LEADING companies running call centres across Scotland must urgently stop prioritising profit over the health of their employees, according to union bosses and experts.

The STUC claims that major companies such as Sky, Tesco Bank and others could still be putting non-essential sales and support staff at risk by forcing them to come into call centres unless they are judged specifically vulnerable.

Last week a number of call centres were criticised for not acting in the spirit of the new restrictions aimed at halting the spread of Covid-19 and insisting that call centre staff taking orders for non-essential items such as soft furnishings, cosmetics and luxury goods keep going into work.

Customer service staff have been classed as key workers by the UK Government. However last week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called on employers to think hard about whether work was essential and contributing to the fight against coronavirus.

The National: Nicola Sturgeon

On Friday the STUC successfully persuaded Endura, a sports clothing retailer, to close but said it was still struggling to persuade others, including a company selling confectionary, of the need to stop call centre work.

Meanwhile seven SNP MPs wrote to call centre company Teleperformance after dozens of fearful employees contacted them over claims they felt intimidated to work despite the lockdown.

The company, which provides outsourced call centre operators for the motor insurance service across Scotland, has told employees that they are key workers.

Union bosses told the Sunday National they continued to be inundated with an “extraordinary volume” of calls and emails from frightened workers, worried that conditions in their workplace put them at risk.

The STUC said that in some call centres hundreds of staff were at work. In the worst cases they were so close they were within touching distance.

Though in other major call centres bosses had attempted to space desks, staff spoke of concerns about busy lifts at the start and end of shifts. A telecommunications firm and Tesco Bank had put notices up

allowing only one employee access at a time, but some had not done so.

Employees contacting unions said they worried about the difficulty of walking around the space and the cleanliness of hot desks, phones and headsets, shared toilets and kitchen facilities. Some said hand sanitiser was not made available.

Some were worried about the risks of air conditioning systems in offices where windows were sealed and others about travelling to work by public transport.

Phil Taylor, professor of work and employment relations at the University of Strathclyde who has been researching call centres for 25 years, said the very nature of the call centre environment – which concentrates staff in one place to maximise profit – was problematic.

“These concentrations are now a major hazard,” he added. “Most centres have work stations in serried ranks or U-shaped or other configurations but the distance between them is not considerable.”

ON Friday he interviewed 12 call centre workers and while most had been spaced with one desk free on either side, in some configurations people were still sat facing others.

“This is not safe social distancing,” he said. “What about going to the toilet? What about moving around?

“Some are expressing real fear at getting into a lift, not just because of close proximity to others but the surfaces, buttons and so on.

“One huge issue for so many office workers is that they mostly work in “sealed” buildings. Five buildings I’ve studied in detail in Glasgow had extraordinary instances of respiratory, nasal, throat and eye illnesses and complaints. A major cause was the HVAC system – heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems – that circulate air and blow it down through air vents, leading to the circulations of bugs, germs and viruses.

“Covid-19 means that buildings can be like petri dishes for the spread of this deadly virus.”

He insisted call centre workers must now be allowed to work from home, taking the example of Glasgow-based outsourcing centre Kura, which sent everyone home to work last Tuesday with laptops picked up or delivered. “Home working is indispensable,” he added.

Dave Moxham, deputy director of the STUC said: “The volume of calls coming in is extraordinary. It is difficult to overestimate the levels of confusion and anxiety out there.”

The National: Dave Moxham of the STUC

He said a significant percentage were coming from call centres, particularly those that did not have official union representation. “A large volume of complaints have been about businesses failing to make a distinction between essential and non-essential parts of their business,” he added.

“Call centres in particular have been the subject of worker complaints. Call centres play an essential role in providing advice, maintaining digital infrastructure. However many of them also have massive sales and marketing departments.

“Call centre workers at Sky alerted us to the failure to send home non-essential staff which also made it impractical to maintain social distancing. In better news, workers at the John Lewis call centre were successful in collectively agreeing a resolution to a similar problem.”

He claimed all employers should now only be asking genuinely essential staff to come in. Covid-19 risk assessments must be carried out, he added, with special arrangements in place to guarantee social distancing and protective clothing provided.

Both Tesco Bank and Sky insisted they the only call centre workers they were asking to come into work were essential and that they were ensuring workplaces ran in line with strict governmental guidance.