Central and Eastern Europe

The fantasy of the middle class: exploitation in a Romanian call centre

A first hand account of the abysmal working conditions in the Customer Service department of a well known US company.

‘What happens if your back starts hurting because of the uncomfortable chairs?’
‘You bring a pillow from home.’
‘But isn’t it the company’s responsibility to provide optimum work conditions?’
‘The company pays you to do your job. For everything else, you’re on your own.’

The language my colleagues used to talk about work seemed copy-pasted from a promotional brochure.

I had the above conversation in the call centre where I worked for five months as a customer service operator with one of the few employees who saw themselves as part of the working class. It’s a good example of the kind of class-consciousness which, intuitively, we might suspect in all call centre operators. In reality, however, the vast majority of my colleagues saw their job as a ‘stepping stone’ for personal growth and development while the language they used to talk about work seemed copy and pasted from a promotional brochure.

Romanian job search engines are flooded with announcements for call centre positions, mostly concentrated in the country’s biggest cities. I was employed in one of them – a call centre in Bucharest with approximately 100 operators in the customer service department alone. More than a third of the people I was in training with quit. The well-known foreign company provides ‘outsourcing’ opportunities in various sectors including telecommunications, retail, medical services and the hotel industry.

The company’s name and the specific ‘project’ I was employed by are irrelevant since the problems that employees encounter reflect a more general dynamic between capital and labour in an area with potential for enormous profits. The nature of call centre work makes comparison with other working class labour difficult, in the sense that the economic and political position in the larger picture of the outsourcing of services is obscured. This helps construct the illusion that workers belong to the middle class.

If we take a larger reference point, however, we can see that their position in relation to the means of production is little different to that of a factory worker. With this comparison in mind the depiction of call centre work that follows tries to draw similarities between this and any other type of labour that generates profit from its hired workforce.

Recruitment: the interview and training

Application, interview, testing

You can’t help imagining yourself at one of these other desks and this becomes the mobilizing force that awakens you everyday.

The Bucharest branch of the company is almost a decade old and the management is comprised of former call centre operators. This, of course, feeds the illusion of mobility that the company is tirelessly working to maintain. From the small desks surrounded by meter high red walls where the operators work, you can’t miss the sign of The Escalations Department – the next rank up – and the sturdy office of the ‘big boss’, the project manager who probably rose by answering endless calls from a similar humble desk. It gives the viewer a sense of perspective. You can’t help imagining yourself at one of these other desks and this becomes your supreme motivation, the mobilizing force that awakens you everyday, carries you to the tram, metro or bus station and delivers you right to the card-activated doors of the company building.

Before the interview, each aspiring candidate to the mythical corporate world is seated in front of a computer and informed that they have half an hour to complete two tests: one technical, the other in English. The technical test measures IT competency, and depending on the result, the candidate is allocated a certain project. A short visit to the company’s webpage, a CV sent to one of the email addresses mentioned followed by a phone call in a couple of days’ time results in an interview in less than a week. As opposed to other types of jobs that appear periodically on job websites or are shared with HR companies that perform the recruitment process for various other corporations, this company has a permanently open call for recruits on their official website. This hunger for labour force is, of course, matched by the resignation rate.

The real purpose seems to be to establish if the recruit has the necessary schizophrenic capabilities required for the job.

After an interview with the HR department, the candidate is tested by a trainer to establish their compatibility with the position they will occupy in the project. Language skills take priority followed shortly by interpersonal and acting abilities. In corporate jargon the test is a logical one: how will the recruit manage in a high-pressure situation, alone on shift, having to deal with a problem they are not capable of solving themselves (a scenario they are repeatedly reassured will never happen)? The real purpose seems to be to establish if the recruit has the necessary schizophrenic capabilities required for the job.

Loyalty is the first lesson you need to learn as an aspiring call centre operator.

The correct answer to this riddle, revealed at the end by the interviewer, is one that gives the client the conviction that the problem is almost resolved despite the fact that no action has been taken, and at the same time paints the company in the best light in the eyes of The Client. Any other answer is wrong. The worst thing the operator can do is let the caller know they do not posses the technical resources to solve his or her problem. Loyalty is the first lesson you need to learn as an aspiring call centre operator.

The salary – not mentioned until the recruit finds themselves in front of the job contract – is double a similar call centre job for Romanian clients. In 2016 a full-time operator gained 390 euros a month plus meal vouchers. With each promotion you can gain an additional 100 euros, an unverified rumour the circulation of which feeds the illusion of the imminent jump up the corporate ladder.

The training

The pressure was maintained throughout – from intolerance of late arrival to the use of forbidden words.

