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The Royal Mail Attendance Procedure

November 21, 2012 33 comments

“Stage 3″: Illustration by Frank Stamp

At the Royal Mail you are sometimes made to come into work even when you are sick or injured.

They monitor your attendance. If you are off work more than a certain number of days they put you under threat of dismissal. It doesn’t matter how ill you are, they still threaten you.

If you are off work for sickness or injury more than three times in a year, or for more than three weeks in a row, you are given a warning. This is a Stage 1 warning. If you go over the limit a second time you are given another warning. This is a Stage 2 warning. If you exceed the limit for a third time you are given a Stage 3 warning and threatened with dismissal. After that you can’t afford to take time off from work no matter how severe the illness.

The Attendance Procedure works whether you are ill or not. All absences are assumed to be illnesses, but all illnesses, no matter how severe, count towards your absences. So a day off from work with a hangover is counted the same as a week off from work for a hernia operation; and a month off work after a heart attack will count the same as three separate days off for sheer laziness. Hernia operations and hangovers and heart attacks are all counted the same in the Royal Mail book of illnesses.

So say you have an accident and you’re off work for more than three weeks. At this point the office starts to ring you up asking when you will be back at work. They will ring you up daily, hassling you to come back to work. And no matter how ill you have been, you will get a warning when you do eventually come back.

You could come in on crutches, and you’d be given a warning. You could be bandaged up to the eyeballs. You could have coughed up your oesophagus. It makes no difference. You’ve been off work, so you will be warned. Three weeks off twice in a year and you’re up for dismissal, and that’s that.

We’ve all seen it. People who have had heart attacks or hernias, or some other major illness, crawling into work to avoid the warning, or hauled up before the “lino” (as we call the manager) and given a reprimand. People under severe stress, or with depression. People with broken arms or legs or twisted backs. People on medication, too drugged up to walk in a straight line, pleading for some understanding.

It’s no good protesting that you are ill. The lino loves his job. He will smile at you – sweetly, or gravely, or maliciously, depending on his personality – and say he’s sorry. But he’s not sorry really. He doesn’t have the choice, he’ll say, the computer has flagged you, and you have to be given a warning. No space for personal initiative here, or judgement, or an intelligent weighing up of the circumstances: you’ve had too much time off and you will be punished.

Also, one day off counts the same as a week. So if you’re off for one day you might as well take the week off. If you underestimate your illness and come back to work too soon, only to find you are still ill, or the illness recurs, and you take another day off, this will count as two absences, and the computer will flag it, and you’ll be one step nearer a warning.

The result of all of this is twofold. One: you will take a week off work even for the slightest illness. Two: you will sometimes have to go into work even if you are sick and contagious.

In other words, the Royal Mail would rather you came into work and make everyone else sick than allow the possibility that occasionally people might ring in sick and take a day off because the wife is feeling horny that morning.

Such is life in the modern Royal Mail.

Dogs and Postal Workers

April 16, 2012 2 comments

Dogs

We are strangers, not friends. We are not invited.

There are a number of dogs on my round.

As you may know, dogs and posties have a very particular relationship. This is not a myth. It is very real. Dogs are territorial creatures and we break into their territory. We break the bounds of what they consider their own by walking up the garden path and then sticking something through the door. We are strangers, not friends. We are not invited. The owner of the house doesn’t welcome us in with a handshake or an embrace. We simply stand at the door, a dark shadow, and intrude into their space. We shove something through the door and it makes a noise. The door flaps and rattles and the thing falls on the floor with a thump, and after that we turn and walk away again.

We excite something in dogs which is primal and deep and they react to this in a variety of different ways.

I meet the first dog on my round within about a minute and a half of starting. I don’t see much of it as it only appears through the frosted glass of the front door. It is small and white, a terrier of some sort, about a foot long, and nine inches high. It sees me and it starts to bounce. I mean that literally. It’s like a rubber ball or a yo-yo. It bounces up and down, up and down, about five times its own height, to the level of the letter box, this hazy white blob through the glass, yapping as it leaps.Yap, bounce, yap, bounce. It’s hilarious. It looks like some mad oscillator, pulsing out a precise rhythm, always rising to the exact same point behind the glass, like the blip, blip, blip of a hospital monitor. Well at least we know the patient is healthy. It has a very strong heartbeat.

We have this game. I shove the letters through the letterbox, and it grabs them, dragging them from my fingers. Then it “kills” the letters by shaking them about and growling, after which it drops them on the mat and goes away satisfied. Occasionally I have to knock the door to get a signature, and the householder will pick the dog up. It is really very small. It lies cradled in the man’s arms, snug and secure as he answers the door, but it is always fighting to get free, yapping and growling and baring its teeth. You can see it wants to kill me.

“Oh be quiet Pip,” the man says, affectionately. But I can see it in his eyes. If Pip was a few feet bigger, and I was a few feet smaller, and we’d met in a clearing in a wood somewhere, I would be dead by now. It would have me by the throat and would be shaking me about like those letters in order to break my spine and I would be a doggy breakfast by now, a feast for all its brood.

I measure my day out in dogs. Dogs are my principle form of entertainment.

The next dog is called Barney. Barney has a very aggressive sounding growl, but you soon learn he only wants to play. There’s a little yard outside the house with a gate and as soon as Barney hears me coming he grabs his rubber toy and he starts growling, padding from foot to foot as he does so, chewing on the toy. He’s wagging his tail and looking at me from under lowered brows. He’s obviously saying something profound about the nature of reality. “Look at my rubber toy,” he’s saying. “See, I have a rubber toy.” It’s like the opening salvo in a philosophical debate.

You have to be introduced to the dogs before you pet them. Some of them are friendly, while others would take your hand off. Barney is one of the friendly variety. He only wants to show me his rubber toy.

The next set of dogs are three Jack Russells opposite each other either side of the main road. I don’t know if they are related or not. There are two in one house and one in the other. They are all equally vicious.

The first is in an old farmhouse with an extensive garden which runs right around the house. For some reason the dog doesn’t like magazines. It doesn’t mind ordinary letters, but when a magazine goes through the door it startles it and the dog goes into a kind of frenzy. It goes at that magazine like it was a rat from the sewer requiring immediate disposal. It “kills” off the magazine and then it is coming straight for me. It scatters through the house to the back door making this throaty growl. Occasionally the owner has left the back door open and it can get out. I have to exit the garden fairly quickly, closing the gate behind me, at which point the dog appears in the garden, yapping and barking and chasing up and down the length of the fence.

On one occasion the dog and the owner were in the back garden as I pushed the letters through the letter box, and the dog got to me before I could get to the gate. It was going straight for my ankles. I jumped back, startled. I was holding my bag up in front of it, trying to divert its attention, like a bull fighter does with his cloak. I wasn’t too worried whether it would bite me or not, I was more worried that it might chase me out onto the street, in which case it could have run into the road and under a car. So I was defending myself like this, waving my bag in front of it, fending off its little snapping jaws, backing away towards the gate, when the owner came round. “Ah poor little Alfie,” she said, picking the thing up and cuddling it. “Ooo you poor little thing, your heart is beating so fast. You are so scared.”

She was saying this like it was my fault the dog had gone for me, like I had scared the dog on purpose. You try to explain it to people, but they don’t understand. The relationship between dogs and postal workers is a fundamental one. It is written into the very fabric of life, part of the struggle for existence, like the relationship between predators and their prey. There will always be a rivalry between us. They don’t trust us and we don’t trust them. That dog wouldn’t be happy till it saw me lying immobile by the front door, covered in blood, my letters scattered up and down the garden path. Never mind poor little Alfie. What about poor little me?

The dogs on the other side are even crazier. I’ve only just left one Jack Russell yapping and shrieking along the garden fence, when I’m confronted by two more. These ones are in the bay window of a large detached house opposite. They jump up onto the windowsill and are barking insanely, trying to get to me through the glass. Well, one of them is. The other is in the background, bouncing around on a table, obviously brought to a pitch of hysteria by the other’s frantic yelping. The first one is so obsessed with getting to me that it is banging its nose repeatedly on the glass. It’s a wonder it doesn’t have a callus on the end of its nose, it bangs it with such persistent force. I’ve spoken to its owner. “That’s an insane dog you’ve got there, “ I say. She mutters apologetically and tells me that there are scratch marks on inside of the window where the dog’s teeth are coming into contact with the glass. That’s how mad that dog is.

We shove something through the door and it makes a noise. The door flaps and rattles and the thing falls on the floor with a thump, and after that we turn and walk away again.

