The Guardian July 11, 2001


Call centre horrors

by Andrew Jackson

Stellar's anti-worker and anti-union workplaces bring Reith's vision for 
the future home. When Peter Reith introduced individual contracts (AWAs) 
legislation, his aim was to create workplaces where corporations could 
exploit and abuse employees at will and with impunity.

The AWA (Australian Workplace Agreement) that Stellar offers to prospective 
employees on a "no sign, no job" basis, attacks every fundamental right 
that workers and unions have fought so hard for over the last 100 years.

As banks, insurance companies and even telecommunication companies downsize 
and rationalise their services, one of the first functions to be outsourced 
is their call centres.

The call centre workers, who often enjoyed good conditions and pay under 
Awards or Enterprise Agreements, are sacked as big corporations outsource 
their activities.

Since corporatisation and partial-privatisation, Telstra has sacked tens of 
thousand of its own employees, and contracted out functions like directory 
assistance, sales and accounts services to Stellar Call Centre Solutions 
and now work under sub-standard AWA's.

Telstra continues to exploit workers through Stellar's "bargain basement" 
pay and conditions, which are a far cry from those Telstra offers its own 
unionised staff.

Forty-hour weeks, eight days annual sick leave, employees pledging to obey 
unwritten and changeable rules; wide-ranging powers for management to 
instantly dismiss employees; and wage rates which leave even full-time 
employees scraping the poverty line  that's the Stellar story for 
workers.

Stellar has been identified by unions as the company "least likely" to 
comply with meeting the "Minimum Standards for Call Centres" commitment 
established by the unions, and is now the target of a massive union 
campaign.

The Minimum Standards campaign is being run by the ACTU in an effort to 
protect the over 200,000 Australians who work in call centres, asking 
companies to commit to basic minimum employment standards: respect for 
workers, decent wages, secure jobs, achievable workloads, and 
acknowledgement of the right to be in a union.

Turning back the clock

The working conditions offered by Stellar are a blow against minimum 
standards long won and accepted by Australian workers.

A return to the 40-hour week flies in the face of the current campaign to 
reduce the Australian working week to 35 hours.

"Normal" working hours are defined by Stellar as 10 am  11.30 pm, seven 
days a week  a blatant attack on penalty rates and the quality of 
workers' lives.

The Australian standard of 10 days annual sick leave has been reduced to 
eight.

Stellar reserves the right to inform staff of their rosters only five days 
in advance, but these still may be amended at any time up until the last 
minute to suit the company's needs.

Stellar also sticks the knife into the holy cow of Australian workers 
long service leave. Employees are left with little scope to plan their long 
service holidays when Stellar reserves the right to: "at its discretion, 
direct an employee to take long service leave commencing at a particular 
time and for a particular period of time..."

Exploiting the inability of employees to bargain collectively, employees 
doing the same job at different call centres have different base rates of 
pay, even within the same State. This means that workers in one town are 
earning several thousand dollars less than their co-workers in the next 
town.

Stellar also reserves the right to reassign any employee to any other job 
it sees fit, but states that the original AWA remains in place, no matter 
how different or difficult the new job is.

Unachievable performance targets

Like many call centres, Stellar staff are offered financial incentives, 
"designed to reward exceptional performance".

However, the even the minimum performance targets set are impossible for 
staff to reach, without breaching standard OH&S guidelines for computer 
operators.

Stellar staff are required to comply with an "adherence" policy, which 
demands staff keep exact times for rostered breaks or be penalised.

During each two and half hour period on the phones between breaks, staff 
are expected to answer on average 450 calls (yes, 450! This is not a 
misprint) without a break from the screen. To go to the toilet or get a 
drink would be counted as breaking adherence.

If an employee is on a call that runs five minutes into their 15-minute tea 
break, they cannot take an extra five minutes at the end of the official 
break time without penalty.

