New Brunswick

Campaign urges call centre employees to 'Hang up on abuse'

Call centre employees routinely face racist, sexual and threatening comments from customers, but their national union has launched a campaign urging their employers to adopt a "Hang up on abuse" policy.

Workers routinely subjected to racist, sexual and threatening comments from callers, union says

'I hope you get cancer and die,' one call centre worker was told. (CBC)

Call centre employees routinely face racist, sexual and threatening comments from customers, but their national union has launched a campaign urging their employers to adopt a "Hang up on abuse" policy.

The United Steelworkers, which represents about 10,000 call centre employees across Canada, wants them to be able to end or pass on abusive calls without fear of losing their jobs, and it's seeking the public's support through an online petition.

As it stands, some call centres have policies against hanging up, said Nancy Hutchison, the head of the union's health, safety and environment department.

"So they demand that the workers — regardless of what's being said on the other end of the phone — do not hang up," she said

"We find that very harmful and destructive to the call centre workers that have to take this abuse on an ongoing basis."

'Quite horrific'

Some of the incidents are "quite horrific," stressed Hutchison. They can affect workers' mental health and spill over into their home lives, she said.

Customers "may make comments about an accent, you know, asking if they're white, if they're working in Canada."

"There's been callers asking what colour panties a woman at a call centre may be wearing," and one particularly "disturbing" call where a man said he was in a hot tub and "asked a female call centre worker to continue talking so he could actually pleasure himself."

In another case, a customer told a worker whose mother had died of cancer, "I hope you get cancer and die."

Often, the customers are agitated for reasons beyond the workers' control, such as long waits because of understaffing, or wanting products or services the workers aren't authorized to offer, said Hutchison.

Over time, the stress can impact workers' sleep and ability to concentrate, cause anxiety and even depression, she said.

Workers owed a safe environment

The union wants to remind employers that harassment in the workplace is illegal and it is their responsibility to create a safe working environment, which includes being free from verbal abuse.

In addition to a policy that allows workers to hang up on abusive calls, the union wants employers to create a zero tolerance policy, where all violent or sexual threats are reported to the police.

Employers should deny service to repeat abusers, or at least flag customers who have a history of harassing staff, it says.

And managers should be trained in how to support workers who have dealt with an abusive client.

With files from Information Morning Moncton

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