A game

OK, I have to be honest at this point. I enjoy all of this. Like I say, dogs are my principle form of entertainment. In the case of the crazy Jack Russell in the bay window, I will flap my letters in front of its face as I’m coming to the door. That makes it even more frantic. It falls off the windowsill, doing a back flip, before leaping back onto the sill, and banging its nose on the glass even more. I can make it chase around on the windowsill by flapping the letters up and down in front of its face. The other dog yelps and shrieks and scatters away, spinning on its hind legs. I’m causing mayhem in that front room. This is all part of the sport.

I have various games with the various dogs on my round. I’m sure this is mutual. Most of the dogs are awaiting my arrival. There’s one little lap dog that sits on the back of the settee. As soon as she sees me she leaps into the hall to the front door to receive the letters. Her part of the game is that she has to catch the letters before they fall on the mat. My part of the game is that I have to approach the house very quietly. If I make a noise and she knows I’m coming she will go to the front door before she’s seen me. That spoils the game as I count it as a score if I can catch her eye before she leaps down from the settee. There will usually be a few seconds of frantic barking as we hold each others gaze. She doesn’t quite know whether to confront me there through the front window, or to go to the hall to collect the letters.

I’ve spoken to the owner, a well-to-do lady of independent means. Once or twice she has had occasion to collect the letters before the dog gets to them. Or she picks the dog up. Or she might have closed the door between the living room and the hall. Whichever way, the game is spoiled. So I’ve told her: “you’re ruining our game. You’ve got to let your dog get to the door to catch the letters before they fall on the mat.”

The owner has agreed to this. “You’re the highlight of her day,” she says. “She waits for you. She is very disappointed if you don’t come.”

We enjoy the game so much that sometimes, even if I’ve not got any letters to deliver, I’ll shove something through the letter box – some junk mail or something – just to hear the frantic yelping from the other side.

And so it goes on, through a succession of dogs throughout my round. There are dogs behind doors that wait like silent predators till you shove the letters through the letter box, before grabbing them with their teeth. You have to be careful of these dogs as they could easily take your fingers off. There are dogs behind fences that chase up and down. There’s one Rottweiler that bounds at me as I come up the garden path, leaping against the wire mesh fence with incredible force. That one would kill me for sure. He shares the garden with another dog, a venerable old collie. This one is philosophical. It fixes you with a questioning stare, as if to ask, “and who do you think you are?” while the Rottweiler is circling around again getting ready for its next leap against the fence.

There are dogs in front rooms that hop about and yelp. There are dogs that chatter and dogs that whine. There are some dogs that make such a mess of the letters that the owner has had to fix a box by the front door and block up the letter box. There is one dog that tries to climb the fence to get to me. It’s one of those wire mesh fences and the dog can get about five feet up, lodging it’s paws in the interlocking diamond shapes. It is the world’s only climbing dog.

Each dog has its own personality. I have a particular relationship with every dog on my round.

In fact I know the dogs more than the owners in many cases. Most of the owners take me for granted. I’m just the postie, the feller who brings the mail, and I can be safely ignored. But for the dogs I’m an integral part of the drama of their day. I am Iago to their Othello. I am Shylock to their Antonio. I am the villain to be conquered, the enemy at the gate. I am the threat to their master or mistress, and that bunch of letters I hold and thrust through their door could easily be a bomb. Often they are locked up in their houses and I’m the only highlight till the family returns. I am the single incidence in the long hours of their day, and such is their frantic welcoming of my arrival that it would be churlish of me not to reciprocate in some way. That’s why I make a game of it. We are both bound by routine, me and the dogs. We help each other to pass the time of day.

Dangerous dogs

Some dogs are best avoided

Not all dogs are fun, however. Some dogs are dangerous. That Rottweiler, for instance: that would definitely kill me. Fortunately I know all the dogs on my round, so I know which ones are safe. But occasionally I have to do another round to cover for someone who is away, and then I might not be so up to date on which dogs are OK. There is a procedure for this. There are instruction cards for most rounds. If you are doing a new round you are supposed to take a look at the cards to see what particular requirements there might be, what threats there are. But these are not always kept up to date, and things can change very quickly.

Once I walked into a yard and a dog that was normally locked up had been let out. It was an Alsatian. It was summer. The people, who were normally at work, were on holiday. So they’d let the dog into the yard to run around, and when I came through the gate it went for me. I have two means of defence: my boots and my bag. If the bag has some mail in it, it could be heavy enough to use as a weapon. Or it could act as a diversion. You throw the bag at the dog and the dog will maul the bag first, before it comes for you. That way you can get to the gate. In this case, I didn’t have time. I was holding the bag up in front of me, dangling it in front of the dog’s nose, backing away towards the gate. But the dog had fixed me in the eye and was padding towards me, growling menacingly. It definitely meant to do me harm. Fortunately the owners came out and grabbed the dog before it could make that fatal leap. They were apologising profusely as I handed on the letters and dived out of there, my heart thumping away in my chest. That was a very near miss.

If a postie comes to a gate and there’s a dog on the other side, he can refuse to deliver the mail. He can put the letters back in his bag and walk away from there. If a dog is loose on the street, he can refuse to deliver to the whole street. Most dog attacks happen in the summer months. The kids are at home, and they forget to close the doors behind them. The dog gets out and the unsuspecting postie comes whistling up the path only to be confronted by the family pet miraculously transformed into a ravening beast.

This is a regular occurrence.

Also there are a lot more casual posties now than there used to be. They don’t get proper training. They are just thrown out on a round and told to get on with it. No one ever gets told where the dangerous dogs are and which houses to avoid. There are many more incidences of dog attacks than there used to be: approaching 5,000 ayear according to the latest figures.

One regular injury caused by dogs is bites to the fingers. I alluded to this earlier. The dog waits behind the door till you shove the letters through and makes a grab for them. Sometimes your fingers can get caught. If it’s a vicious dog you can get your fingers bitten off. It helps if you know the dog is there. Fortunately the Royal Mail have provided us with the proper equipment to avoid this particular injury. We have these little plastic implements about six inches long and one and a half inches across, like a school ruler with a slot in the end, so we can shove the mail through the door and avoid using our fingers. I don’t know what the technical name for these items might be. I call them “mail shovelling through the door thingies.” Every postal worker in the country has been issued with one of these in the last few months. I don’t know how much they cost, but, knowing the Royal Mail, they will have paid over the odds for them. Unfortunately it takes an extra five seconds or more to load the mail into the slot and to wheedle the thing through the door. It’s a complex and delicate manoeuvre, so we tend not to use them. Mine sits on a shelf on the back of my frame and I’ve never had occasion to take it out. I’d be very surprised indeed if any postal worker actually uses theirs, but I might be wrong.

Categories: The Post Tags: , ,

Badly Addressed Mail

April 16, 2012 2 comments
Image

Postal worker delivering mail

Badly addressed mail

The Royal Mail have just introduced brand new walk-sequencing machines to sorting offices throughout theUK.

They are fantastic machines. They read the address, then sort the mail into the exact order they will be delivered in.

All a postal worker has to do these days is to pull a handful of letters out of the tray, and then to “throw them off” into the sorting frame. They are already in the sequence we are going to deliver them in, so it takes virtually no concentration whatsoever.

More time for workplace banter then, for discussing the football results and making jokes about your workmates’ numerous personality defects.

Sometimes, however, there is a letter which slips through the net, which evades the machine’s ability to read the correct address.

A few Christmas’s ago I had a Christmas Card addressed to Bill and Mary, The Big White House with the Double Garage, On the Corner Opposite the Oast House, the name of the village, and then the name of the county, which is Kent.

No walk sequencing machine would have stood a chance. Given a little thought on which of the Big White Houses opposite an Oast House it might have been (there were 2 Oast houses on my round) I delivered the card to who I thought was the most likely candidate.

A week after Christmas I saw the lady of the house and mentioned the card. She laughed and said yes it was for her. It was from some old friends of theirs who had only been to the house once. She had since rung, she said, and given her friends the proper address.

Here’s another story, from a colleague of mine. He’d only been a Postman for about 3 weeks, when a letter turned up that made him think that Royal Mail staff really must really care about the service.

The address read: Mrs V O’Brian, Windermere, Kent. Well there is no Windermere in Kent, of course, so the mail centre staff had looked up the nearest Delivery Office to have a Windermere Road. The name had not been recognised there and so written on the margins of the envelope was “try Tonbridge” then “not here, try Tunbridge Wells”, then “try Maidstone” and so on through 5 different towns until it had finally arrived on my friend’s desk.

