Imagine working for a trade union; one which is formidable and respected, one forever being sought by Radio 4. An indomitable body of professionals who never resort to strikes and scuffles, braziers and megaphones, because they’re so heavy with influence and history that they need only tap the right minister on the shoulder to have their voice heard and heeded.
Imagine working for the magnificent British Medical Association.
When I saw the BMA were recruiting in Glasgow a few years ago I was delighted and surprised. My surprise increased when I was sent to a call centre for the interview. Sitting prim and nervous in the reception area, a tacky room with walls that trembled if you brushed against them, I wondered what this cheap and nasty office could possibly have to do with the great and august BMA.
I watched the staff as I waited to be called. I saw them ask permission to go to the toilet. I saw them snatch drinks of water from the cooler then dive back to their desk before they’re questioned. I saw people tripping over their feet, shambling round the floor to ask a manager a question whilst staying plugged into their computer by their headset, getting entangled on someone’s chair and unhooking themselves. I thought of slaves in manacles.
I got the job. I did it for eight years. Let me tell you about it.
The BMA, an organisation rich and powerful, chooses to outsource work to the huge multinational service provider Serco where it’ll be done dirt cheap. The media is full of stories about how Serco lies in order to retain government contracts, but the BMA has entered into a contract with the company to run the BMA’s employment-law helpline. Doctors who contact their union for help will speak not to a legally-qualified BMA adviser, but to one of the low-paid call-centre staff on Serco’s 120,000-strong payroll.
The doctors don’t know this and believe they’re speaking to the BMA, an illusion which Serco and the BMA prolong as far as they can. Various tricks are used to fool the doctors into a false confidence. For example, I worked for the Midlands office of the BMA, so when I took charge of a doctor’s case he would be given my direct phone number so he could bypass the call centre queue and go straight to me.
However, he mustn’t know I’m in a Glasgow office, as I’m pretending to be his ‘local adviser’. So the doctor is given a fake Birmingham number which then re-routes to my Glasgow phone. Should the good doctor make polite conversation and ask what the weather’s like in Birmingham today I’ll just laugh and say “Oh, you know, the usual…”
The deceit isn’t watertight, though. We do occasionally get the inevitable eminent London surgeon who expects to be spoken to by equally eminent Londoners and shouts that he “won’t have anyone Scotch!”, leading to the delicate operation of conveying to him that unfortunately we’re all ‘Scotch’, without revealing we’re speaking from the hated Scotchland.
This is what outsourcing does: promotes cheating and lies for profit. It’s cheaper for the BMA to have fake advisers working in a shabby Glasgow call-centre than to directly employ qualified employment law experts in London and the regions. Why pay a lofty London wage when there are desperate Glaswegians crying out for work? Outsource it. Ship it to Scotchland. Get it dirt cheap.
Outsourcing also degrades the relationship between the employer and the staff. The BMA has a whole office working for it in Glasgow, dealing directly with its members, representing it to the world, yet the BMA has absolutely no idea who we are: it doesn’t recruit us, it doesn’t train us, it doesn’t pay us, it can’t sack us and it doesn’t know if we’re fairly treated or not. The Serco staff represent the BMA but have nothing to do with the BMA.
And there’s another pool of workers who are even further alienated from the body they work for: Serco use agency staff on zero-hours contracts. They’re employed neither by the BMA nor Serco. They work for a faceless agency, on the flimsiest of terms, yet they represent the proud and dignified BMA to the world.
These people, on low pay and without even a fantasy of job security, advise doctors on their employment rights, whilst having none themselves. They work for a union but have no union of their own. Plus, in a call centre, conversation between employees is actively discouraged so people are less likely to feel solidarity. You’re plugged into a computer all day, taking constant calls, with each desk sectioned off by what are lovingly called ‘baffle boards’.
In the call centre we press GO. Immediately a wave of calls comes in, from doctors who are being bullied, being sacked, having their workloads increased, having their clinic closed or having their pay cut, and we work tirelessly all day to help them.
In the midst of this furious flurry, a side-door opens and a manager emerges. She holds a clipboard where she’s done sums showing she has too many staff today. She selects a zero-hours employee and slinks across the room to tell him to go home, but the employee is busy on the phone to a GP who’s distraught, having been diagnosed with breast cancer.
She’d been promised a promotion to partnership in the surgery, but now her colleagues are reluctant. The zero-hours employee is reassuring her, telling her what rights she has and detailing precisely how the BMA can help. Throughout, as this man is trying to do his job, the manager stands silently at his shoulder, drumming her pen on the clipboard. As soon as he’s off that call he’ll be told to leave.
“But I told the doctor to phone back in ten minutes,” he explains. “She was too upset to speak, so I said to phone me back once she’d stopped crying and that I’d be here.”
But the answer is implacable: big deal, we’ll say you’re on a break or something and the call will just be bumped to someone else. Who cares? It’s the stats that matter and the stats say you have to go home today.
The BMA have no control over any of this, as they’ve handed it all to Serco (who are currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, but hey, you can’t make a dirt-cheap omelette without etc). Serco instruct us to lie to doctors: we pretend we’re in Birmingham, we pretend we’re in Leeds; we have false telephone numbers and fake job titles. We pretend our mission is to defend doctors, whereas it’s really only to make sure we answer a call within three rings and don’t go to the toilet.
This day isn’t unusual. It’s the same as every other day, for an ever-increasing number of people in horrible jobs, endured only because the alternative is so terrifying. When the UK government talks of “growth” and of replacing public-sector employment with private-sector jobs, these are the sorts of jobs it’s talking about – something less like a career and more akin to the wretched existence of a battery hen.
As Labour compete with the Tories to be “tough on welfare”, more and more people find themselves swept into such misery for wages that don’t come anywhere close to the cost of living. (And if you can’t find even work that grim, you’ll be gobbled up into a “workfare” programme where you still have to do it, except without getting paid.)
The life of a serf is all the once-proud United Kingdom has to offer, whoever we vote for, and I don’t want to live in that country any more. Can we have our own one, please?
Julie McDowall at Wings over Scotland
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