Call centre: 'Unions are recognised'

DISGRUNTLED ex-workers at a Londonderry call centre have set up a Facebook group calling for staff to organise and for their employer to recognise trade unions.

But a spokesperson for Firstsource says the company already recognises trade union organisations and that if staff membership at the call centre reaches the statutory level for official recognition this will be granted.

The page entitled "Firstsource Derry! We demand a union!!! Yes get away wey murder" was established three months ago.

It has since become a posting board for unhappy workers at Firstsource Solutions Limited, a call centre in Springtown owned by the ICICI Bank, India's largest financial services company with assets of over 22billion.

The company - a customer support call centre specialising in the financial, telecoms and health care sectors - first opened its Londonderry operation in November 2006 and was employing 530 by April 2008.

In May 2008 former Enterprise Minister Nigel Dodds announced a further expansion by Firstsource promising the creation of a further 334 new jobs and a third European Centre of Excellence creating a further 500 new jobs.

But the company's refusal to recognise trade unions has led some workers to take the drastic step of launching a protest group on social networking phenomenon Facebook.

Eighty people were registered as liking the "Firstsource Derry!" page and approving of its "its time we got a union sorted in that dump, fact!" message yesterday.

But Fraida Silver Firstsource Marketing Director told the Sentinel that channels for airing staff grievances or raising serious issues of concern are already in place and that the firm has no difficulties with union recognition.

Involvement Forum

"We do have an established Employee Involvement Forum that meets monthly and takes input from all members of staff," she said.

She also said Firstsource is happy for employees to join trade unions and if there are sufficient numbers a trade union can apply for recognition.

"If union representation meets the statutory level Firstsource will officially recognise the union," said Ms Silver.

She said the establishment of a Facebook page was not the most constructive method of negotiating with management.

"It appears to have been set up be ex-employees," said Ms Silver. "It is based on freedom of speech and there is nothing we can do about that but there are established channels for employees to raise any serious concerns they have with management."

It is not the first time call centres have been criticised here. Even an Invest Northern Ireland (Invest NI) briefing to Mr Dodds ahead of the spring 2008 expansion announcement took account of negative public perceptions.

Scripted answer

The Minister was given a scripted answer in preparation for potential descriptions of "these Centres as the 'sweatshops of the 21st century.'" The official counter for this criticism was that it was "unfair and often misinformed."

"There are as many as 13,000 people employed in business services centres in Northern Ireland. They provide stable employment for large numbers of people and will continue to do so.

"Companies such as Firstsource offer competitive rates of pay, invest in quality training in the kind of skills which people need and also create a first-class working environment for staff," was the official line.

Concerns over the high labour turnover and the high percentage of temporary staff at some call centres were also dismissed at the time. "Firstsource will take all reasonable steps to ensure that the working environment and employment conditions are compatible with low labour turnover," the briefing advised.

And: "These centres require flexible hours and shift working. However, Firstsource expects that the vast majority of staff at the new centre will work on a full-time basis."