Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Sweatshop of Knowledge Workers

Last December I wrote a post entitled “The Degradation of the Knowledge Work,” which reviewed a proposition that I had previously explored that the phrase “knowledge worker” now denotes “a mindless drone,” sitting in a call center behind a computer terminal concerned with little more than reading scripts and filling out forms.  I suppose that there would have been some cynical readers wondering how those whose work depended on knowledge would be dumb enough to find themselves in such degrading circumstances.  Such a cynical response would assume that all knowledge resides in the computers and that the workers need be no more than “mindless minders.”

This morning we have news from the United Kingdom of knowledge workers who recognize that the work really does depend on the personal knowledge of individuals, rather than mere bits in computer storage.  The story concerns Jobcentre Plus, which basically offers outsourcing for call center work.  It turns out that the staff at seven of the Jobcentre Plus contact centers are taking industrial action today and tomorrow;  and, according to the BBC News report, this will probably involve 3500 workers at sites in Newport, Glasgow, Bristol, Norwich, Sheffield, Makerfield near Wigan and Manchester.

The strike specifically involves work that Jobcentre Plus does for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).  The BBC reported an interview with Katrine Williams, who represents the union for the call center workers, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union.  As reported on the BBC News Web site, Williams is making a valiant effort to get the “real knowledge” in this “knowledge work” properly recognized:

Ms Williams, PCS's national negotiator for Jobcentre Plus, said: "The two targets that matter to management are answering the calls and spending as little time as possible on the phone.

"If a call takes too long, we get somebody telling us to finish the call. What we're saying is we should be able to use our judgement."

She said staff were being monitored "every minute of the day", and unable to fully help clients on occasions because they were encouraged to keep phone calls so brief.

"The reason we have chosen the seven sites is because we're all experienced benefit processors and understand the complexity of the benefit system. We know how the whole of the Jobcentre Plus system works," she added.

She said the current conditions were demoralising for workers, with a staff turnover at the contact centres of around 20%.

The union is also calling for more flexible working arrangements.

Will any of this make a difference?  The cynic in me says that DWP may make some gratuitous concessions, after which business-as-usual will resume.  Nevertheless, this could be that one small step for the knowledge worker that may eventually lead to a giant leap for “real knowledge.”

1 comment:

DigitalDan said...

In cost-benefit analyses for activities like those discussed here, the costs are readily quantifiable, while it's very difficult to do the same for the benefits. When job expectations are based heavily on such an analysis, both quality/value of the result and morale of the employee are frequently, if not inevitably, the loser. The same can be true for other endeavors, such as risky research.