colleagues texted me:

It’s all well and good for management to send us warm and fuzzy emails about how to cope. But what we really need are more shifts spread out across all staff. I’ve had to get a charity voucher for food this week, something I thought I wouldn’t have to do again.

Management’s email also included the weekly workload update: for two months, until mid-October, there will be no shifts for 40 percent of telephone interviewers. Many of those left out of work will have to resort to food vouchers or attempt to support themselves on unemployment benefits that are the second lowest in the OCED and are administered to those well below the poverty line.

Call centers are one of the most highly casualized and transient industries in Australia; low wages and precarity are commonplace. However, thanks to a growing rank-and-file union movement, there’s new hope that things are changing. An upcoming Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) with the Australian Data and Insights Association (ADIA) covers thousands of workers across over ninety call centers. Call center workers are finally pushing back against casualization, low pay, and excessive and often punitive performance monitoring. If we win, the effects of our victory will reverberate across the sector.

21st-Century Workhouses

Since the 1980s, the number of call centers in Australia has ballooned. Call center work expanded the quickest in the 1990s, becoming the largest area of growth for white-collar employment in the world. This was in part a byproduct of neoliberal economic reforms.

Successive governments deregulated financial services like banks and insurance companies while privatizing utilities. This introduced and intensified market competition in these sectors, spurring businesses to find more cost-effective ways of providing services and reaching new customers. Consequently, senior management became obsessed with cutting labor costs. The shift toward large, centralized call centers was the natural conclusion.

Other neoliberal reforms indirectly contributed to the growth of call centers. Means-tested social services and targeted social policies have become more common as policymakers have undermined universal social services and progressive taxation. To deliver targeted social services, policymakers need large, quantitative datasets to guide their decisions. This information can only be gathered by an army of callers. At the same time, new technologies made it far easier for market researchers to access consumers in their homes, offering businesses irresistible competitive advantages.

As union density declined from the 1980s onward, businesses across multiple industries downsized or eliminated face-to-face clerical, customer service, and interviewing roles, replacing them with call center jobs. In addition to allowing businesses to cut costs, this also intensified exploitation. Face-to-face work typically gives workers more autonomy than call center work. By contrast, as call centers proliferated, so too did “scientific” management strategies designed to strictly monitor and enforce key performance indicators, making work as monotonous and repetitive as possible.

The slogan “stick to script” is emblematic of this, indicating management’s wish to assert total control over workers’ interactions with customers and the public. Automatic dialing means that workers have no time for respite between calls. By strictly monitoring unaccounted time, management forces workers to keep pace with an “assembly line in the head.” The burden of emotional labor has also increased as workers are expected to politely handle verbal abuse and maintain enthusiasm while reading the same script up to a hundred times a day.

As the testimony of a customer service representative reminiscing about their role before moving to a call center illustrates, it wasn’t always like this:

. . . as long as you did your work, they didn’t mind you going to the canteen for whatever, or going for your coffee. It certainly wasn’t as restricted. There wasn’t someone watching you or timing your toilet breaks. You were free to walk about.

This intensification of exploitation bore serious consequences for call center workers. Although studies specific to Australia are sparse, research on South Korean and French call center workers show they suffer consistently higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety than the general public. Evidence from the UK confirms these findings, linking them with performance monitoring, low levels of worker autonomy, unachievable targets, and repetitiveness.

Call center workers in Australia take around twice as many sick days as other workers. Every year, around 30 percent of the workforce quits to find new work. When the mental demands of dialing become unbearable, many call center workers choose unemployment. And to make matters worse, call center wages are often low.

In the social and market research industry, casual or zero-hour contracts are ubiquitous. This means that many workers are often forced to go for long periods without work, compounding the mental stress of the job with poverty.

Work Under the Australian Data and Insights Association

Given the state of the industry, it’s clear that call center workers need strong unions. Recent experience with the Australian Data and Insights Association (ADIA) provides additional support for this conclusion. ADIA is an association of ninety-four companies employing thousands of workers.