This would leave them with only a 10-minute break in up to five hours of 
work, when the ACTU Minimum Standard is at least a five-minute break each 
hour.

Minefield

The Stellar AWA is a minefield. It details the employer's rights, not the 
employee's.

For each clause that brings an employee some benefit, there are several 
others that can be used to negate or undermine it.

Even after forcing employees to accept the appalling work conditions set 
out in the AWA, employees must also acknowledge that Stellar reserves the 
right to alter any policy, procedure or process that governs their 
employment "from time to time", as they see fit.

Stellar is not even required to notify the employee, simply saying that 
changes "will be made available on request".

This commitment is not only to Stellar management. Employees "must also 
comply with the individual policies ... of the business you are assigned 
to", meaning any other company that contracts Stellar for work.

Clear as mud

Stellar employees are promised in their AWA that they will be "given a 
clear understanding of the purpose of your role", and "know what is 
required of you in terms of both results and behaviour".

The basis of this knowledge is Stellar's much-vaunted "Code of Conduct".

The "code" contains set written rules, like the prohibition of using any 
company equipment, including computers or phones for any personal reason 
whatsoever.

It also has many vague and undefined rules such as, "encourage continuous 
improvement in everything we do" and "encourage good team spirit and 
productivity".

Stellar's "code" then demands adherence to standards of behaviour that are 
communicated in such vague ways as "every day with each other" or by 
"Stellar management leading by example".

Instant dismissal

It is the "Termination of Employment" guidelines which allow the greatest 
scope for abuse by Stellar management, and the threat of instant dismissal 
hangs over employees' heads every minute of every day.

While this includes the usual theft, fraud, serious negligence causing loss 
damage or injury, etc; it also allows for summary dismissal on the grounds 
of: "Any conduct which is not consistent with Stellar's Code of Conduct", 
no matter how vague, or whether they had been informed of the "guidelines".

While such vagueness is standard fare when it comes to the obligations of 
corporations towards their employees, it is a different story when it comes 
to the obligations of employees towards the corporation they work for.

Stellar has gone into great detail to develop its "Termination of 
Employment" procedures. The Employee Handbook includes nine written pages 
detailing management's right to investigate, warn, discipline and terminate 
employment.

Yet the clause on right to appeal takes just five lines. The clause states 
that anyone who wishes to appeal against a disciplinary decision can only 
do so in writing. The next level manager  the one who also makes the 
initial decision  is the one who reviews it, and their decision is final.

An employee has no right to appeal to higher management or to Stellar's own 
so-called "human resources" department.

The "disciplinary hearings" are unfair and intimidating. The staff member 
may only have one observer at the hearing, they must be pre-approved by 
management and can only be another internal staff member.

The observer does not have the right to speak to the manager directly or as 
the employee's advocate, but can only act as witness and advisor to the 
employee.

The management can interview other staff to investigate their accusations, 
but are not required to share that information with the accused staff 
member.

Thus, the staff member is unable to fully defend themselves, as they are 
not aware of the accusatory statements made against them. Likewise, they 
will not be told if another staff member has supported their defence.

Anti-union tactics

Since the ACTU "Minimum Standard for Call Centres" campaign began, Stellar 
has cracked down hard on unionised staff members.

Using rules which prevent "solicitation" in the workplace, they have banned 
staff members disclosing their union membership, discussing union matters, 
or handing out any union material  even to people who request it  under 
threat of dismissal.

This applies not only in the call centre, but also in the carpark and the 
footpath outside the building.

Known union staff members are being dragged into "kangaroo courts" on 
trumped up charges, knowing full well they have no chance of defending 
themselves, especially as management refuses to allow the employee union 
representation at the hearing.

In its "Code of Conduct", Stellar demands that its employees "think and act 
like owners of the business".

At Stellar this obviously means allowing yourself to be exploited and used 
to undercut the decent wages and conditions of workers elsewhere, for the 
maximisation of profit.

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