Verbally abusive customers are a serious risk to the mental and physical health of call centre employees and it's time for employers to provide them with better protection, according to the United Steelworkers (USW).
The USW, which represents 10,000 call centre workers in Canada, has launched a national campaign with a dedicated website (www.HangUpOnAbuse.ca) and online petition calling on employers to introduce policies to allow call centre workers to hang up on abusive callers, which many employers currently prohibit. Following reports of the verbal abuse of workers at union and non-union call centres across the country, the USW plans to survey its call centre members to establish exactly how serious the problem has become.
"I've had angry and aggressive callers make racist comments to me. There are callers who tell us to perform sexual acts on them, callers who threaten violence," said Kaoutar Belaaziz, who works in a Montreal call centre. "We are subjected to abuse and harassment every day. You find that people realize they can treat you like this and get away with it. We need to be able to hang up on these calls.”
Michelle Dey, a Vancouver call centre employee, once had a caller ask what colour panties she was wearing. Another caller made it clear he was performing “lewd acts” in a hot tub while on the call.
"It's very difficult to just move on to the next call after you've experienced that kind of abuse and harassment. It affects you for the rest of the day. It follows you home," said Dey.
USW national director Ken Neumann said that abuse and harassment of call centre workers is a problem and it has to stop.
"While we can't persuade everyone to treat call centre workers respectfully, we can persuade companies to adopt policies that empower workers to end abusive calls."
An online video supporting the campaign highlights statements of the actual verbal abuse and harassment that some call centre workers have suffered, including racial and homophobic slurs and threats of violence.
"Some of this abuse is extremely serious. It's dehumanizing and causes stress to workers long after they have finished their shifts. This can lead to problems at home and to mental and physical pain," said Lee Riggs, president of the Telecommunications Workers Union, USW National Local 1944.
Riggs said harassment in the workplace is illegal and federal and provincial laws specify it is the employers' responsibility to create a safe working environment, which includes being free from verbal abuse by customers.
"While some companies say they have zero tolerance of abuse and policies in place to protect workers, we are not convinced that policies are empowering and protecting workers on the front line," said Riggs. "For example, we want all employers to allow call centre workers to hang up on abusive callers, which is currently prohibited in some workplaces."
Health and safety regulations are supposed to be a cornerstone of all workplaces across Canada and call centres should not be excluded, the USW said. The campaign is calling on employers to:
•Give call centre workers the right to hang up on abusive calls.
•Train managers on how to support workers who are verbally abused.
•Issue a warning and flag callers who have a history of harassing workers.
•Deny repeat abusers use of their service.
•Establish a zero tolerance of verbal abuse policy that includes reporting all violent and/or sexual threats to the police.
•Ensure no retribution against or disciplining of call centre workers who report abuse.
There are an estimated 175,000 call centre workers in Canada. Their daily duties include assisting customers with technical issues, billing, purchasing and problem solving.