As I said: 3 weeks a postman, he had no idea. So he showed it to one of the old lags who’d been in the job for 20 years or more.

“Oh yes,” he said, “that’s probably the woman at No.7, or her son up at 34. Give her a knock as she’s bound to be in.”

He did, and yes, it was her.

Another colleague told me this story. He said he had a letter addressed to a Miss so-an-so, the house with the blue door, down by the sea, near the sea front, and then the name of the town.

Like my other friend, he was new to the job, so he had no idea what to do.

Again he showed it to one of the old timers, who, by a spark of genius, recognised the name.

It wasn’t even her current name. It was her Maiden name. And the door had since been repainted. But the old postie, who knew most of the rounds in the office, and most of the customers, had a shrewd idea of who it might be.

“Try this,” he said, and gave my friend an address.

My friend delivered the letter, knocking on the door to find out, and it turned out to be the right person.

What are the chances of that?

All of which goes to show that local knowledge beats new technology when it comes to badly addressed mail.

If you don’t like the 60p stamp, wait till you see Royal Mail privatisation

March 29, 2012 Leave a comment
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‘Sixty pence to deliver a first-class letter from the Outer Hebrides to the Scilly Isles: it’s still a bargain by anyone’s reckoning.’ Photograph: Kevin Foy/Rex Features

Royal Mail may be viewed with a high level of affection by the public now, but will that still be the case after it’s privatised?

From the Guardian Comment is free

The inevitable has happened. The government has announced its schedule for the privatisation of the Royal Mail, due to begin in 2013.

It’s not clear yet whether it will be full privatisation or part-privatisation, whether it will be sold off to another mail company or to a private equity firm, or whether it will be floated on the stock market as an IPO (initial public offering) and advertised to the public in the manner of the “Tell Sid” campaign for the sale of British Gas way back in 1986. “We see no reason why this company should not be IPO-able,” said one senior figure. “Royal Mail is viewed with a high level of affection by the public.”

The reasons given for the privatisation were outlined in the Hooper report in 2010.

They are as follows:

1) Falling volumes of mail due to competition from electronic media such as email and texts.

2) The inefficiency of the Royal Mail compared with its competitors.

3) The need for modernisation and the private investment to complete this.

4) The pensions deficit, the headline figure for which seems to rise on a yearly basis. It currently stands at £9bn according to some reports, less according to others.

Hooper consulted widely throughout the industry. However, he has never, as far as I know, spoken to any postal workers.

What we would have told him is that while it may be true that mail volumes have fallen, staff numbers have been falling at a faster rate. Up to 50,000 job losses since 2002.

In other words, the weight of mail for the average postal worker has been increasing. We are carrying more mail, to greater numbers of people, on larger rounds than ever. Our sacks are heavier. We work longer hours, and we’ve taken an effective pay cut since the postal agreement of 2010 in which door-to-door (junk mail) – which we were previously paid for separately – has now been incorporated into our workload. In other words, falling mail volumes have been more than compensated for by staff efficiencies.

We would also have told him that the so-called inefficiency of the Royal Mail is due as much to market liberalisation as it is to anything inherent in the company.

Private mail companies have access to the Royal Mail network through a mechanism known as downstream access. They bid for the most lucrative contracts from corporate customers, but have no obligation to deliver the letters. They leave that up to the Royal Mail, dropping it off on our doorstep for final-mile delivery. In other words, our so-called competitors have a peculiar market advantage. They take a cut of the profits, while we do the actual work.

As for modernisation, that is being subsidised by the taxpayer. The government has already loaned the company £1.7bn and is proposing to write off £1bn of that.

Which brings us to the pension deficit, which has already been taken into government hands. Even then it was never as great a problem as has been made out. The deficit currently stands at £9bn but the assets stand at £28bn. That’s three times as much. The deficit only becomes a problem if all Royal Mail workers cash in their pensions immediately, something that is not going to happen.

These are just some of the ways in which the argument for privatisation has been skewed.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the event, the new regulator, Ofcom, has announced a lifting of the cap on how much the company can charge for first-class mail. The public are hardly likely to enjoy that. Nor is this going to increase public affection for the company.

However, here’s the problem. The cost of mail delivery has been way too cheap for way too long. Sixty pence to deliver a first-class letter from the Outer Hebrides to the Scilly Isles: it’s still a bargain by anyone’s reckoning.

Traditionally the profitable parts of the company were used to supplement the unprofitable parts. This is the means by which the Royal Mail has been able to deliver the universal service obligation (USO).

It is the breaking up of the company that has lead to the threat to the USO, one of the reasons Hooper gives for the need for privatisation. (Indeed, his report is called “Saving the Royal Mail’s universal postal service in the digital age”.) The irony here is that the USO might be dropped in order to sweeten any future deal.

Anyone who wants to know what privatisation means for staff only needs to look at the Dutch model, where postal rounds have been franchised out to home workers in a system known as “sort and deliver”. Boxes of mail are dropped on a home-worker’s doorstep, who then has to sort the mail and deliver it on an agreed day. The worker is paid per item, not by the hour.

The trick here is that there is often a gross underestimation of the time it takes to do the work. Casual workers get no sick pay, no holiday pay, no health insurance, no pension and – depending on how long the round takes – often end up being paid below the minimum wage.

All of which is likely to erode that “high level of affection” felt by the public for the Royal Mail.

Read more here.

Dogs v. Posties

September 5, 2011 1 comment

Snarling dog, from the CWU website

There used to be a vicious old Boxer dog on my round. He lived at the end of a long drive with a gate. There was a post box outside where I used to leave the mail. Occasionally the owners forgot to close the gate and left the dog out. It would spot me as I was parking my bike, and begin padding in my direction, head down, growling, until it got close enough to launch itself at me.

There’s not much you can do at this point. I’d have my post bag at the ready to swing at the dog’s head. One smack in the jaw was usually enough. I’d complain to my manager, who would contact the owners, who would agree to keep the dog under control, which was fine until the next time it happened. There was a warning about the dog in the office, but that didn’t stop the owners forgetting to close the gate.

Dog attacks on postal workers increase significantly during the summer. Children, off school, run in and out of the house, leaving the door open. The Communications Workers Union estimates that there are around 5000 dog attacks on postal workers every year. Sometimes it’s little more than a nip or a scrape, but Keith Davies nearly lost an arm when he was attacked by two Rottweilers in Trumpington in 2008. The owner couldn’t be prosecuted because the attack took place on a private road. Most attacks on postal workers take place on private property as we have to enter people’s property to deliver the mail. The CWU launched a campaign in 2008 to change the law, but so far it hasn’t been successful.

Some dogs lie in wait behind the door to grab the mail as it comes through the letter box. Postal workers have lost fingers this way. A few months ago we were issued with a tool to deal with this problem. It’s like a child’s ruler, about six inches long and one inch across, made of red plastic, with a slot in the end. You put the letters in the slot, then shove the thing through the letter box.

The Royal Mail has been promoting it heavily for the past few weeks. Hardly a day goes by when we’re not called to the front of the office and given a warning about dogs behind doors and offered one of these tools. I’ve yet to see a single postie accept one. They’re clumsy and awkward to use. It takes a certain amount of concentrated manoeuvring to fit the letters into the slot, and then to wrangle the whole lot through the letter box. It is only really of any use if you happen to know there’s a dog on the other side of the door. But then, if you know there’s a dog on the other side of the door, there’s a much simpler solution: don’t stick your fingers through the letter box in the first place.

- See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2011/08/31/roy-mayall/dogs-v-posties/#sthash.wXlsRjD4.dpuf

Modernisation has put the snail in Royal Mail

July 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Bikes for postal workers are being phased out by Royal Mail, slowing down delivery. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

The amount of lost or delayed mail is no surprise – ill-conceived new working methods have slowed postal workers down.

It’s been a bad week for the Royal Mail. What am I talking about? It’s always a bad week.

First it comes in the form of a Which? report, stating 72% of its respondents had letters delivered to the wrong address, while 71% received their post at a time they considered late in the day. Only one in four received their letters before 10am, it says.

This doesn’t surprise me. In fact, what does surprise me is that anyone reports receiving any letters before 10am. It’s very rare for us to leave our office before 10am these days. Very often it’s more like 10.30am.

