By Kırmızı Gazete
While the number of workers in call centers has been increasing, call center workers from big coastal cities to the inland towns of Anatolia are living in misery. In this sector, where organized workplaces are not common, Çağrı-İş (cha-ru-ish, Call Centre, Postal, Telephone, Telegraph, Telecommunication, Internet and Communication Workers’ Union – @SendikasCagr) continues its efforts to organize an independent, rank-and-file union. We interviewed Cihan Sezer, the union’s General President, on the situation of workers in this sector.
Can you tell us a little bit about the working conditions of call center workers?
When we look at the whole picture, while the working conditions of workers in Türkiye are constantly deteriorating (and this process has gained more momentum in recent years with the economic crisis!), the profits of the bosses and especially the banks have been increasing by up to 400-500%. Everyone agrees on this. In the private sector, the working conditions of call centers are also worsening with workers losing their rights and facing dismissals without compensation. What makes call centers “special” lies in the nature of their work. Call center work is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, this is primarily because it is a job based entirely on mental labor.
In addition, a significant number of people who call customer representatives in call centers are themselves workers who are trying to make ends meet by reducing their own expenses. These customers usually call about the fees they are being charged by the banks or their high bills. When they call, they associate the person on the other end with the bank or utility company that is responsible for raising their bill, and they transfer all that anxiety to the call center worker. The customer representative is asked to take on the role of representative of the company and is obliged to defend the draconian policy or outright mistake made by the company. The worker is required to defend the company, and to do so with a friendly tone and a caring attitude for the customer who might be having a nervous breakdown on other end of the line, all in the name of professionalism. On one level, the worker knows that their calls are being listened to, and that any mistake on the call could be considered a valid reason for dismissal without compensation. At the same time, the worker is dealing with the customer’s stress. As a result, workers become worn down by having to apply the same pattern to all customers in a mechanical fashion across hundreds of calls.
Despite facing all these difficulties, the worker has to hide their emotions. For example, consider the situation of a woman working at a bank’s call center (more likely than not a university graduate, a professor without an appointment, an engineer, or otherwise highly educated person who could not find work in her field of study) who is subject to insults and harassment from customers who have been calling the bank for hours. She might easily be driven to the point of tears, but she has to maintain the same caring tone of voice to preserve the bank’s “helpful,” “humanitarian” image. She might feel totally drained, but minutes before the end of the shift, the team leader could suddenly order additional overtime. Threats and bullying by managers add insult to injury in many of these call centers. When workers must deal with bullying in addition to the job’s numerous difficulties, work becomes torture. Since call center companies provide employment to more than 200,000 young jobseekers in the private sector, they are also protected and supported by governments and institutions. The latter has remained silent in the face of the terrible working conditions and loss of rights for workers in this sector, which has further enabled companies’ ruthlessness. There is no government supervision of call centers, nor have there been any sanctions whatsoever to prevent what goes on in these places of employment. It is precisely for these reasons that call center companies with foreign capital flock to Türkiye, where there is a high rate of unemployment among young, educated people, as well as low wages and a general lack of regulation.
What is Çağrı İş doing among these workers?
The number of call center workers has massively increased over the last 40 years. This rapid increase and the difficult nature of the work has led workers to seek union affiliation and organization from the start. Despite workers’ inexperience and a lack of awareness about the work, there have been attempts to organize, especially in rural areas. In 2011, workers at AssisTT in the city of Amasya were dismissed from their jobs after they sought unionization, and later these workers tried to organize themselves by establishing a non-union association. They also tried to organize with unions that were not in their line of work. In 2018, the employees of the Samsun-based Comdata company started to organize, first in the Sosyal İş Union that is affiliated with Disk, and then with the Tez Koop-İş union that is affiliated with Türk-İş. Here the workers organized incredibly quickly. In a period of 6 months, the workers of the Italian-owned Comdata company were unionized. Afterwards, the French Atos Call Center won union authorization within three weeks, and the local Pluscom call center won union authorization in three months. Subsequently, large-scale unionization efforts started in other call centers. This unionization process took place in just one year and lasted until the Covid-19 Pandemic began. During this period, the bosses of the unionized companies attempted to prevent union organization by raising objections to the authorizations one by one. While it became difficult to reach employees due to the pandemic, union efforts slowed down due to protracted court cases and changes in some unions’ line of business, which also discouraged workers’ enthusiasm for organizing.
However, the deterioration of working conditions and new attacks on workers’ rights that emerged in the context of remote work, mobilized the workers who had once led the organizing work. It was in this context that the idea of organizing the Çağrı-İş union emerged. Our union Çağrı-İş, whose founders and executives are all call center workers, was quickly established in November 2022. In organizing the union, we managed to combine the demands of workers who were looking for salary raises and promotions in just a few months. In fact, our first achievement was winning raises for 3,500 workers at Comdata, despite all the company’s objections and threats. In a sense, we have renewed the trust and faith of the workers here. The proof of this is that we have organized hundreds of members despite the failure of previous unionization efforts.
Since the union structure is made up entirely of workers from these companies, we fully understand and sympathize with the attacks call center workers face, and the experience of the loss of rights and dismissals without compensation. These were the first issues we fought for as a union. The way the company ignored the law in its dismissal of workers without compensation was an issue that we particularly opposed and tried to draw attention to. In addition to this, we also engage in activities and demonstrations where we raise awareness of how to prevent and impede severe bullying practices and try to expose the government’s silence on these issues. Although company practices of purposefully hiring workers in distant, provincial cities, and remote work has made it difficult for us to reach them, we have managed to establish ties with workers through social media. As the possibilities for our union increase, we are confident that we will achieve much more significant rights and gains for workers, and that worker consciousness will also grow. We are confident that we will eventually be able to organize “phones down” strikes in the future, even if they are actions with minority participation, and that we will make these huge companies take notice. These are very important steps that will help workers realize their own power.
We would like to thank Cihan Sezer and Çağrı-İş’s organizers for this conversation.