Jamie Woodcock – Working the Phones (Pluto)

Everyone should read Jamie Woodcock’s book. It is a covert work on call centres. It explodes several myths. The first is about post-industrial labour and ‘office work’ being some sort of Hegelian historical progress, as though the next silhouette in the chimp parade is wearing a suit, tie and headset.

This work is as brutal as factory labour, but it focuses its regime on the psyche first, rather than the body first. Of course, once the subject is defeated, the symptoms will then map onto the body, as they do onto the mind in excessive bodily labour.

This book also shows the benefits of covert ethnography and gives the lie to this weird idea that if everyone knows you are doing it, and the people you come into contact with finally view and edit the work for you, then it is all somehow ‘ethical’.

The grim, horrible, no future life Woodcock describes more than justifies covert work. But it should not just be ‘accepted’, on occasions, where it is needed. No, there should be departments specialising in this kind of work, particularly since the decline of print media and the collapse of high quality investigative journalism.

There is a whole hidden world of call centre activism, where infiltrators gain jobs to scope places out and eventually expose or respond to their abuses. So, Woodcock’s method is not just a response to workplace surveillance, it is utterly appropriate to the subject.

The part where Woodcock describes managers who would sack employees for not singing in team building exercises gave me the chills. I attended an event as an employee of the Halifax plc, soon to be HBOS. Everyone had to sing ‘nobody does it better, Halifax you’re the best.’

The event was filmed and it turned out that two of us refused to sing and I was one of them. We were later shown the video in a massive open plan office, containing all the assembled employees of marketing. The camera honed in on the two refuseniks, tight lipped and solemn.

I was supposed to feel ashamed, but I felt proud. Six years later the entire banking group crashed through the floor and so to have sung ‘nobody does it better’ would have been a lie. At this hotel away day many of the ‘singers’ had slept with each other behind the backs of their husbands and wives. It was an astonishing event in many ways.

There was no resistance there, one simply had to leave. The Halifax even had its own fake union. But here, Woodcock describes the tactics of resistance in call centres and they are fascinating. One activist strategy in particular sticks in my mind: It involves turning the tables completely on the call centre and the concept of ‘cold calling’; activists will phone the call centre en masse at a particular time and give the worker information on how to resist. This will then be followed up with a mailout or flyering exercise.

But this book isn’t just of interest to the call centre worker or sociologist, it is relevant to all 21st century labourers who have targets imposed on them and zero hours contracts. It is relevant to all who do sales jobs.

Woodcock describes the mind games of being told to sing along with Kermit the Frog. It is not enough just to sing, but to appear to enjoy it to the point where the performance and reality blend. The ever-present supervisor is pacing the floor, like an overseer on horseback. The 1-2-1 meetings are simply formalised, interrogative bullying.

The infantile culture that can be found in places such as these is not just a sticking plaster, it is an intrinsic part of the regime. I am reminded of the scene on the bus at the end of Dirty Harry, ‘row row row your boat, gently down the stream…’

Our horrifying rightward political shift is trying to normalise this kind of work and describe those who complain using terms such as the recent ‘snowflake’.

Well, maybe we do need to toughen up, but in order to throw the situations described in Working the Phones back in the faces of those who set them up.

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