For those of you who are puzzled by this, the explanation is very simple. It is called “modernisation”. Modernisation for the Royal Mail means spending millions of pounds on a large number of high-tech “walk-sequencing machines“, which actually slow down the process of delivery. They do, however, remove any vestige of skill from the job; so while they are considerably less efficient at getting the mail out on time, they nevertheless have the distinct advantage that they undermine the workforce, allowing the company to hire more and more casual workers.

The same survey also reports that 51% of their respondents received a “Sorry you were out” card even though they were in – 6% said they actually saw the card arrive through the door without the postal worker stopping to knock. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reports that 120,884 complaints about lost mail were made in the first three months of the year: up 37% on the same period last year. The Royal Mail blamed the increase on disruption caused by severe weather conditions. A Royal Mail spokesman said: “This resulted in significant delays to mail services in some areas, and many customers logged complaints for ‘lost’ mail which were subsequently delivered.”

Thank God for those severe weather conditions, that’s all I can say. It has allowed the Royal Mail to cover up one of the most gigantic cock-ups in its entire history. I’m talking about a wholesale revision in working methods that was begun in a number of offices in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In fact I suspect that, if you could break down the figures into individual offices, you’d find that the vast bulk of lost or delayed mail in this period occurred in offices that were going through their revision at the time. The snow was a secondary issue in many cases.

To name some offices: Dundee, Kenilworth, Warwick, Formby, Herne Bay and Stratford upon Avon. The rest of the country is undertaking their revisions now. Most will have been completed by the end of the year. So if you are noticing a marked deterioration in the quality of your service, at least you know why it’s probably happening.

To be clear: the new working methods involve the scrapping of bikes, the restructuring and reassignment of rounds, the sharing of vans and a massive increase in the workload, all at the same time. Instead of cycling, posties are now expected to walk, pushing golf trolleys in front of them. Walking, of course, is slower than cycling, and pushing golf trolleys means you can’t walk and sort through the mail at the same time, which means you have to stop at every gate and look at your bundle before selecting out the mail for that address and then delivering it. In effect, they have slowed us down while expecting us to do more work.

And they wonder why things are going wrong? You can tell these new methods have been designed by people who have never delivered a letter in their lives.

And it is here, too, that we find the answer to the earlier question: why are posties leaving more and more of those “Sorry you were out” cards than they used to?

It’s down to the revisions again. The new methods demand adherence to a strict set of timings. Every step and every manoeuvre is timed and logged and processed through a computer. So an “attendance delivery” – when a postal worker has to knock on the door and wait for a response – was allowed exactly 57 seconds, no more, no less; and with more and more packages to deliver – up to 100 a day in some cases – many posties are feeling the pressure to cut corners and get everything done in as short a time as possible. Hence writing “Sorry you were out” cards before leaving the office.

The attendance delivery timings have been increased since the revisions were first introduced, by the way – along with most of the other timings – for the simple reason that during the first few months almost every revision turned into a complete disaster, with backlogs amounting to hundreds of thousands of items building up in many offices. Hence increased complaints about lost and delayed mail.

There is one positive note in all of this, however. According to the Which? report: while they received more than 500 items of correspondence about people’s experiences with the Royal Mail, the majority of them critical, many of the correspondents took time to praise their own postmen and women. The management may be incompetent, but at least us posties are still appreciated.

From the Guardian Comment is free. Read more here.

Junk mail – the facts

July 7, 2011 Leave a comment

A Panorama programme on postal junk was compelling, but didn’t mention that the market is skewed against Royal Mail

Junk mail. We all hate it don’t we?

Postal workers probably hate it more than anyone else, as we see more of it than anyone else. You only have a few items a week to deal with, we have hundreds of items a day. Sometimes we have as many as six separate items per household to load into our frames. That could be well in excess of 3,000 items a week. You can’t imagine how tedious this is.

And whereas in the past we were paid separately for it, as a supplement to our wages (which compensated us for it somewhat) these days it is part of our workload; and whereas the general estimate for the number of houses we cover on a daily basis is about 85%, for junk mail it is 100%, meaning it takes longer to deliver than ordinary mail.

Now a Panorama programme has been aired all about junk mail. It seems as if the Royal Mail is addicted to it – at least if you believe Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper report into the future of our postal services.

As he said in the programme: “There is absolutely no question that advertising mail, which the critics describe as junk mail, is central to the viability of the Royal Mail in the 21st century.” As proof of this he gave us some fairly compelling figures: about a quarter of the total letters market, of around £5.4bn, is advertising mail. Or as Tom Heap, the reporter, summarised it: “On the face of it, it seems the best way of ensuring the survival of our beloved postal system is to sign up to as much junk mail as you possibly can.”

Unfortunately, as the programme also pointed out, there are some pretty serious consequences to this, not least in the cost of disposing of the stuff once it comes through our doors, and – almost immediately – is chucked into the bin. Millions of pounds a year is spent by councils around the country, either in recycling the material, or in shovelling it into landfill sites.

It seems we are stuck with junk mail. Or are we?

The problem is that we were not given all the facts. There are a number of issues that Hooper – the acknowledged expert in the field – omitted to inform you about.

Central to this is something known as downstream access (DSA). This is the means by which rival companies are allowed access to the Royal Mail’s delivery network, at a loss to the Royal Mail. According to Royal Mail’s chief executive Moya Greene in December last year, this is in the region of 2.5p for every item of DSA mail we deliver. Some price changes have since been introduced by the regulator and the extent of subsidy and loss since the changes is as yet unclear [see footnote].

Yes, that’s right: we deliver our own rivals’ mail for them, and then we take a loss on it. By law. Or, to put it another way: we postal workers, and you members of the public, are made to pay so that rival companies to the Royal Mail can make a nice profit. This is what Hooper refers to as “modernisation”. It is the real drain on the Royal Mail’s revenues, and the reason why it is now so dependent on junk mail to survive. Sometimes we are made to deliver our own competitors’ junk mail.

It is achieved through a process known as headroom. What this means is that the price the Royal Mail is allowed to charge for bulk mail delivery – the bills and statements sent out by banks and utility companies, which is the prime source of all revenue in the letters market – always has to allow headroom for its rivals to make a profit.

Without this artificial skewing of the market – in the name of the so-called “free market” – the company would not be anywhere near as dependent on junk mail for its future survival.

Actually, the Panorama programme was effectively two stories in one. Only the first part was about junk mail, the second part was about scam mail. What the programme failed to come up with was a solution to this particular problem, but I can provide that: allow postal workers to identify scam mail and to report it, and then allow the Royal Mail the legal means to stop it at its source.

There’s one old lady on my round who has been receiving scam mail. Day after day she gets a pile of letters from someone who is described on the envelope as “the world’s most trusted psychic”. The envelopes are always the same, but the return addresses are from all over the world. Sometimes I’m delivering 10 or 15 of these letters a day. I reported it to my manager and asked if we could stop delivering them, but he told me we couldn’t. It is paid-for mail and we are obliged to deliver it.

This is a perfect example of what I have been suggesting over and over again: the company should learn to trust its own workers. Because unlike the high-tech machines which are being introduced in the much heralded modernisation programme, us postal workers actually know our customers. We can tell the difference between scam mail and real mail. We know who is vulnerable and who is not, and we can alert our managers when a vulnerable person is being targeted.

I’m certain that every postal worker would recognise this material. If there was a system by which we could report it, and a legal means of stopping it, we could get rid of it overnight.

• This footnote was appended on 7 July 2011. TNT contacted the Guardian after publication of the piece to say the reference to the DSA agreement is not applicable in the context mentioned. “In fact there has been a 22 percent price increase in charges by Royal Mail this year alone which renders this argument obsolete”, a company representative said.

From the Guardian Comment is free

Read more here

Roy Mayall on You & Yours

June 23, 2011 Leave a comment

 

 

 

 

 

 

A column written by Roy Mayall for the You & Yours programme on Radio 4. The item is 35 minutes and 20 seconds into the programme.

Listen to it here.

Royal Mail is not delivering

June 21, 2011 3 comments

‘Millions more have been spent on a fleet of new vans to replace the bikes the Royal Mail intends to scrap.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

As profits dive, it’s clear this management isn’t modernising, it’s running the company into the ground – but why?

 

Royal Mail’s profits fell from £180m in 2009 to £39m in 2010, a drop of around 78%. That sounds pretty disastrous, and is one of the reasons given for the impending privatisation of the company.

However, when you start to look more closely at the figures you begin to realise that all is not what it seems. For a start, the company did still make a profit, which is unique among public services. We don’t expect the police to make a profit, or the fire service or the NHS, do we? And I suspect that most of the British public aren’t at all worried if the Royal Mail makes a profit or not, as long as they get their letters delivered on time.

