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The BBC's Industry Correspondent, Stephen Evans
"Litigation in a growing modern industry is on the way"
 real 28k

David Calder reports
"Conditions in call centres have improved in recent years"
 real 28k

Monday, 12 February, 2001, 17:01 GMT
Legal action over 'acoustic shock'
Call centre worker
The industry has been experiencing rapid expansion
Trade unions are preparing hundreds of legal claims over what they describe as the "industrial injury of the 21st century".

The condition, known as "acoustic shock", is said to afflict workers in telephone call centres.

The cases have emerged as the TUC publishes a report which says many call centre staff still work long hours for low pay and in poor conditions.

This is despite a general improvement in the industry.

Research by the TUC found call centre staff earn 9,000 less than the national average wage.

John Monks
John Monks: "Sensible targets"
The problems are particularly acute in Scotland, Wales and the north-west of England, which have the highest number of call centre operations.

The TUC has launched a special telephone hotline for workers to report bad management or poor working conditions.

The organisation said that although many call centres did not deserve the sweatshop image associated with the fast-growing sector, some were guilty of exploiting staff and not responding to health concerns.

The organisation said some workers were monitored over the length of time they spent going to the toilet, while others had to pay for their own headsets or had wages withheld during probationary periods.

Flexible arrangements

Unions are taking up the cases of staff who claim to have "acoustic shock", caused when they are subjected to sudden loud noises through headsets.

This, they say, has left them with depression, headaches and other health problems.

BT has already paid out 90,000 to one worker.

Solicitor Adrian Forden is representing another 83 BT employees who are complaining that they have suffered injury through "acoustic shock".

I've travelled nationwide interviewing people from all sorts of backgrounds who have experienced this problem

Solicitor, Adrian Forden
"It could be the tip of the iceberg," he told the BBC's Today programme.

"I've travelled nationwide interviewing people from all sorts of backgrounds who have experienced this problem."

TUC general secretary John Monks said: "The good call centres we highlight prove the industry can offer good working conditions and still be profitable.

"But there are still too many call centres exploiting staff."

Open to changes

BT spokesman Robert Dunnett told BBC News Online: "The TUC report on call centres was on a whole range of issues and actually quoted BT's general processes as an exemplar.

"However BT does recognise the potential for harm from such noise interference and we work very closely with the unions and carry out wide research into its causes."

He said all BT's equipment met or exceeded agreed standards and research into the phenomenon would continue.

The Call Centre Association, which represents 450 organisations throughout the UK, has acknowledged that conditions in many could be better.

Chief Executive, Anne-Marie Forsyth said: "I think like any industry call centres will have good and band players and because it's got so many people included in it, it's under a spotlight.

"Therefore, I think it's incumbent on people who are engaged in bad practice to have a look at what they are doing and make sure they're benchmarking with the best."

She said the industry remained open to changes and is constantly looking to improve conditions for workers.

"We would welcome any update on legislation to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to have the best working conditions that is possible, " she said.

Recruitment drive

The TUC urged call centre employers to set sensible targets for staff and to offer flexible working arrangements.

According to figures released by the union umbrella group, the industry employs 400,000 people in the UK, with more than 50,000 of them in Scotland and 72,000 in north-western England.

Average salaries ranged from 11,100 in Wales; 12,000 in north-west England; 13,100 in Scotland; to 14,050 in London.

The Scottish TUC has launched a drive to recruit more call centre workers.

It said union representation would lead to quicker improvements in pay and conditions.

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See also:

08 Feb 01 | Business
End in sight for call centres?
19 Sep 00 | Business
Dixons to take on 1,000 staff
13 Oct 00 | Wales
New call centre brings 400 jobs
18 Sep 00 | Scotland
One2One creates 1,000 jobs
31 Aug 00 | Scotland
Scots face high-tech future
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