For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

(Not)hanging on the telephone: payment systems in the new sweatshops

by Fernie, Sue; Metcalf, David (1998)


'The ultimate objective of empirical work on incentives should be to find out why firms use the compensation systems they doàhuge advances in our understanding could be made by a concerted effort to collect data on contracts.'' So concludes the 1998 Journal of Economic Literature survey on compensation systems. This paper does just that. It presents very detailed case study evidence on contracts in four organizations, three of which are call centres, the fastest growing sector of employment in the UK. This evidence is used to test predictions from the New Economics of Personnel (NEP) concerning the incidence of payment systems. We also contrast and test predictions from NEP with those of the earlier British Institutional School, which anticipated many of NEP''s ideas on payment systems. Variations in the ratio of performance-related to basic pay among our organizations can, broadly, be explained by the costs and benefits of monitoring inputs and measuring output, which comprises the core of NEP. Indeed, the monitoring of our case study employees is the theme which binds the paper together û for call centres Jeremy Bentham''s 1791 Panopticon was truly the vision of the future.

Key Passage

This occupation [call centre work] merits study because the possibilities for monitoring behaviour and measuring output are amazing to behold – the “tyranny of the assembly line” is but a Sunday school picnic compared with the control that management can exercise in computer telephony. Indeed, the advertising brochure for a popular call centre software package is boldly titled TOTAL CONTROL MADE EASY. All this has been noted in the trade press where Apostol (1996), Garrod (1996) and Roncoroni (1997) describe call centres either as the new sweatshops or dark satanic mills. And in the personnel managers’ professional monthly journal farmyard analogies abound. Arkin (1997) states “call centres have been likened to battery farms”, while Roncoroni (1997) writes that in many offices “individuals sit in tiny pig pens”. Over 200 years ago Jeremy Bentham put forward a design for the ideal prison, the Panopticon (see page 3, right) and Foucault (1977) used this composition as a metaphor for the coming workplace. We shall show that, for call centres, Bentham’s Panopticon was truly the vision of the future and these organizations are the very epitome of what Foucault had in mind. (p.2)


Call Centre Work, Sweatshops, Worker Resistance, Bentham, Foucault, Panopticon, Surveillance, Critical Management Theory


On Foucault, Foucault, Call Centres

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