Historically the Royal Mail’s profits were used to subsidise the Post Office which is also an important public service. All of that will change, of course, when the Royal Mail is privatised and the link between the Royal Mail and the Post Office is broken. Once the Royal Mail is privatised, the Post Office will have to go its own way, and don’t be at all surprised when more and more rural post offices start to close, and the post office counter service becomes a small adjunct of Tesco, squeezed between the deli, the electrical counter and the pharmacy.

This shows you the mechanism by which the privatisation agenda operates. It splits a unified service into its constituent parts, hiving off the profitable bits, while keeping the unprofitable bits in the public domain. This is in effect a form of public subsidy. That which can make a profit is given over to the spivs and profiteers of the private sector, while the rest of us carry the can for the bits of the economy that can’t make a profit, thus threatening not only the particular services involved, but also the cohesion and unity of society as a whole.

Many blame the breakdown in Royal Mail profits on the incursion of new technology into the communications market. Or, as the Daily Mirror put it: “Royal Mail profits smashed by competition and Facebook.

This is simply not true. Most of the letters that people sent are still being sent. We might send birthday greetings to people we don’t know very well via Facebook, but how many of you have replaced the Christmas card list with a Facebook list in the last few years? Very few, I would suggest; none but the very young.

When you look at the real reason why profits are down it has virtually nothing to do with Facebook. It has everything to do with the Royal Mail spending vast amounts of money on a so-called modernisationprogramme that simply doesn’t work. £400m was spent on new machinery that actually slows down delivery.

We have two mail deliveries these days, instead of one. One is first thing in the morning, the way it used to be. The second is at about 9.20am in our office, which means full-time workers are now forced to take a break to wait for the lorry. So how is this “modernisation” exactly? By what process is it decided that a new machine which is slower than an old machine is actually more modern, just because you bought it more recently, or that having workers sitting around eating sandwiches is more efficient than having them delivering mail?

Millions more have been spent on a fleet of new vans to replace the bikes the Royal Mail intends to scrap. How crazy is that? To replace the world’s most energy-efficient machine, bar none with the polluting, inefficient internal combustion engine dependent on oil from the war-torn Middle East. To replace a tried and tested method of delivery in use for over 100 years, with an untried and untested method, that, everywhere it has been brought in, has been disastrous, as I’m sure people in a number of towns will testify.

Something very strange is happening here. It takes a radical redefinition of the English language to describe any of this as “modernisation”.

Also we have brand new uniforms. Who on Earth thought of that? Every single postal worker in the UK is being issued with a brand new set of clothes. New shirts, new trousers, new jackets, new caps, new waterproofs. And how much, exactly, did this cost, the refitting of an entire workforce? In this time of austerity and cutbacks, it seems, the Royal Mail judges fashion sense a more important issue than getting the mail delivered on time.

Finally, it is closing down hundreds of local delivery offices all over the country and relocating them to major city centre sites.

All of this is being done in the name of savings. It will cost less to maintain a single centralised office than a number of smaller offices. That’s the theory at least. But is it actually true? I’ve had my calculator out again and I’ve been working it out.

There are 50 workers each in the two offices in our area that are due to close – 100 altogether. It will take about half an hour each way to drive to and from the city. All of this has to be done in work time of course. We’re not counting the journeys each postal worker has to make to get to work and back. So that’s an hour of Royal Mail time spent getting us to and from the start of our rounds. We earn £8.86 an hour, so it will cost the company £886 a day, which is £5,316 a week, or £276,432 a year. Knock off days off and holidays, and the figure still comes in at around £250,000 a year. That’s a quarter of a million pounds spent on just getting the workforce to the start of the round every day.

How is that a “saving” exactly?

What kind of accountant adds a quarter of a million pounds to your wages bill and then describes it as a saving?

This is not to speak of the extra pollution of having hundreds of vans spluttering about during the rush hour or the cost in maintenance, petrol, tax and insurance, of running a fleet of vans. It’s not to speak of the traffic chaos in the city or parking problems around the new joint delivery office. It’s not to speak of the inconvenience for customers of having to travel eight miles to pick up their undelivered mail. According to the Royal Mail’s own figures this will be in the region of 100 a day in each of the two offices. I will leave it up to you to work out the figures on that.

All of this can only lead to one of two conclusions: either Royal Mail management is grossly incompetent, or it is running down the company on purpose, for some end that the rest of us have yet to be informed about.

Read more here.

Tales from the Front Line: The Postman

January 31, 2011 1 comment

New Statesman, 27th January 2011

“The Royal Mail is being slashed back, and it breaks this old postie’s heart”

From the New Statesman.

Read more here.

The not so jolly postman

December 19, 2010 5 comments

‘Kids love us. We’re like Father Christmas bringing presents to your door’

 

Postal worker Roy Mayall loves his job – the fresh air, the early starts, even the Christmas rush. But this year it’s not quite so much fun. The service is being ‘modernised’, resulting in backlogs and delays. So will your cards get through?

From the Guardian.

Read more here.

Park and Loop

December 18, 2010 4 comments

New delivery methods threaten the integrity of the mail

Restructuring

Royal Mail will be spending £20m on speeding up Christmas mail before the next cold snap arrives. Photograph: Hartshead Services

It hardly needs saying, but Christmas is the busiest time of the year for postal workers. There’s a veritable assault of mail bearing down on us: more so this year than any year, as so many more people are buying on-line these days.

In previous years we took it in our stride. It was hard work, but we enjoyed it. We got on with the job and we got it done, to the best of our ability.

This year, however, things are different. This is due to the introduction of new working methods in a large number of delivery offices around the country. Quite why the Royal Mail decided to undertake a wholesale restructuring of our job just before the Christmas rush is anybody’s guess. It’s only one of a series of increasingly insane decisions we’ve been subjected to this year.

The process is called “revision”. First of all they got rid of our bikes and replaced them with vans: two posties to a van doing two extended rounds between them.

This is called “park & loop”. We park up the van, fill up our trolleys, head off in two different directions, spend 40 minutes or so completing the loop, then come back to the van to drive off to the next parking spot.

Now this would be fair enough if it actually worked, but it doesn’t. Someone somewhere has made a serious error in their calculations. The company has spent millions of pounds buying a brand new fleet of vans, but they are actually too small for the job. We have to carry our trolleys in the back, plus up to twenty-four ten kilo pouches, and then all the packets, both large and small.

And therein lies the problem. There’s not enough room for the packets, and, having dispensed with the dedicated packets delivery rounds which were part of the old method, there are serious backlogs building up in the offices as we struggle to get them out. The backlogs were already there before the Christmas rush started. I suspect that many people around the country won’t be getting their presents this year.

Priorities

Calculations

The next problem lies in the figures they’ve used to calculate the rounds. They took a sample week in June, a notoriously light month, and have extrapolated from that. On that basis they’ve estimated that we have around 26,000 items of mail passing through our office in any one day, when we all know it is more like 42,000.

What this means is that the sorting process takes a lot longer than their calculations allow for. We are allowed one hour to sort the mail into the individual rounds (known as “Internal Preparatory Sorting”) and then another hour to “prep” our frames: that is to slot the letters into the frame, into the sequence they will be taken out in. I never have time to complete this task, which means that most days there are at least six boxes of mail left unsorted under my frame, which are then “prepped” by managers or office staff while I am out on my round. So every day I come in to an already half-full frame of mail left over from the day before.

In this time we are also supposed to have prepped the door-to-door leaflets – usually referred to as “junk mail” by you, the customer – which we take out at the rate of 1/6th a day, and which can amount to anything up to six items per household. We are given six minutes to do this in when it actually takes more like 15 minutes. We are not allowed to leave the junk mail behind, which means that these days junk mail is given precedence over the normal mail, which quite often does get left behind.

That’s the measure of the Royal Mail’s priorities these days.

When the planners first came to the office to discuss the revision they made it quite clear that their aim was to reduce the workforce and therefore the number of man-hours in the office. When the revision was implemented it amounted to eight full time jobs lost. But so huge is the backlog of mail that’s been building up – at one time there were up to 26,000 items of mail, backed into a corner and filling up half of the office – that they’ve had to re-employ the eight full-time employees who had previously taken voluntary redundancy, just to clear it.

They’ve now agreed that the office actually needs five more full-time staff. But, here’s the trick: the new staff will be working on much less favourable contracts than the guys they are replacing.

Which, you might suggest, is the entire purpose of the exercise.