Since 2018, the United Workers Union has led a rank-and-file organizing drive, significantly increasing union density across the market and social research industry, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. This has already translated into several wins despite the fact that Australia’s industrial relations system is highly restrictive, only permitting negotiations over conditions and industrial action during set bargaining periods.

In 2018, the union saved a worker’s job after management tried to fire them for reading at their desk. UWU also forced employers to provide sanitary items in office bathrooms and won thousands of dollars of back pay for staff after one call center was found to have withheld wages.

This was all before the official bargaining period commenced. Now that the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement covering ADIA workers is up for renegotiation, there’s an opportunity to push for significant improvements in wages and conditions. If workers and the union are successful, it may lead to industry-wide change, improving the lives of tens of thousands of workers.

ADIA workers and their union are pushing for five key demands.

1.) A wage increases of 5 percent per year until the agreement expires in 2024, adding up to a total increase of 15 percent.

This pay increase is essential. Between 2020 and 2021, Australia’s real income fell by 2.1 percent. Wage growth in the private sector has not kept up with inflation. This means that if call center workers and their union accept the legally mandated minimum wage rise, it would effectively be a pay cut. In an industry with an estimated annual profit of $350 million it is hard to justify cuts to workers’ pay.

Call center wages are already low. The wage for a full-time interviewer is below the poverty line for a parent with dependents. Employers like to say that call center jobs are for students who need pocket money. But many union members are single parents — for them and their children, a real pay rise is vitally important.

2.) All equipment required to perform the job must to be provided by the employer.

As the pandemic forced call centers to shift toward working from home, employers saw an opportunity to offset the costs of running their businesses onto their employees. We are now often expected to supply our own computers, headsets, and internet connections. UWU has recorded numerous instances in which bosses forced workers to take unpaid leave because of broken equipment. In an office, this would be inconceivable. Employers have used working from home to force workers to accept conditions like those imposed on subcontractors.

3.) Penalty rates on weekends.

The market and social research industry is unique insofar as it is one of the few sectors in Australia where weekend penalty rates aren’t mandatory for casual workers. As a result of mandatory availability clauses, call center workers are often forced to give up their weekends for no extra pay.

4.) Casual employees must have the option of converting to permanent, part, or full-time contracts after six months of regular employment.

Workers in call centers under ADIA are highly casualized, with less than one in ten interviewers on permanent contracts. Precarious, casual work increases poverty and exacerbates already high levels of stress. It also makes it far harder to stand up for our rights.

5.) All call centers must transition to producing net-zero emissions by 2030.

Put simply, climate action is union business. If major capitalist firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers can commit to net-zero by 2030, so can ADIA.

Organizing Atomized Workers

The fight to win these demands will be hard. The shift toward working from home has further atomized call centers. “Water-cooler” conversations are crucial to union organizing — and these are much more difficult over text. This has also made it harder to organize across multiple workplaces, while making it easier for workers who are on the fence about unionism to simply opt out of conversations by ignoring messages or calls.

The shift to work from home also means we need to update some union rights. Previously, right of entry laws guaranteed union organizers access to workplaces. Now, these laws must include the right to schedule Zoom calls with workers at home.

However, where there are difficulties there are also opportunities. Mandatory workplace message boards on platforms like Microsoft Teams give union delegates the ability to message dozens of workers every day, and to communicate privately without fear of being monitored. Additionally, workplace union group chats are a space where workers can discuss issues without needing to leave their desks. This also allows delegates to respond to concerns immediately.

By taking advantage of these opportunities, we’ve managed to keep increasing union density across ADIA-covered sites during the pandemic. This bodes well for the EBA campaign. Indeed, a win for call center workers will mean more than a victory over low wages and poor conditions. It will provide a timely reminder that workers can’t be divided by their screens because our industry is getting organized.