The human cost of sales outsourcing: an eyewitness account

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Sales outsourcing has become an economic staple of large multinational companies, ensuring cheap labour and trampling on employment laws, workers’ rights and welfare. Outsourcing passes accoun­ta­bility away from the original company, as contracts are passed down chains of outsourcers, with every link taking a slice, till just the crumbs are left for the call centre worker at the bottom of the food chain, mired in insecurity, poverty and debt.

Verzis Outsourcing in Newcastle has a contract to sell energy plans to domestic users for the energy company Scottish Power. With more than five people chasing every job vacancy in the city, employment means sacrificing any right to decent pay and working conditions as people struggle to stay in work. Verzis call centre workers are paid as little as £11,000 per year, and their first pay cheque is routinely delayed by up to two months. I started unpaid training from 23 September and paid work from 30 September only to be told, just two days before my first pay cheque was due on 20 October that I wouldn't be paid until 20 November. Call centres like Verzis notoriously rely also on unpaid overtime – such as staying late to hit targets, early starts to attend mandatory sales briefings or ‘over staying’ to complete calls. Verzis also expects workers to complete a full week of training unpaid. Meanwhile Scottish Power recently announced profits of £3bn.

The majority of the workers at Verzis are young and inexperienced, or are returning to work after long periods of unemployment. None are unionised. Inevitably, the job has a high turn-over as the only assurance of lasting employment is high sales – but in an economic crisis these become harder and harder to ach­ieve. Management at Verzis compound the pressure by boasting of dismissals and humiliating sacked workers by playing Another one bites the dust as they leave. Scottish Power has a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy on telesales compliance; this leads to many dismissals for ‘gross misconduct’ for something as minor as forgetting to mention the fact that the call is recorded at a set place in the call structure.

Smaller businesses also run the constant risk of insolvency: Verzis recently moved its offices from Newcastle to Gateshead overnight, giving staff, including me, less than 24 hours notice to go to the new workplace. We were initially told that the new base was simply for a week’s training in new systems – only when we arrived did we discover that the move was permanent. We found out later that the last landlord ‘had the director over a barrel on the rent costs’ and Verzis had to leave in a hurry. At the new offices, the designated smoking area was a space in the car park overhung by pipes carrying asbestos warning signs, only partially taped up.

The director’s idea of reassuring us that the company was financially stable was to boast about her new house and swimming pool! As if that was going to help any of us pay our rent, utilities, council tax, or buy food, let alone travel to the new location. Despite promises to pay our travel for a month, the money never arrived, and so neither could I.

Even after leaving the company, I have not received my full pay, nor the paperwork I need to claim tax credits. With a month to go before Christmas, I am in arrears with rent, council tax and utility bills. I am not alone in this, I witnessed a single mother in tears after being told she would not be paid until December; she was worried about how she was going to feed her son and pay her bills. There are many others like her.

D Spencer

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

 

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