Second Class Post

December 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Christmas chaos in the Royal Mail. New working methods disrupt Christmas deliveries.

Last posting day

The last posting day before Christmas for second class post is the 18th of December. The last posting day for first class post is the 21st of December. Aside from this, did you know that during the last three weeks in December there is actually no difference between the two services? That’s because the normal “quality of service” targets for first class post, ensuring that 93 per cent of first class post is delivered the next day, don’t apply for most of December at all. Some cards and letters bearing first class stamps will still get there the next day but, for this period, the Royal Mail is fully entitled to deliver them the day after or, indeed, the day after that too. Pretty much whenever, in fact. So we might as well all save our money and stick second class stamps on the whole lot. After all, that’s how they’re going to be treated.

I have to say the fact that service targets for first class post don’t apply in December was news to me, despite me having been a postman for many years. But, given the endless stream of nonsense that flows down from our unseen senior management – a management more preoccupied with privatisation and profits than minor things like getting the Christmas post delivered – it certainly doesn’t surprise me.

Our postal system is in chaos and this Christmas it could easily reach breaking point. A combination of demoralised staff, local sorting office closures and the wholesale introduction of new and untried working methods could easily result in millions of items simply not getting delivered by December 24th. And that, I can honestly tell you, breaks my old postie‘s heart.

Being a postman in December used to be a wonderful job. You had to work hard – of course, you did – but as you stomped across the frosty pavements to the sorting office at 5am, steam blowing from your frozen nostrils, there was a real sense of doing something important. Yes, the overtime helped – it was Christmas, after all – but a real Dunkirk spirit set in. Every day huge amounts of mail would come in – up to 10 times the normal amount – and every day we’d get our heads down, our winter boots on and do our very utmost to make sure it was all delivered in time. And, by and large, it was.

This year, however, is going to be very different. It’s not only going to be the last Christmas I do my round by bike (confusingly, we call our rounds “walks”, even when we do them on a bike) but it’s also going to be the last one I do from the local sorting office in our town. Like dozens of others, it’s now due to close which means that next year we’ll all be based in one huge sorting office in the not-particularly-nearby city. Every morning, I’ll have to drive there to get to work and then drive back to this town in a van to deliver the post, before doing both journeys again, this time in reverse. Crazy, huh.

Compared to a bicycle, that certainly doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly, and I’m not sure it would make much economic sense either but for the fact that many of these local sorting offices are on prime, town-centre sites which, even today, are worth a fair amount of money. Back in the 70s, I have a distant memory this used to be called asset-stripping but these days, I’m told, it’s maximising total financial returns. Not sure where delivering the post fits into all this but then I’m not sure our management are either.

Longer walks

Snow

The battle for breakfast time deliveries, was lost long ago. These days, I don’t even start work until 8.40am and usually I’m not out on the road before 10.30am. Which means the lucky ones get their post mid-morning but those at the end of my walk don’t get theirs until mid afternoon. If something needs a signature, the chances of anyone being in at that time are, of course, pretty remote so, all too often, it has to come back with me to the local sorting office to be collected. People have got used to this but I don’t think they’re going to be anything like as understanding when that local sorting office closes and they have to drive to the city to pick up whatever it is.

And it’s going to get worse, thanks to the new working practices that are being rolled out all over the country. They can best be summarised as longer walks, longer hours, fewer full-time jobs, more casual labour.

In particular, you’re going to be seeing far more of something called “park and loop” which sees three or four of the old walks being done by two postmen in a van. We have all the post in the back – letters and packets – which, at predetermined stops, we then unload into those golf-trolley things. We then loop round, delivering the mail before coming back to the parked van and driving on to the next stopping-off point.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Will it work? No it won’t. In fact it is already failing as office after office are building up huge backlogs of undelivered mail. A friend of mind in a Northern office which has recently gone through this so-called “revision” process, told me that one day they had 26,000 undelivered items of mail sitting in the office waiting to be sorted, and it was only by re-employing the half a dozen blokes who had recently taken voluntary redundancy, that they were able to bring the backlog down to manageable levels again. Now there’s only about 5,000 items a day which they are failing to deliver.

The problem is that the management just haven’t thought things through properly. The theory was that we were going to take all the packets out with us. That’s the draw-back with bikes: no room for packets. But the trouble with the new vans is they are too small, so there’s still no room for the packets and, given that they have stopped the dedicated packets delivery-vans as part of the revision, sometimes the packets just aren’t getting delivered at all.

Walk sequencing

Meanwhile they have also introduced a new piece of massively expensive technology called a walk sequencing machine, a wonderful-sounding bit of kit which actually sorts the post in the order the postie is going to deliver them. The only problems are that, to do it properly, the post has to go through the machine three times and that each machine services several offices and potentially hundreds of individual frames. Also it can only sort standard sized letters, not packets. Packets still have to be sorted by hand, the old fashioned way. All of which means everything takes longer and your post gets later and later. Some postmen aren’t finishing till 4 in the afternoon these days. We used to deliver in time for your breakfast. Soon we won’t even be delivering in time for your tea.

This is already having a seriously unpopular knock-on effect during the Festive Season. More and more packets – or Christmas presents as I believe you call them – are going to be delivered at lunchtime or mid-afternoon when people are either at work or out shopping, if they are delivered at all.

Some unlucky people are going to end with more “Sorry You Were Out” cards than Christmas cards and their mood is unlikely to be improved when they traipse off to their local sorting office, where they’ve been picking things up for years, and suddenly discover it’s not there any more. Sorry but that’s the future.

I’d love to be able to come to some more positive conclusion but that’s just about impossible. Royal Mail’s management are more interested in their bonuses than they are with the long-term future of the Royal mail. They have forgotten the basics. Posties are early morning people who like the outdoors and who enjoy getting to know the folk – Granny Smith as we collectively call you – on our walks.

Now, we’re being made to keep office-hours, be stuck in a van for most of the day and won’t meet many people because most of you will be out by the time we eventually get round to delivering.

As for you, our poor, put-upon customers – I have a nasty feeling that wondering whether to stick a first or second class stamp on your Christmas cards could soon be the very least of your postal problems.

Who Is Roy Mayall?

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Herodotus, The Histories, via the inscription on the main post office at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.

The Postman

Roy Mayall is not just one postal worker. He is all postal workers everywhere, men and women, drivers, delivery workers, office workers, sorters, machine operators, engineers, union members and non union members, young and old, retired or just starting out, part-time or full-time, 20 hour, 25 hour, 30 hour and 40 hours a week, agency workers, casual workers, cleaners, everyone who has ever taken part in the postal service, black, white, or Asian, European or African or Afro-Caribbean, gay, straight or a little bit of both, left-handed or right handed, City or Rural, inner City or Suburban, from the craggy coasts of Cornwall to the Highland Glens, from the green hills of England, to the mountains of Wales, North and South, East and West, the Home Counties, the Midlands and the North.

Wherever men and women pound the streets with mail on their backs, that’s where Roy Mayall walks. Wherever they skip onto a bike and go skimming along with their burden of mail that’s where Roy Mayall is. Wherever there’s a letterbox, wherever there’s a gate, wherever there’s a footpath to a door, wherever there’s a garden, wherever there’s a dog barking, in the morning, in the afternoon, rattling along with the thoughts in his head, that’s our Roy. Harassed by the time, as the hours are getting later, stressed by the lack of money and the weight on his back, pushed for time, pushed to his limits, energetically pressing on, through the wind, through the rain, through the heat of the sun, through ice, through snow, when the hail stones pelt like shrapnel on the roofs of houses, rattling the bonnets of cars, wrapped up in his waterproofs, with the mail bundled up beneath his arm to keep it dry, that’s Roy.

Hopping in and out of his van a hundred, a hundred and fifty times a day, the same movement of the hip, the step out onto the kerb, with the mail in bags in the back to take out to all the delivery workers. To this drop off point, to the next. All day and every day from one day to the next.

Sorting the mail, throwing it off into the frames, like a card dealer dealing his cards. A pack of two thousand cards with 600 players in every game. The advertising coupons, the leaflets, the brochures and the letters, from the banks or the building society, from the Insurance company or the gas, from the electricity company, from the Solicitor. Birthday cards and anniversary cards and Mother’s Day cards and Christmas cards and Easter cards. Postcards from the seaside. Parcels from ebay. Books from Amazon. DVDs from LoveFilm.com. Competition Winners. Christmas catalogues. Saga magazine. Sky Mag. The Beano. The London Review of Books. All of these pass through Roy Mayall’s hands, from the sorting frame into the box, from the box to the frame.

