Hotline bling: the murky world of for-profit call centres

Daniel Reede will hang up if you call during dinner

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“Good evening Ma’am. My name is Sam and I’m phoning from MonDial on behalf of Greenpeace, I hope you don’t mind me calling you at home, it gives me an opportunity to speak directly to one of our most vital supporters, was now a convenient time for you?” My friend recites an introduction he’s been forced to memorise for a call centre job he resents.

“You feel like a dickhead, but if you want to keep your job you don’t have a choice, you’re probably going to get fired anyway,” he says.

There are an abundance of for-profit call centres around Sydney and they almost exclusively employ young people. A shocking number of my friends either work or have worked for call centres, and I stress the past tense because their employment has most often terminated within the month due to what’s described as “near impossible donation quotas”.

Companies like MonDial, 2evolve and Public Outreach market themselves as workplaces dedicated to making a difference. “Change the world like its your job!” proclaims Public Outreach in their YouTube recruitment video. It is easy to be lulled into tolerance by their exterior; the image of the mobile phone Robin Hood saving the disenfranchised one phone call at a time is certainly a romantic one, but incompatible with the reality.

But the National Unions of Workers notes that for-profit telemarketing companies can legally keep more than 60 per cent of the money they raise using charities’ namesakes, unbeknownst to well meaning donors.

Beyond the issue of allocation of funds, the emotional coercion encouraged by call centres creates a problematic workplace environment built on sales competition and manipulation of the vulnerable. It’s no coincidence call centres employ a striking number of young men with Australian accents and private school backgrounds.

Confidence, bravado, and verbal wit are traits that correlate to success in the industry. Those without the thick skin for verbal manipulation rarely reach satisfactory enlistment rates and are promptly let go. Those who excel, I’m told, relish in the pride of their high numbers and flows of cash.

“You hear people at work boast everyday about getting an easy elderly person on the line or breaking a really tough sell,” my friend tells me. “It’s a bit sickening to see people thrive in such a competitive atmosphere, people are constantly trying to prove themselves as the best salesmen, it’s like being manipulative is a competition.”

Blame, however, does not lie predominantly on the individual employed. The prospect of unemployment is held over the heads of workers like a guillotine waiting to drop; you’re either coercive enough to meet the unrealistic expectations, or you get the sack. One friend who’s been with a call centre for more than three months tells me that his employer recently put him “under probation”; a reminder of the looming boot when after months of “some of the best numbers there”, his donations took a slight dip. What results is a workplace which encourages young people to be manipulative and threatens them with unemployment should their conscience intervene.

Despite the guise of charity, these call centres are private companies driven by profit. They chew up and spit out young people with a disregard for human decency akin to the emotional manipulation they demand. Therein lies the dis- gusting irony: to profit by using an appeal to ethics whilst neglecting the obvious ethical defects of your own workplaces.

When you’re inevitably called by a charity telemarketer, and if you are moved by the causes preached, hang up the phone and donate to the charity directly.

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