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15 May 2000

An accent you can trust

New Statesman Scotland - Call-centres are moving north with enthusiasm, believing they have

By Tom Brown

Another 1,400 Scots are putting on headsets and preparing to spend their working days talking to complete strangers about their most intimate financial details.

The reassuring accent, the “trust Scots with money” reputation and the ability to give the human touch to faceless, branchless banking (not to mention the need to find work in a country that has lost its traditional industrial base) puts them in the vanguard of the “new industrial revolution”.

Scotland’s growing dependence on call-centre jobs is highlighted by the opening of two new offices in Edinburgh and Livingston, bringing the number of call-centre jobs to more than 30,000.

The latest recruits will be working on a project that has the City agog and the financial world worried. Intelligent Finance (IF), the internet-and-telephone bank being set up by the Halifax, has a first-year target of 500,000 customers for mortgages, loans, savings, current accounts and credit cards.

It has been set up by the man who has created more new call-centre jobs in Scotland than anyone else. Jim Spowart, a 49-year-old former banker turned revolutionary, set up Direct Line’s banking arm in Glasgow with 600 jobs, followed by 1,200 jobs at the Standard Life Bank in Edinburgh, and now 1,400-and-rising at IF.

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Of great interest to workers and unions, it will set new employment standards in a sector where rogue bosses have created a sweatshop image described as “a huge challenge to the union movement”.

Although they welcome the jobs, the unions are only too well aware of the “new satanic mills” reputation. The Scottish Trade Union Congress has set up a call-centre working group to develop “an overall working strategy which exposes the draconian terms and conditions in existence in many non-unionised working places”.

Last month’s congress agreed a recruitment campaign to combat poor pay and conditions, including short-term contracts, refusal to allow screen breaks, hygiene issues such as sharing headsets, and an escalation in industrial injuries such as eye strain, hearing impairment, back problems and stress-related illnesses.

Staff at one non-union call-centre were told that, if they had problems, they could quit and get a job in a fish factory. At another in Glasgow, they were fined when they stopped taking and making calls, even to go to the toilet.

Across Scotland, there are call-centres run by small-time service companies, mainly staffed by women, often on part-time evening and weekend work.

They are cold-calling potential customers about everything, from kitchens to health insurance. Bullying managers set unachievable targets and many employees complain of the abuse they receive from annoyed “customers”.

The moral is that, if you want to work in a call-centre, work in the financial sector.

Jim Spowart is proud of his job-creation record in his native country, from which he refuses to move. It says much for his reputation as a pioneer who delivers huge profits that the Halifax agreed to set up its new operation in Scotland to suit him.”The Halifax had no hesitation in giving it to Scotland, when I said I wouldn’t move,” he said. “It’s the Scottish work ethic and an education system that still produces intelligent and adaptable high-calibre young people.”

They will have to be adaptable to work with IF, which is taking banking into a new phase, using a combination of technologies – telephone, internet, text-messaging mobile phones, digital TV and e-mails.

But Spowart insists that there will always have to be a human element: “It doesn’t matter about the advances in technology. The key is always being able to speak to an individual.”

Spowart’s operations have a habit of breaking their targets. Standard Life hoped to take £1bn in mortgages and actually took £4bn. At Standard Life Bank, his team sold mortgages in nine minutes, and it is expected that the sales process at IF will take six minutes. The Halifax is expecting quick results from its £100m capital spend and a £1bn commitment to back the new bank.

Spowart is clear that working in telephone banking can be very stressful, but says the new call-centres need to set high standards: “People don’t perform well in a boring environment. Call-centres can become production lines and, yes, when wrongly run, they can be satanic mills.

“It is stupid and, in the end, unproductive to have stressed-out staff.”

His new offices are in roomy, modern air-conditioned buildings with pleasant views over the countryside. Spowart recalls: “I’ve been in banking for 30 years, and some of the branches I worked in were Victorian slums compared to this.”

Banking bosses of this ilk may get call-centres a good name, but the bottom end of the sector is crying out for government action and union organisation.

As Spowart says: “This is not a passing phase. Call-centres are here to stay.”