The next step is training, a sort of intensive introduction to corporate culture that takes place full-time over the course of three weeks (seven and a half hours + half an hour lunch + two other 15 minute breaks in between, to be precise). The training, which takes place in a classroom, displays a number of similarities to a school environment: you raise your hand before speaking, while the trainer, framed by a whiteboard, adopts the air of a passionate teacher. During these three weeks the trainees – preferably having no previous work experience, thus being easier to train – assimilate the appropriate customer service language (the so-cold ‘soft skills’), simulate calls, learn customer procedures and are familiarized with the software, culminating in a weekly test with the threat of elimination. At the end of the three weeks of training two out of the twenty people quit. The rest, regardless of their performance in the weekly test, were hired. The pressure was maintained throughout – from intolerance of late arrivals (including lunch breaks), the use of forbidden words, to the threat of failing the weekly test. Any deviation from the long list of rules was treated as a step towards being fired.

During the three weeks of training, technical competencies took a second place to the aforementioned soft skills. From the tone of voice and facial expression during the call (‘The customer can hear the smile!’ was the trainer’s mantra) to psychological manipulation techniques, the trainer was laboriously constructing the new identity of the subservient operator the latter of whom was required to encompass the ideal qualities of a technician, IT specialist, psychologist, demagogue, close friend and, last but not least, a human extension of the company.

The operator’s new identity was completed with the adoption of a new Americanized name.

The operator’s new identity was completed with the adoption of a new Americanized name with which the client would feel at ease. After three weeks of training, the newly baptized James and Mary Smiths took their first official calls, a moment treated by everybody with the importance of a graduation exam which, like any exam, had to be stressed over and graded accordingly.

The production line

The work schedule

The working day starts at 3PM and ends at 6AM, following the working hours in the US.

Finally seated at their uncomfortable chairs on the floor (the name of the open-space office where everybody from supervisors to operators works), the operators leave behind the protective, nurturing environment of their training days and understand for the first time what the job they’ve been hired to do is really about. The floor has around 100 cubicles, of which at least half are occupied on each shift, separated by completely useless soundproof walls. The working day starts at 3PM and ends at 6AM the next morning following the daytime working hours in the US.

In the first three months the operators can’t choose their working hours, and the schedule for each week is announced halfway through the previous week. For those who work full-time this means alternating weeks between starting work at 5PM and at 10PM. Not only is the operator unable to choose their own schedule or the routine of keeping the same hours in the future, free days are also assigned by the higher corporate powers. Free weekends are a luxury few dare to dream of since they are usually the busiest times.

The metrics

Each operator is briefed very early on about the metrics, a series of indicators that standardize the productivity of the department and until recently constituted the criteria for receiving monthly bonuses of between 50 and 100 euros. Some time ago this system was abandoned, the metrics and surveys were replaced with threats of losing your position: now each operator that meets the required criteria gets to keep their job for another month and a bonus of 50 euros every three months. Not many last that long though, the majority of new employees quit before their first bonus.

The team result of each ‘project’ is also important as each is in direct competition with the results of the other teams in the branch. Meanwhile the overall results of the branch are competing with other branches creating a perpetual pressure on the entire staff of the company.

In theory, this system is in perfect alignment with the ideology of meritocratic capitalism.

In theory this system is in perfect alignment with the ideology of meritocratic capitalism. In reality of course it becomes a strategic game where the operator has to identify and maintain a perfect equilibrium between convincing the people at the other end of the line that their problem is not a problem (or if that is impossible that the issue will be solved, even if there is no way of solving it) without seeming too dismissive. As much as possible, each employee is forced to limit call length and hold times as well as the number of transfers toward other departments, ideally without asking for assistance from the supervisor and, of course, with the end goal of having a satisfied customer at the end of each interaction.

Negative surveys result in admonishments and extra coaching sessions. Three verbal notices – which can be the result of various things from arriving late to customer complaints – lead to a written notice. All calls are recorded and can be accessed at all times by supervisors. A written notice can be received immediately if it is proven, by consulting the recorded call, that a negative survey was valid. Three written notices within a month result in being fired.

The call

If the call is longer than 10-15 minutes the operator starts getting desperate messages from the supervisor. Meanwhile, they try not to put the customer on hold for more than 3 minutes (a very important metric), joggling with up to 12 systems at the same time while trying to solve the caller’s problem as another important mantra from the training days keeps popping into their mind: ‘No dead time during customer interactions’.

The average time between calls is no more than one minute.

