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Call centres are said to have originated in the UK in the 1960s and it’s hard not to believe they were inspired by the works of George Orwell and Franz Kafka – such is the dehumanising effect on both ends of the telephone. These days modern life dictates that just about everybody will encounter the dreaded call centre experience, multiple times every month.

The frustrations encountered soon become a test of both our endurance and temperament, with extended waiting times, calls that suddenly drop out, repeated automated messages flogging a particular product and the most annoying, ultra-repetitive muzak whilst we wait to be answered. When finally connected, chances are we are speaking to somebody in India or the Philippines, as more and more Australian companies shift their call centres offshore.

It’s no secret operators in these countries are employed for a pittance, compared to their counterparts in Australia. For example the minimum annual award salary for a full-time contact centre agent in Australia is around $40,000 with many starting salaries well over $50,000. In the Philippines the same worker could be employed for less than $6,000. Whilst the offshore operators are generally well schooled and trained to deal with difficult situations, if you have a gripe with a particular product or service, theirs is essentially a heavily scripted response.

In many cases they have been set up as the last line of defence when it comes to consumer complaints, a convenient way for the Australian based company to deflect dissatisfied customers and not have to deal with the problem internally. Look at the websites of many Australian companies using offshore call centres and you will soon see that the call centre number is the only option if you have a problem or complaint. There is no local number to ring and no email address to lodge your grievance.

And spare a thought for those poor souls in Mumbai and Manila earning an eighth of their Australian equivalents. It’s their job to remain calm and composed when subjected to the anger, irritation and at times heated abuse of grumpy Australian customers. Indeed part of their training is a role play involving just such angry Aussies, testing their patience in dealing with some particularly obnoxious and at times even racist callers.

Essentially what many Australian companies, from internet providers to energy moguls are doing, is exporting the wrath and fury of enraged consumers to an anonymous overseas destination. “Hell we don’t want infuriated customers ringing us up in Sydney or Melbourne – let them abuse the crap out of some poor silly bastard in Mumbai!”

At the end of many overseas calls, the operator will ask you to rate the experience, depending on how helpful they have been in dealing with you. Given much of the hostility they are subjected to by pissed off Australian consumers, it’s a cruel and demeaning form of assessment and one that directly affects their continued employment.

The big Australian companies would argue that the millions saved in moving their contact centres offshore are passed on to their consumers in cheaper prices and rates. If you believe that you’ll also believe that your call has been placed in a queue and will be answered by the next available operator with a waiting time of only five minutes!

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