Workers Health & Safety Centre

Judith Searson: Calling for change

Judith Searson: Calling for change
Harassment, stress, pressure to meet demanding job quotas, and to top it off the occasional whistle and air horn blown into your ear. Judith Searson says these are just some of the health and safety hazards of the job. Her workplace? A call centre in Sudbury.
Searson knows her job may not endear her to the public but she’s determined to let others know what happens on her end of the phone. She is chairperson of unit 52 with Local 2020 of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA).    
In 2000 there were an estimated 13,400 call centre operations in Canada employing 570,000 workers. Ontario boasts about 3,000 call centres, employing approximately 150,000 workers. The city of Sudbury’s advanced telecommunications infrastructure has attracted numerous call centres creating 3,000 jobs.
Clients contract call centres to sell a product or service explains Searson. On any shift she and 200 of her colleagues sit in tiny cubicles, row upon row. “It’s one big open room, the air circulation is poor and it’s really noisy. Some workers wear an ear plug in their free ear to block out background noise.” Other than two 15-minute breaks and one half-hour lunch, Searson and her co-workers sit for six to six and a half hours per shift with a phone receiver held in the crook of their neck.
The work is high-pressured and demanding says Searson. “Stress is our biggest workplace hazard. Currently about one-quarter of my members are off work due to stress. I think it’s largely work related.” Then there are ongoing reports of neck and shoulder strain and back pain. It’s not unusual she says to spend 10 minutes before a shift to locate an adjustable chair. 
Searson also confirms what researchers have already identified, high rates of ear aches, infections and tinnitus or ringing in the ears. She herself suffers from chronic ear ache. Others have filed compensation claims for tinnitus, an entitlement not taken for granted. Call centre employers do not have to pay mandatory workers’ compensation premiums for their employees. But Searson and USWA staff negotiated this entitlement into their contract.  
Also joint health and safety committee worker co-chair, Searson says her biggest challenge is raising awareness within a vulnerable workforce. She estimates 75 to 80 per cent of night shift workers at her call centre are under the age of 24. Many are reluctant to raise concerns so Searson gladly does it for them. “It’s in my nature to fight,” she says. “When you’re fighting for someone else you try even harder.”
Searson and her co-workers have given voice to these concerns in a unique way. Working with researchers at Sudbury’s Laurentian University they crafted a play called, Get a Real Job. Focused on call centre work they hope the play will raise awareness and mobilize support for workers in the industry. They’ve already staged the play at the women’s forum at last fall’s Ontario Federation of Labour convention and again this spring at the USWA Canadian national convention in Vancouver. 
Searson says with training on their basic health and safety rights her members will soon be making their own calls for safe and healthy working conditions.
Nancy Hutchison, USWA national health and safety coordinator, says of Searson, “Judith’s innovative use of entertainment and humour has drawn attention to workers whose concerns are rarely seen and often not heard. With her help I’m confident we’ll secure equally creative solutions.”