In the past weeks, Jean-Jacques Rousseau fellow Pınar Öğünç made more than 30 interviews with people from Turkey, mainly workers, to write about structural problems, inequalities of their sector which became more visible in these harsh times. Five of them were translated to make them available to an international non-Turkish speaking readership.
The lives of those work at call centers are difficult – his even more so. Because his job is to be in contact with those whose debts are referred to the debt enforcement proceedings. Going after money that »does not exist,« in the exponentially worse circumstances of the economic crisis, multiplied by the pandemic requires a certain sagacity, patience. As a father in his thirties, struggling to make ends meet for his own family and who also has debt, he is one of those people on the other end of the line. Not being able to say that in so many words means extra baggage of anger and weight on his conscience. Knowing what he is a part of is a kind of alienation that makes him wary.
It was the second week of March or so, they told us »Don’t come to work anymore.« They downloaded the software on our phones and then we started working from home. There is a dining table in our living room, which we bought with excitement when we were getting married, and which we had never used – I made that table my work station.
As face-to-face meetings have decreased, the number of people working at call centers has increased these days. Live support lines, chats … Mine is not a bank’s call center – we collect debts for five banks. It is a call center connected to a law firm. A customer cannot pay their credit-card debt – there is the administrative debt collection and then the legal process, that’s when we come into play. Yes, you are right. It is more difficult than a call center because our job is to try to take the money from people who actually don’t have it. I have been in this line of work for five-six years. I worked in different sectors before. I was a security guard at shopping malls for over a year and a half. Before that, I did construction work and earlier was college. I studied Public Administration through the Distance Education Center.
»What do I hear all day? If I talk to 30 people a day, 25 people are desperate. They begin with the circumstances of the country and then talk about how there is no more business, not being able to support their families.«
When I first started, I would make calls to give information as a reminder of the delayed debts, and then I transitioned to the legal follow-up division. So there is a debt, which is at the debt collection agency, I call and talk to these people. There was already a lot of difficulty with the payments, which obviously increased during the pandemic. Banks told us already that the number of files will greatly increase in 2021 and there will be difficulties in collecting. If there are 100 files now, this will go up to 300. People whose circumstances could be considered normal before the pandemic are now in the risk group, falling into the process of debt collection.
The banks tell us to be polite, helpful when talking to the clients, but this completely shifts when the clients ask for discounts. For example let’s say that someone owes 10 thousand liras and when the payment was delayed, there are 3-4 thousand liras in interests and fees. We tell the bank, »Look, this person intends to pay, but let’s give them a discount,« but most often, they don’t accept. We are part of the same cycle actually. They tell us to speak nicely, but what good does that do to the person that I’m speaking to …
What do I hear all day? If I talk to 30 people a day, 25 people are desperate. They begin with the circumstances of the country and then talk about how there is no more business, not being able to support their families. You don’t even have to probe for them to begin listing these. I listen, I try to give them ideas. But unfortunately, the system is such that you can’t get out of it even if you try. We make a living by selling our labor: I don’t have capital. Of course, I experience the contradiction embedded in that. I reassure myself by saying that I’m helping them. People have debt and they don’t want their children to inherit the debt. When I become part of the process, I try to give them installments, I try to reduce the interest and cancel the fees for their file. It is such a well-oiled machine that they have to pay – they are relentless, they go to garnishment. It is not like the old days, let’s just put it that way. They are suffocating. They go after the mother, the father, the wife of the person who owes money; they insult these other people. This causes issues in the family, psychologically destroying the person.
What do I hear all day? If I talk to 30 people a day, 25 people are desperate. They begin with the circumstances of the country and then talk about how there is no more business, not being able to support their families.
