A couple of weeks ago, I had a meaningful conversation with a call centre worker when I phoned to cancel a subscription.
She was a single mum in her 50s, her daughter had left home and she was trying internet dating for the first time.
For the first time, my interaction with a call handler had gone beyond the transactional because she was working from home due to Covid-19 and she was no longer under rigorous monitoring.
She chatted while doing her job, very efficiently, and I only chose not to cancel my contract with her firm because she was so likeable.
But most call handlers are not so lucky and most are still being forced to work in large offices.
Call centres have dehumanised their workers and our attitude towards them reflects that.
They are viewed both by their employers and customers as cogs in a company machine, a frontline of robots, there to press buttons and get the job done quickly and efficiently.
Their call times are monitored, so they are caught between facing the wrath of the boss or the abuse of the customer who feels they are being fobbed off.
They are under pressure to hit targets and deadlines, with toilet and lunch breaks and sick time seen as interference in business, not basic human needs.
The majority are poorly paid and suffer the degradation of being treated like naughty schoolkids, who can’t be trusted without
Yet during this pandemic, just as we have seen with carers, they have suddenly found themselves categorised as “key workers”, even when some are dealing with car insurance or selling premium bonds.
This week, a special Scottish report was published, authored by Professor Philip Taylor of the University of Strathclyde, who has spent 25 years researching employee experiences of working in call centres.
It revealed call centre workers forced in to offices with scant regard for social distancing, filthy toilets and work stations - in short, petri dishes where the virus can thrive.
As Prof Taylor said, previously dire, stressful working conditions have now been exacerbated by the pandemic, to “deadly effect”.
Three-quarters of the Scots contact centre staff questioned for the survey were convinced they would catch the virus and nine in 10 feared bringing it home to infect their families.
They spoke of being scared to move around the office for fear of catching the virus and being stuck at their desks for 7.5-hour shifts, penalised if they took too long for toilet breaks. A minority said they were stuck in stuffy offices unable to get outside for air.
Pat Rafferty, Unite Scottish Secretary, rightly said: “The only essential criteria is worker safety.”
One-in-eight workers in Glasgow are employed in contact centres and there are more than 90,000 of these staff in Scotland, so affording them a decent pay and working conditions should be a priority.
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In the first instance, the recommendations of the report should be met.
Problematic workplaces should “be evacuated and home working or furloughing fully implemented immediately”.
And there must be an immediate audit of Scottish call centres and risk assessments with full trade union involvement.
There has been a desire expressed in this pandemic to emerge in to a fairer world. But without real intent, this will amount to no more than meaningless naval gazing.
Beyond this pandemic, the workers who have been treated as canon fodder must at last be rewarded, not with applause but with action.
Unions have seen a large boost in membership and it is from the ground up, radical change could now happen.
If we really are all in this together, then let’s use that solidarity to fight for an equitable society where people aren’t so diminished that they are timed when they pee.
The research is ongoing and the link to the survey is still open here.
Time for transparency is now
There is no justification for the Scottish Government refusing to publish files relating to high-level talks between the chief medical officers in Scotland and England on Covid-19 during the crucial planning stage.
The SNP Government has said there must be a “safe space” for “emergency discussions” between officials and claimed the public interest was served by protecting these relationships.
Meantime, the public are left in the dark as to the detail of the planning, or lack of, which has rendered this country one of the least “safe spaces” in the world in this pandemic.
It is absolutely in the “public interest” to know what was discussed by these key planners between January 24 and March 9 and where it all went wrong.
We have a right to know if we were or were not being led by the nose by Boris Johnson, left, and his buffoons or if this mess lies at the SNP’s door.
If there is a whiff of a cover-up now, trust in the Scottish Government will be eroded at a time we need it most.
The SNP promised transparency at the onset of the crisis, so show us the paperwork to prove it.