And then sweeping them into bundles, wrapped up in red elastic, and then packed into bags, turning the letters where there’s a packet. All this weight of communication on his shoulders, all this dizzying constellation of words. All these presents to be opened. All these thoughts to be remembered. All this love in scrawled handwriting. Love from Mum and Love from Dad and Love from your dear Aunt Vera. How much love have us posties carried down through the centuries? How much kind regards? How much that is now forgotten? How much that is yet to be written?

The everyday postie on his round, a secret conveyor of love.

Under the Weather

December 3, 2010 Leave a comment

 

Snow box

 

 

Yesterday was the first day I have ever had off work because of the weather.

From the LRB blog.

Read more here.

The Unsorting Office

October 14, 2010 1 comment

The end of bikes?

It’s been a bad few weeks at our delivery office. First of all Vince Cable announced that the Royal Mail was going to be privatised. Then, at one of our weekly ‘Work Time Listening and Learning’ meetings, the line manager announced that our delivery office is going to close.

From the LRB blog.

Read more here.

Dead Letters and Daily Responsibilities

June 8, 2010 Leave a comment

A miserable looking postal worker with a cleared frame ready to go out

Clear Frame

When we got back from our rounds the other day there was a brand new notice attached to our frames. It was a bright yellow embossed A4 sheet with the following words written upon it:

CLEAR FRAME

 

  • Your frame must be clear of all mail.
  • Redirections must be completed prior to your departure on delivery.
  • Local redirections should be sorted directly to the appropriate walk or handed to your section/line manager.
  • Dead letters must be completed prior to your departure on delivery.
  • All items on the frame that require further investigation to be clearly marked up.
  • These are your daily responsibilities.

Now this is odd as we already do most of these things. The only real change is in the way we handle the so-called “dead letters”. These are letters for people who no longer live at an address and which have been returned, often with a scrawled note on the front, such as “return to sender” or “deceased” or “this person hasn’t lived at this address for at least five years”. Sometimes the notes can be very angry.

What we do with these letters is to “kill them off”: that is we paste a little red and white sticker across the address with the reason for its return. There are various options, with tick boxes beside them. These include “Incomplete Address”, “No Such Address”, “Addressee gone away”, “Refused”, “Address inaccessible” etc. We tick the appropriate box, sign and date the sticker, and then highlight the return address on the envelope with a blue crayon. It is then returned to the sender in the hope that they will correct their mailing list.

I suspect some mailing companies never do this as the same letters from the same senders go to the same non-existent people week after week after week.

We sometimes get as many as 20-40 “deads” a day, which we normally process after our rounds are finished. It seems odd to prioritise dead mail over live mail, to delay our deliveries for the sake of a bunch of letters that no one wants. There’s no deadline for when these letters get to their destination as no one is expecting them; unlike the live letters, some of which may be of the utmost importance.

The other odd thing about this notice is the fact that the management feel compelled to put it there in the first place. It hangs over the frame, black lettering on a yellow background, like some sort of a warning.

It’s disconcerting and inappropriate as we already do these things anyway. We already know what our daily responsibilities are. We already clear the mail from our frames. We already redirect mail before we go out on delivery. We already pass local redirections to the colleagues who are responsible for them.

“Items on the frame that require further investigation” refers to letters with incomplete addresses which we might leave on the frame till we’ve worked out where they are supposed to go. They hardly need marking up as it’s obvious what they’re doing there.

The whole thing seems like a grand exercise in stating the obvious. They might as well add: “In order to post a letter you should push it through the letter box” and: “In order to walk up a garden path one foot should be placed in front of the other”.

If I was of a paranoid disposition I might think they were put there in order to deliberately upset us.

As it is, my guess is that they just represent another one of those management whims, the sort of thing that passes for work by people who sit in offices all day.

The notices dangle from the tops of the frames blocking access to some of the addresses. What this means is that, in order to sort the mail, the notices have to be folded back out of the way.

Which is where, I suspect, they will stay in the end.

Read more by Roy Mayall

  • Roy Mayall LRB blog
  • Roy Mayall | guardian.co.uk
    Roy Mayall is a pseudonym for a postal worker who has been in the job for about five years and works in a delivery office somewhere in the south-east of England. He writes a blog at roymayall.wordpress.com

Will voting reflect signs of our times?

April 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Dave Nellist, Socialist Party

How will disillusionment with mainstream politics and modern capitalism affect the election results?

From the Guardian.

Read more here.

You Can Take the Time from Your Break

April 7, 2010 3 comments

That’s the Royal Mail for you: cheapskate and penny pinching on every level. The company we work for can’t even afford to allow us to take a little time to ask some of the questions and to get some of the answers that will help us to make an informed decision about our future.

From the London Review of Books.

Read more here.

Idiot Wind

March 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.

Idiot Wind

Bob Dylan 1974.

A Bad Day

Too much mail

There are good days and bad days. Yesterday was a bad day.

I came into work at the usual time. There was the usual banter. “Morning Roy, aren’t you ready to go yet?” This is because I do a four-hour shift and, properly speaking, my frame should have been thrown off by the time I arrive. It never is, and it never has been since I started working part-time about three years ago now. I always get the same jokes though. “I expect you’ll be picking up your bags and going out,” they say, followed by – about ten minutes later – “you still here then Roy? You should be finishing your first bag by now.” There’s not a lot you can say to any of that.

Normally my letters have been thrown off, but not the flats. The “flats” are A4 size letters, magazines and brochures. The usual proportion would be 2/3rds letters to 1/3rd flats. Not this morning though. When I got to my frame it seemed unusually light. Just a scattering of letters here and there, so I went round to collect the flats and there was tons of the stuff. Reams of it. Acres of it. Oodles of it. Bundles of it. Every one of the pigeon holes was rammed full of magazines in bundles. Sky mags, Sky Sports mags, Saga mags, other mags, along with all the rest of the rubbish, the glossy brochures and the A4 letters. They’d all come in at the same time.

So now it was a case of bunging all of this into the frame. There were piles of it all over my bench. It was more like 2/3rds flats to 1/3rd letters today and it took me a good hour to throw it all off.

Magazines are bigger and bulkier than letters, of course. That goes without saying. They take up more room. They fill up more space. They’re a lot heavier. Some customers tend to get a lot of them. There are one or two customers on my round who normally get more mail than anyone else. Two in particular this morning, both in the same road, both over 50, both Sky subscribers. So their slots, always full, were literally exploding by the time I’d finished, squeezing out the surrounding slots, almost ready to burst the frame apart under the pressure. I was loading in the Sky mags and Saga mags and all the other stuff which seemed magically to have materialised on this particular morning, always going back to these two addresses, ramming yet another magazine into what was fast becoming a dangerous area of the frame. In the end these two houses both needed a separate bundle each.

After this I sorted the packets, and then did the redirections.

This is normally the last thing you do before you start bundling the letters up ready to pack.

Only this morning I heard my number being called.

Every frame has a number. Mine is 23.

So I kept hearing it from across the room, “23, you’ve missed some.” I was burying my head in my shoulders, trying to pretend it was someone else they were talking about.

No such luck. Along comes Fred, with two more bundles of flats I’d somehow not noticed in my first sweep. I must have been so overwhelmed by the volume that I had missed seeing these.

So now I had two more piles of mail to “throw off” as we call it: that is, to sort into my frame.

And that was just the beginning of my bad day.

Idiot Wind

Blood on the Tracks 1974

Ok, so now I was bundling up, grabbing handfuls of letters from the frame and putting them into parcels held together by elastic bands, and shoving them up on the top of my frame.

Normally I leave two bags for the driver to take out and the equivalent of another two on my bike. Only this morning the bags were full of magazines, and the two bags for the driver had turned into three, and the two bags for my bike had turned into even more. Luckily there weren’t too many packages today, which left a bit of room, and I managed to get it all on to my bike.

A was also taking out a lot of my door-to-door. That’s unaddressed mail to you, junk-mail, in the form of a large quantity of glossy leaflets, about A4 size, very heavily inked. You could smell the ink as you picked them up. They were floppy and sticky, with a kind of slimy texture, and by the end of the day my hands were blue with the ink. These are the worst kind of leaflets as they flop about in your frame and stick to your hands as you are trying to deliver them, and have no substance so crumple up as you’re trying to shove them through the letter box. This is the kind of junk mail I would most like to ban. It is cheap and garish and badly designed, and it’s obvious that whoever created this has never put a letter through a letter box.