»When we transitioned to working from home, I started to make the calls from my cell phone, because that’s where they downloaded the software. Normally, we used a landline at work. Now what happens is although my shift ends at 6pm, people know my number so they can call me in the evenings, too. Whenever they want … So in a sense, we work overtime at home. It’s 7/24; we don’t have privacy anymore. «
I have been insulted a lot, I have been sworn at, yes. Someone who owes money is a person with troubles. I also owe an insane amount of money, because it is impossible to support a family without borrowing money nowadays. The attitude of the person addressing people on the phone is important – I am now capable of not getting them to the point of implosion. This is based on experience. In the beginning, I was sworn at a lot and now it’s one out of ten people, I could say. And over time, you learn not to take it personally. I’m not the one being sworn at, the system is. Are there cruel workers? Yes, but there are also moderate workers like me. Because the state of the country is obvious.
When we transitioned to working from home, I started to make the calls from my cell phone, because that’s where they downloaded the software. Normally, we used a landline at work. Now what happens is although my shift ends at 6pm, people know my number so they can call me in the evenings, too. Whenever they want … So in a sense, we work overtime at home. It’s 7/24; we don’t have privacy anymore. This morning, I woke up at 8am to a phone call from a client. I was rocking the crib, not metaphorically, but literally—we have a two-month-old, I had just fallen asleep. I can’t turn off my phone, because someone from my family might call. No, we thankfully don’t have camera surveillance during the day. But if we do not check in with the WhatsApp group every hour, we receive warnings.
When we transitioned to working from home, we lost our food and travel stipends. I don’t know how much the boss will add to the short-term working subsidy. At first, they had written, “We will not let you take on the burden of what’s happening,” to our shared WhatsApp group. Then the President extended the processes of debt collection to the middle of June and they subtly started to say, »Now it’s your turn to self-sacrifice.« So they might get rid of our annual paid leave. There are also law firms that never transitioned to working from home and some are working with shifts. We are expecting everyone to be called back to work after the holiday. Normally, we have 45 people working in the same space. Yes, there is a specific type of noise at call centers, but trust me, you get used to it. Think about it like being a worker in a factory. You have to get used to it. When it’s quiet, everybody looks around to see what’s wrong.
It’s true, nobody lasts five years at a call center; I also began this line of work as a transitional job. I had dreams, but I stayed, I couldn’t go. I don’t like it, I know that I’m serving the machinery of a system and I feel guilty. There are times when you are speaking to someone who says they will commit suicide. A friend of mine talked to someone who owed money three years ago and that evening, this person she talked to committed suicide. This female colleague felt very badly after this and quit work. We confirmed with the family that this person committed suicide because of their debt. Can you imagine, this is what we witness. In fact, I’m one of the people I’m calling. But they can tell me, »You are sitting pretty.« I tell them, »You don’t owe me the money, we are on the same boat!« but they don’t listen.
Including the bonuses, my salary is a thousand liras above the minimum wage. And that is only if you work yourself to the bone. Of course, it is not enough to support a family. We still have debts from our marriage, we have credit-card debt. Before the pandemic, I used to take on extra work over the weekend, but now I can’t do that. I had mentioned that I was a security guard before, I had my certification, so I would go to games to be a security guard for the day. Now since the soccer games have been canceled, we have nothing. When work resumes, it will be risky – we have the baby at home. I think it doesn’t make sense for the shopping malls to open as if it were an emergency. Shopping malls don’t have windows, their air conditioning is bad, there is no daylight. Shopping malls are like prisons. The second wave will also sweep away the workers everywhere, again – that much is obvious.
The day we spoke, the number of cases was 137,115 and the number of deaths was 3,739.
*The unforeseeable state of emergency launched by a virus with a global reach has made visible the already-existing inequalities of capitalism, deepening the gaps; many say that nothing can remain the same after this. Is that true? Why would everything not remain the same? While this order of things, which owes its existence to colonialism, sexist divisions of labor and precisely that deep inequity, has our souls and bodies enveloped, just like this ominous virus – is it possible to recover from it? Women, men, workers, clerks, the unemployed, the white-collar workers, the blue-collar workers, those claim that the era of »collars« is over: freelancers, those working from home, those still working, those being forced to work, those in quarantine, those who cannot see their future, and those who are fatigued by what they see in their future. Why did we begin this long series of articles? Because we need to hear each other’s voices, to hear about each other’s troubles and to look for our remedies through and within the remedies of others.
Translation by Merve Unsal