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

The director of the L & R Group, a consulting and training business that has developed a new certificate in call centre management for the Institute of Direct Marketing, puts all this rather starkly: “the call centre provides management with the ultimate opportunity for control” (quoted in Arkin 1997). Indeed, his organization has a module on “staying sane in the call centre”. Call centres are therefore the archetypal organization to represent Foucault’s (1977) application of Bentham’s Panopticon to the workplace. “All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell…a worker… 9 They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible… Visibility is a trap… Each individual is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen but does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication…this invisibility is the guarantee of order… there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect… power should be visible and unverifiable.” In call centres the agents are constantly visible and the supervisor’s power has indeed by “rendered perfect” – via the computer monitoring screen – and therefore “its actual use unnecessary.” (p.8)


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


On Foucault, Foucault, Call Centres

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