However, aside from the nasty surprise I’d had when first seeing the pigeon holes full of flats waiting to be thrown off, this was a normal day. I was a bit late getting out on my round, but the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and now my only prospect was the 4 hours or so of intense labour needed to finish the round. It was heavier in terms of weight because of all of those flats, but not heavy in terms of the number of houses I had to deliver to. About average I would say. The first hour or so went along pretty swimmingly.

One problem: because of the bulk of the mail today, often what would normally take one bundle had to be divided into 2. I still had to do the loop in one, but I had two bundles to take with me. That meant taking weight on my shoulder, carrying the second bundle in a bag along with any packages I might have to take. I don’t like doing this. My left shoulder aches from years of taking weight on it, so I’ve swapped the bag round recently, so it now rests on my right shoulder. In case you haven’t figured this out: your left shoulder its convenient for your right hand, your right shoulder, for your left. If you’re right handed, like me, the bag is easier to handle on your left shoulder. So I had the bag on my right shoulder, which was awkward to handle, and taking out extra items as well. Trying to stuff things into the bag with my left hand was a nightmare. Trying to get them out again was even worse.

Another problem: though it was a sunny day, there was a blustering wind which was getting worse as the day wore on, one of those relentless, irritating winds that never let up, that just niggle at you constantly.

The A4 glossy sheets of junk mail were particularly annoying. I’d pick one out from the bundle, but then the wind would catch it, rustling it about in my hand, and making it difficult to fold in with the rest of the mail. Several times I almost had one blow out of my hand. Then the sheets would crumple just at the wrong moment. They wouldn’t go through the doors properly. They wouldn’t fold in with the rest of the mail. They were jerking about like kites in the wind, making urgent flapping noises. They wanted to take off. They wanted to take me with them. I was starting to get seriously annoyed by now.

But I pressed on, finishing off all the mail I had on my bike, before going to the drop-off point to collect the next two bags.

It was after this that things started to get ridiculous.

Mainly it was just those damned, infernal A4 leaflets giving me hell. They were sticking to my hands. They were creating some sort of static electricity between them so they stuck together. I’d pull one from the back of the pile and five would come out. It’s supposed to be a smooth operation. You take a leaflet from the pack, place it along side the mail in the front, stick it through the door, and that’s it. Only I couldn’t get it to behave properly. I was having to stand in front of each door trying to separate out and unravel the measly, sticky bits of paper which simply wouldn’t fold without crumpling up. I was wasting time, getting behind on my round, and getting progressively annoyed.

Also every time I tried to put a bundle into my bag using my wrong hand, the bundle would catch on the seam which runs around the top of the bag, and I couldn’t get it in. I was having to take the bag off my shoulder to get the bundles in, and then off again to get them back out again.

Then there was that wind. That relentless, invasive, idiotic wind, bustling about, threatening to scoop up the mail and send it scurrying across the road, flipping the A4 sheets in my hand, flicking my hair about so it stuck to my brow. Bob Dylan once sang a song called Idiot Wind. This was the day I found out what he was talking about.

Hopping mad

Bin day

The day was turning into a nightmare.

On top of that it was bin day. The bin men were about. The pavements, normally unobstructed, were an obstacle course this morning, with bins and bags left out all over the pavements. I was having to weave my way round them, sometimes having to get off to shove them to the side.

And that’s how the scene happened.

There’s one sharp corner I have to go around on a pavement. I have to go on the pavement because the kerbs are so high on this road it’s hard to hoist my bike up them. The kerbs are at least six inches high. So I came round the corner and straight into a bin which was stuck in the middle of the pavement. I braked, and turned, trying to get passed the bin, but there wasn’t enough room. I had the kerb on my right, and the bin in front of me, like a guard standing to attention at Buckingham Palace. I’d lost all of my momentum now, and was wavering, poised in mid turn. There was a long, protracted moment of tremulous uncertainty before the bike began to dip and I put out my foot. Only there was no where to put it. There was no room on the pavement, and the road was a good foot or so away, on the other side of that very steep kerb.

At which point everything went into slow motion. The bike began to fall, I put my leg out, realised I couldn’t stop the fall without hurting myself, and so leapt clear of the bike. The result was a kind of carnage. The bike clattered out into the middle of the road, spilling letters and packages and bundles onto the tarmac, along with several empty bags and all of those bundles of A4 glossy leaflets, plus all the used-up elastic bands which I had accumulated over the months and which were in every part of the bike, in the panniers, in the bags, in the tray at the front, all spread out in a swathe of wreckage, like some gruesome scene from a war-zone. Everything was blood-red. Red bands and red bags and a bright red bike. It was like I’d just had a fatal altercation with a roadside bomb.

At which point two women turned the corner across the road. “You all right, love?” one of them said.

“Humph,” I mumbled aggressively.

I wasn’t in a good mood.

I always hate it when the bike goes over. It’s a heavy thing, clumsy and awkward to handle. It’s designed for sailing along on wheels, not for picking up off the ground. The handle bars tend to spin around and the bike is awkward and uncomfortable to lift.

“I’m OK,” I said, slightly off-handedly. I was embarrassed and annoyed. Kindly strangers are one thing. Kindly strangers as witnesses to a postal wreckage in the middle of the road are something else.

But I hoisted the bike up from its reclining position, and onto the pavement, where I leaned it against the fence, turning back to start picking up the rest of the stuff. Only then the bike slipped, and fell again, crashing down to the ground and casting yet more stuff along the pavement and up a back alley which was nearby.

It was at this point I lost my patience, and in a fit of blind rage kicked the bike.

Several things happened at once now. The two women were approaching across the road to help me out. One said, “it’s the wind,” referring to what caused the bike to fall. The other, seeing my foot already launching at the bike, said, “you’ll hurt your toe”. She was leaning down to pick up the bag. I knew she was right. But it was too late. The momentum was already carrying my foot forward in a relentless arc of blustering, stupid rage, on towards the bike frame as it lay there prostrate on the ground, where, after the briefest moment of time, it made sickening, bone-crunching contact.

You’ll have to imagine how it felt.

An awful silence descended over the scene, broken only by the continuous ruffling of that awful wind, and the screams of pain going off in my head.

So now I had two more things to contend with: a searing pain in my toe, and pitying looks from the two women.

“Leave that!” I barked to the woman leaning down to pick up the bag, in a clipped voice born of physical pain and acute embarrassment, “I’ll do it!”

I was definitely using exclamation marks in my speech. It was hard to know which hurt the most: the pain in my toe, or the pain in my ego, which was crumpling up like one of those A4 glossy sheets before a letter box. My eyes must have been spinning round in my head. The women backed off in fright, scuttling away from the dreadful scene of wrecked letters and wrecked dignity, while I limped back to the bike, wrestling it into a standing position, before leaning it against the fence once more, making sure it would stay upright this time. Then I was turning back to the road to begin picking up all the mess which was strewn about, repacking my bag and lifting it back on to the tray, picking up all the packages, and all the leaflets – which were even now scurrying up along the road, borne aloft by that mischievous wind – before, finally, beginning the painstaking process of picking up all the hundreds of elastic bands which were scattered about across the road and all over the pavement and up that back alley and every where within about a three yard radius.

Us posties tend to accumulate elastic bands. It’s one of the signitures of the trade. We leave trails of them everywhere we go.

It took at least ten minutes before I was on my way again, breathless with frustration, cursing the very earth on which I walked, growling unpleasantly to myself with every step.

The funny thing now was that about halfway up the same road, parallel to where I parked my bike to begin the second loop, there was a builder working in one of the houses, cursing and stomping and swearing to himself as well. I could hear it as I set off on the loop, all the way up the road, and all the way back down again.

He kept repeating one word over and over again while banging a piece of wood against a doorpost. The word rhymed with “luck” and it wasn’t “truck”. That wind must have been getting to everyone.

I wanted to say, “I know how you feel,” as I passed but, feeling that way myself, knew that I would be stepping onto dangerous ground. So I kept my own council and got on with the job as best I could. Fortunately there were no more untoward scenes, though my right shoe was stained red from paint from the bike and my toe was throbbing like crazy.

Several hours later, as I was getting ready for bed, I accidentally stubbed my toe, which brought the whole scene back to me. It was only then that it occurred to me how stupid I must have looked, literally hopping mad, and it was at this point that I burst out laughing.

What a day! Thank God there aren’t too many days like that.

Ian Bone

Anarchist in the UK

Comment is free | theguardian.com

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