One day, not long after my exit from the call centre, I heard that people arriving for their shift in the morning were greeted by a memo sellotaped to each computer monitor by their manager Peggy, instructing them not to take toilet breaks whilst on-shift.
It was just the latest act in what had been a long running battle in my call centre – A fierce fight over the very right to answer the call of nature. Previous to the sticky-taped missive a number of memos prohibiting the use of the toilet in work time ‘unless an emergency’ had been issued, and subsequently ignored, amid much canteen and car-park whispering of ‘how dare they.’ Even those among us who would usually be the most docile and compliant members of pro-management staff were up-in-arms. We were unanimously agreed; the right to go when we needed to go was an inalienable one which we would not give up easily.
But it seems that it is not just my call centre where the toilet issue created strong feelings; In a blog titled The Secret Diary of a Call Centre Worker Aged 31 1/2 a Scottish Call Centre worker describes their fiery response to receiving a note telling them that they could not use the toilet on their shift:
Imagine being 31 (and a 1/2) years old and being told you’re not allowed to vist the loo. Immature it may be, but I did infact give my “team leader” the extended middle finger after being told this. Who the hell does she think she is?!
Their tone is however, ultimately one of resignation. For them being denied the right to take a toilet break when needed is all part of the call centre:
This is just call centre life unfortunately. We have to be available at all times other than scheduled breaks, needing to pee is apparently unimportant.
And they are right. The toilet issue is not exclusive to the call centre. Check-out assistants and workers in some other industries also have a tough time, but the call-centre has been fairly notorious for waging war on the toilet break with some gusto, in cases going to extreme lengths in finding strategies to control their staff’s use of the toilet.
The main tool in the battle seems to be monitoring the time taken by staff in the toilet. In my call centre the layout was such that our manager would know instantly how long you were away from your desk and you’d very much feel that the clock was ticking. As far as I know however, no times were ever logged; Alan Carr on the other hand describes a ‘log book’ in the Barclaycard call centre where employees were instructed to record the time taken using the toilet complete with a set of guidelines – 5 mins allowed for a number two and 3 mins for a simple wee.
Another call centre in my town – belonging to a major utility – had more sophisticated systems which electronically logged time away from a work-station to go to the toilet, but as far as I’m aware even this system didn’t trigger an alarm with flashing lights, as is the case of the Norweigan call centre , belonging to DNB an insurance company, where managers received a notification alarm if a member of staff spent more than an allotted eight minutes a day away from their desks.
Whilst I myself never got more than a withering stare for abandoning my headset to rush to the toilet, others were asked to produce GP’s notes to account for the time they spent on the toilet. Its also not unheard of for workers to be pulled up on time taken in the loo; In one extreme case which was reported in the national news call centre managers were even threatening workers who spent too long on the toilet with being forced to wear a disposable nappy.
So just why does the call-centre have such a problem with the call of nature?
The key reason, unsurprisingly, is that it’s all about the money. In one of her many memos on the subject our manager, Peggy, lays bare her reasoning for the war on the loo break..
Every time some one leaves their desk we lose a call, whether it’s for a query, loo break or to get water. This, over a week can equate to in excess of 2000 calls lost, with a loss of revenue which we cannot afford in this difficult economic climate.
Fuzzy math aside (2000 calls at an average of 3.5 minutes per call – means collectively we’d be spending just shy of 120 hours a week on the loo) it speaks volumes about the priorities of the call centre.
Sat at their desks call centre workers are like a part of a machine. Like a piston in a machine whose movement generates money there is a loss of revenue each time the piston, and the machine stops. Call centre managers main concern is to keep the machine running and therefore there priority is to keep workers at their desks for as long as possible.
Viewing workers as part of a machine dehumanises them, to the point at which bodily functions are denied, or viewed as a threat to the machine and which must therefore be the subject of control.
Finally, as many people may ask; what is the legal position? Can an employer try to prevent workers from using the toilet during work time? Whilst legislation exists in UK law determining the rules for the provision of toilet facilities there are no specific rules about when these facilities can be accessed, apart from an employers general health & safety responsibilities. The TUC who have long campaigned on the issue of a workers right to take a toilet break, arguing in their 2010 report ‘Give us a (loo) break’ that “a worker’s right to use the toilet is a human right!”, state in the the report that there is a need for further legislation to protect workers stating:
There is also a need for a specific legal right to use toilets in the employer’s time without a deduction in pay, and without any harassment.
In the meantime the battle will rage on in call-centres up and down the land.