Private call centre staff subcontracted to work on Covid test-and-trace services have been advised to limit time away from answering phones to 10 minutes on a six-hour shift and told they might not be paid for breaks, the Guardian has learned.
The workers, who answer calls from home for the government’s 119 Covid number, have to select “comfort break” on their computer before using the toilet and are told to minimise time spent on such absences, or on fetching food or drink, or praying.
One staff member said the policy left them feeling demeaned and that they felt “worthless to the government and the NHS”.
The policy affects customer service centre staff for Hays Travel, who were moved last year to answer Covid calls under the management of Teleperformance, a French-based call centre multinational, which has a government contract for the service.
The Department of Health and Social Care has declined to say whether Hays staff are treated differently to other people who also answer 119 calls. The department said all staff were given “appropriate” breaks, but would not say what this meant.
Hays staff said they believed they were being treated differently. The Guardian has seen an email to Hays staff sent last week which said Teleperformance had been “asked to update our breaks policy to ensure we fully conform to our contractual requirement”.
It said that for workers on shifts of less than six hours, any time away from the screen, including for toilet breaks, food and drink or prayers, should be limited to 10 minutes “where possible” and would not be paid. Those on longer shifts would be given an hour’s break in total, and paid for half of it.
Three days later, updated advice again set out the 10-minute limit, saying staff should select a “comfort break” option on their computer screen before moving away from their screen. However, this omitted the message that breaks would not be paid, an apparent change of policy, though this was not made clear.
One Hays staff member said staff were “treated like absolute garbage”, saying many received limited training on responding to Covid calls, and were told to rely on a 400-page reference document.
Other 119 staff were able to leave their desks when they wanted, the employee said, but those on the Teleperformance contract were simply passed live calls, and so had to select a break mode to stop even for a moment.
Teleperformance, which has about 10,000 UK employees overall and handles calls for dozens of British companies and government organisations, has faced previous complaints about its treatment of some home-based staff.
Earlier this year thousands of UK Teleperformance staff were informed that specialist webcams would be installed on their computers to monitor home-working “infractions”. This never happened, with the company saying the message was a mistake.
Separately, unions say Teleperformance staff in other countries, some of whom answer UK calls, have faced intrusive home monitoring, including of their families, and have been asked to hand over biometric and medical data.
Andy McDonald, the shadow employment rights minister, said: “It is inexcusable that staff who have performed such important work throughout the pandemic are being treated so poorly by their employer.
“Outsourcing is often at the expense of working people who are engaged on worse terms and conditions than those who are directly employed despite doing the same work.”
Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the TSSA union, which represents many travel industry staff, said: “Private contracting out of NHS services is a disgrace and Hays should feel the heat for treating their own staff in this despicable way – done presumably to squeeze extra profit out of a public service contract.
“Hays bosses must back off from these Victorian mill owner ways of treating staff. Every worker deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, without having their toilet breaks constantly monitored. Hays could be in breach of equality legislation here so we’ll be looking into this and encourage other staff to speak to us about their experience so we can act.”
Repeated phone calls, text messages and emails to staff at Image 7, the French PR company that deals with Teleperformance’s press operations for Europe, brought no response.
Hays Travel, which bought Thomas Cook’s UK business in 2019 but has shed hundreds of jobs amid the impact of Covid, also declined to comment.