There is no ‘dead time’ between taking calls either. Before each shift, based on previous patterns, software estimates the future number of calls and the personnel needed on each floor. In the five months I worked for the company, the average time between calls was no more than one minute.

After each call, each operator is required to write notes describing the reason for the call and the solution to the customer’s problem. These notes, initially hastily written down in Notepad, need to be entered under each client’s personal account. All of this in less than three minutes. If the three minutes pass without the operator taking the next call in waiting an IM appears on the internal communication system from a supervisor prompting them to do so. At the same time if the notes are incorrectly or incompletely filled-in the employee is sanctioned.

All senses are overloaded in this working environment.

During rush hour, usually between 5PM and 11PM when the night and day shifts intersect, almost all the cubicles on the floor are occupied: 80 people talking simultaneously in a room smaller than 400m2. The headsets are virtually useless at keeping out the background noise: the microphone, on the other hand does a great job at insulating the operator’s voice, so as to create an intimate setting for the customer. The chairs are also very bad, some broken, some stuck in positions far from comfortable for one’s back. The computers complete this desolate picture. Most of them are over five years old and prone to constant delays and error messages. All senses are overloaded in this working environment. By the end of the shift the operator’s fatigue levels are probably similar to those experienced by heart surgeons.

The Break

Each operator is entitled to a one-hour break for each seven and a half hours of work. Theoretically, the employee can take a 15 or 30 minutes break anytime during the shift. In practice, they can take a 15-minute break only after the supervisor gives his seal of approval (often after multiple attempts via IM from the operator, that the supervisor chooses to ignore).

You’re left with 7 minutes of break time before you realise you need another 2 for returning to your cubicle.

The 15 minutes of break don’t belong entirely to the employee either: you need two minutes for changing your availability status and leaving your cubicle, another two for leaving the floor, if you want to leave the building another four minutes, at best. You’re left with seven minutes of break time before you realise you need another two for returning to your cubicle and changing your status. Very quickly the operators realise that all the facilities flaunted by the company during the training period, (a food court, relaxation room where you can play video games and a small library) are virtually impossible to use. There’s no time to do so.

The fantasy of mobility

The constant effort to erase the sense of a hierarchical system is oriented towards maintaining a completely inexistent class-consciousness.

The majority of operators see all this as a necessary evil, charmed by the fantasy of moving up the corporate ladder. ‘They too have been in our shoes – Floor Support, Escalations Specialists, Team Leaders, Quality Assurance Specialists and their superiors, they have all been where we are now’. Two of my former colleagues at the call centre got promoted (to the immediate superior position, not further up), the rest quit their jobs. The constant effort to erase the sense of a hierarchical system is oriented towards maintaining the completely inexistent class-consciousness of the employees.

There is an actual walk of fame in companies’ entrance corridors.

From the beginning of the training period an artificial system of ambivalent social relationships is built between employees, and between employees and their superiors. On the one hand, the operators are fed the lie that they are part of a team where hierarchy is irrelevant and everybody works towards achieving maximum productivity, which will ensure the welfare of everybody involved. The competition between different teams is efficient since the stakes are high for everybody: the losing team loses their jobs. On the other hand, every individual is encouraged to be competitive: there are internal competitions between members of the same team. The metric lists are displayed for everybody to see, which leads to constant reproach or glorification from your peers depending on individual results. There is an actual walk of fame in companies, the entrance corridor where every model employee gets a floor tile with their name engraved on it.

The effort to erase any trace of hierarchy from the operators’ subconscious doesn’t stop there. Employees are encouraged to be part of numerous periodical events like Saint Patrick’s Day (everybody has to come to work in green clothes), Halloween (there is a contest for the best costume) or the so-called Happy Friday, when some tasteless cakes and cookies are bought by the company and left on the supervisor’s desk for ‘everybody to enjoy’. There are also sports events (outside working hours, of course) and outings with the whole team to celebrate good metrics. All of this is designed to distract the employees’ attention from the inhumane working conditions and construct the image of a happy, all-inclusive working family.

More than anything, this corporate culture builds the fantasy that everyone belongs to the middle class.

More than anything, this corporate culture builds a fantasy that shouldn’t be underestimated: that everyone belongs to the middle class. Like a corporate Medusa, this working culture paralyses any trace of class-consciousness. The operators, while aware of the fact that their work is robotic and the conditions difficult to endure, don’t identify even slightly with the working class. Instead they let themselves be charmed by the story they hear from the trainer, whose words never leave them for a moment: ‘If you work hard, in six months you will get promoted.’ Those six months remain always on the horizon, always out of reach.


This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in Romanian on Servici’ Ușor and CriticAtac. It was translated by Elena Dan.