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Over a year on from doorstep clapping, the status of key worker has been undermined by a lack of protection from both the virus and those frustrated with it. Departing an at-home call centre role, Cath Holland details the degrading and the ridiculous that awaits those at the other end of the line.

Those transformed into key workers in March 2020 had all but lost their ceremonial title by this summer. We’ve seen how working environments deteriorated in that period, leaving supermarket cashiers, security guards, customer service agents and delivery drivers with little to no protection against neither a virus nor violent customers. Warning notices in-store over abuse of retail staff have become commonplace, and sections of the public appear to have left the ‘be kind’ memo in their Thursday pot-banging cupboards. Asking around confirms this to be across the board for those in public facing roles. A hairdresser tells of the rudeness of clients. That’s a bit mad, I thought. Why piss off a woman stood behind you with scissors about to cut your hair? Another charity shop manager is regularly scolded by customers for taking a lunch break.

Let’s talk about a customer service position I recently worked: an at-home call centre operative. For those of us not in the sector pre-pandemic, dealing directly with the great British public and telling them things they don’t want to hear proves a daunting learning curve. People seethe with impatience and resentment, the very occasional soul admitting loneliness and vulnerability. What was it Sid Vicious said about the man on the street? That aside, a flexible temporary contract from the comfort of one’s sofa is not too bad a deal compared to face-to-face heroes.

But flexibility means inflexible shifts – zero-hours in name and all-hours in practice. Conventional weekends or sensible consecutive days off are as rare as rocking horse droppings, bank holidays unacknowledged. Friends in HR within differing sectors talk logically of decompressing for 48 hours and returning to the coalface refreshed. Sharing life with family and friends is essential for good mental and physical health, a state neither achieved nor maintained via patronising illustrated PDFs on wellbeing theories. Late-night finishes, meanwhile, mean insufficient time to properly make, eat and digest a meal, let alone spend time with humans.

Body and mind struggle. There is a 10-minute allowance each day for nipping to the loo or making a brew. If unwell, extra minutes for episodes of diarrhea are permitted free of charge, but just don’t let it happen too often. Working to such a policed schedule harkens back to my old school days.

Temporary work wages are paid on Fridays like pocket money allowance – undeniably handy but not dissimilar to those teenage years where freedoms and optimism for life afterwards are scant. The reality of an existence trapped in a cycle of insecure temp work becomes clear. Comparing individual performances via the medium of graphs marked red, amber and green, not to mention brutal commentary via a shared team forum, invoke panic.

Dissolving teams and reassigning, breaking up established bonds and forming new ones encourages uncertainty. Words like adherence and compliance are over-emphasized. But for those with options at the end of all this and the confidence this is a pandemic survival job and no more, deviancy is rife. One enterprising lad gets housemates with varying accents to make calls for him. Alas, everything done and said is recorded, but it’s difficult not to enjoy the rebellion and sheer gall of it.

“It feels wrong to speak with a household name on one call, a man in ownership of a shocking reputation for ethics and intolerance, only to experience from him respect and good humour”

In March this year, Boris Johnson called time on ‘days off’ and instructed those home working to get back in the office, thereby failing to acknowledge remote work in any career path, from call centre worker bee to accountant. The population’s response meant the implication of nationwide idleness is quietly dropped. The divide and conquer attempt to set the comfortable and destitute against each other failed this time; there are too many unexpectedly existing on Universal Credit or needing it to bulk up low pay, and the necessity for free school meals is clear. The temporary £20 UC uplift admits, without saying as much, that the benefit isn’t sufficient to live on in the first place.

Meanwhile, I’m still making calls to folk who really don’t wanna talk, and a list of Conservative Party donors is passed around the black and white world of righteous social media. Anyone who buys stuff or has anything to do with any of them is morally wanting. The business I’m temping for is on the list. As a relatively principled woman, what am I meant to do? Being virtuous is great, but we’re solidly in the arena where social awareness is spectacularly failing to intersect with my lack of privilege as a widowed woman. If my husband was here, I would not be working as a temp in a pandemic survival job.

My hourly rate is significantly more than local independent businesses offer. There are so many complexities and contradictions, lack of empathy in this uncertain world. It feels wrong to speak with a household name on one call, a man in ownership of a shocking reputation for ethics and intolerance, only to experience from him respect and good humour; we joke about cheap wine and the folly of listening to gossip. It’s the call centre equivalent of, “You’ll never guess who I had in the back of my cab last night”. But he, of all humans, should not be among the most courteous, nor appreciate I’m doing this role because I have to. This isn’t meant to be how it works.

Informing my team manager I am leaving my job, she gives out a “yay” and whoops out loud over the line, genuinely happy for me rather than relieved to get shut of dead wood. I make my own calls, sister. Bless her, she works out the best way for me to get free. Take the leave I’ve built up and run for the hills early? Or get paid for it instead. What would I prefer? Not sure why she needs the reminder. It should be very obvious that we’re all here for the money.


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