Precarious Labour in Portuguese Call Centres: An Anthropological Study

Matos, Patricia R. M. A.. 2010. Precarious Labour in Portuguese Call Centres: An Anthropological Study. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis explores the themes of alienation and exploitation within the Portuguese call centre sector by focusing on the nature of value-creation in the organisation of labour, the effects this regime has on workers’ consciousness and agency, and how these effects are expressed in terms of class, gender and age. These questions are examined within the broader political and economic context.

In recent years the ‘call centre domain’ in Portugal has been transformed into the main symbol of precariedade laboral (labour precariousness). The categories of trabalho precário (precarious labour), trabalhador precário (precarious worker) and precariedade laboral (labour precariousness) have recently entered into everyday language in Portugal. They are used by politicians and journalists as well as social movements and citizens as a way of protesting against the growing insecurity, contingency and vulnerability of formal wage employment as is found, for instance, in the increase of ‘atypical forms of employment’ such as temporary agency work. Call centres have been described as ‘electronic sweatshops’ because of such characteristics as repetitive tasks, high turnover, stress and burnout, psychological aggression from ‘angry’ customers, low autonomy in work tasks and automatism (scripting), leading to the stereotype of call centre workers as ‘human answering machines’.

My research argues that, in the call centre labour regime workers are subjected to management by tight surveillance which robs humans of their defining characteristics of creative/symbolic thinking and complex communication and language. This management also imposes a gendered division of labour which separates men working in technical support help lines from women working in commercial help lines. The dispossession of call centre operators from what they do comes both from the gap between their expectations of and aspirations to social mobility, which were inculcated through their circles of socialization (family, state, school), and the feeling of ‘falling from grace’ after finishing their college degrees and having to enter into call centre
work. This is a form of work which is not only socially perceived as unskilled, inferior and lacking career options, but most importantly as a form of work in which humans are disguised as robots. I conclude by situating my main findings within the anthropological and sociological scholarship related to the nature of value-creation in the capitalist labour process, gender commodification and the subjective experience of dispossession, downward class mobility and stigma.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

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30 September 2010

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Date Deposited:

17 Feb 2012 15:08

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 08:27


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