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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New delivery methods threaten the integrity of the mail
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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
I’m interested in the way that words change their meaning once they are adopted by bureaucratic institutions. Take deregulation, for instance, as it’s applied to postal services in Britain. It appears to mean an opening of the market to allow competition. But if you look more closely you will see that, in order to achieve this, the Royal Mail’s ability to act in its own interest has been severely curtailed…
Dear Granny Smith: A letter from your postman written by Roy Mayall and delivered by Philip Jackson; a heartfelt musing on the past, present and future role of one of the oldest British institutions, the Postie.
Why postmen used to have the best job in the world, and why it’s heading towards becoming the worst.
Christmas is the most important time of the year for the Royal Mail. It is when the company comes into its own.
It’s not only about the volume of traffic, though this is phenomenal. People are receiving ten, fifteen, or twenty times their usual mail. And it’s not just Christmas cards either. Everyone is trying to sell you something. So there are endless catalogues, brochures, special offers, two-for-the-price-of-one deals.
And then, after this, there are the presents. People may not send as many letters as they used to, but they can sit up all night browsing the internet for gift ideas, paying for them by credit card, and getting them sent by post the next day. Most of this comes through the Royal Mail.
There’s something of the Dunkirk spirit in delivery offices at this time of year. It’s a veritable assault of mail, and postal workers are braced for the force of the attack. There are times when we feel like the last troops defending the beaches as a never ending barrage of letters and cards and magazines and parcels is thrown at us. And then, after that, we are like the little ships evacuating the mail through the channel, on our bikes and in our trolleys, safely delivering the post to your homes.
It’s a great feeling. There’s great camaraderie in the office, great spirit, and a huge sense of achievement when it’s all over; after which we get two days off work – Christmas Day and Boxing Day – before we resume our rounds again.
But – as I say – that’s not all there is to it.
There’s something else, something more subtle, but no less substantial.
Because we are not only delivering the mail. We are delivering goodwill. We are delivering keepsakes and remembrances. We are delivering thoughts of our friends. We are delivering Christmas wishes and New Year greetings from across the country and around the globe. We are more than just posties then. We are the thread that weaves through the fabric of society, binding it together.
You see, us posties are being grossly underestimated. You think that all we do is read an address and then stick the letter through the door, but there’s much more to it than that.
These days there’s immense pressure on us. We are carrying more mail than ever, and working at a faster pace. There has been a 30% reduction in staff levels in the last two years and increasing volumes, particularly of parcels. There are more part-time posties and casuals. There are more rounds being done on an ad-hoc basis with no full-time postie being assigned. There’s an ever increasing volume of junk mail being generated by data bases in computers sent to people who moved out years ago, to addresses that no longer exist.
All of this gets lumped under the general name of “modernisation” and when we argue with it we are told that we are like dinosaurs resisting the changes that will save the Royal Mail for the future.
Royal Mail management consultant David Stubbs says that there are three strands to the modernisation programme:
The introduction of walk-sequencing machines and the measurement of rounds.
The reduction and the concentration of mail centres, into larger and fewer centres.
The introduction of more part-time workers and of new shift patterns.
He adds that the model for these changes are the mail companies on the continent. But here’s the problem. The measurement of the rounds is being done by a computer programme called Pegasus which quite often doesn’t get the measurement right. Pegasus actually added about 45 minutes to my round, which already takes more than the allotted 3.5 hours. Walk-sequencing machines will pre-sort the mail into the order of delivery so that the postman will have less preparation to do, but, on average, these multi-million pound machines save about seven minutes on each round, and still don’t always get it right. And if you look to the continent for your model you’ll see that posties over there are losing their jobs, while their rounds are being franchised out to casual workers, thus breaking the bond of trust between a postie and his customers.
The reason that postal workers are questioning modernisation that it is being driven by the requirement of the corporations to make profits, and not for the benefit of the ordinary customer or postal workers. It is for the people who send out the bills, not the people who receive them or deliver them.
If you want to know how long a round will take, don’t get a computer programme to tell you, ask the postie. The postie will know. If you want to know how best to do the round, whether by bike or on foot or with a trolley or a van, ask the postie. The postie will know. If you want to know who has moved in to number 22, and whether Mr Jones still lives at number 27, ask the postie. The postie will know. A walk-sequencing machine can sort the mail fast and efficiently, but could it find a person’s address without a house number or a postcode? The postie can.
This is what “modernisation” in its current form fails to take into account. There is a wealth of local knowledge in every office, residing in every postman’s head. Why send double-gazing catalogues out to council-owned blocks of flats? If the company had asked the postie he would have told them not to bother. Why keep sending letters to Mr Jones when the postie knows full well he moved out years ago. Some of these mass mail-out companies could save a lot of money (and a lot of trees) if they bothered to consult with the postie first.
Some of this detailed local knowledge could be utilised to make the post more efficient, if only the Royal Mail would learn to trust its own employees.
There’s a joke down at our office. “This job is all about give and take,” we say. “We give, they take.”
We are referring to the fact that the Royal Mail utterly fails to appreciate us.
Christmas is the time of year when the commitment and dedication of postal workers can be seen most clearly. Forget about temporary workers: when it comes to the Christmas post the job wouldn’t get done without the good will of the postal workers who run the system for the rest of the year too. Without overtime the Royal Mail would simply crash. But the Royal Mail can’t impose overtime nor can it restrict it. We work until the job is done, however long that takes. The overtime is given as a good will gesture by the postal worker. It is not a requirement, it is an act of service to our customers.
In the same way the Royal Mail cannot impose modernisation. It has to work with its staff. It has to consult about the best way to go about it. It has to be done in the interests of all the customers, not just the corporations. It has to be done in such a way that it will not damage postal worker’s health or well-being.
Only then will the Royal Mail become a truly modern service..
My new book, Dear Granny Smith, describes the job of a postal worker 30 years ago, and compares this with the job today. Slightly unexpectedly, people keep referring to it as a nostalgic book, which wasn’t its purpose at all….
This is because Sunday is everybody’s day off. On Sunday the sorting machines in the metropolitan sorting offices are silent. No one is working. Nothing passes through the Royal Mail on a Sunday, not in Birmingham, not in Glasgow, not in Liverpool. Everything is quiet. Everything comes to a stop.
This takes two days to filter through to the delivery office. Monday is a normal day. Wednesday is a heavy day. On Wednesday we are catching up on all the mail that didn’t get delivered on Tuesday. But Tuesday is a good day. Hardly anything gets delivered on a Tuesday.
This is just in the nature of the mail business, the way it’s always been. One day maybe, when the Royal Mail is finally sold off to the Lithuanian National Postal service and all of the old rules no longer apply, then they will run the sorting machines on a Sunday too, and Tuesday will be just like any other day. But, meanwhile, Tuesday is a good day.
You usually finish early on a Tuesday.
On the other hand Tuesday is also the day when we have our Team Talk meetings.
“Team Talk” is a euphemism.
There is no team, and no one talks, except management, that is, and then it is less in the nature of a talk, more in the nature of a lecture. We get told what to do.
We all go in the recreation room – what used to be the recreation room when there was still time for recreation (it’s only ever used for Team Talks these days) – and the Manager reads out from a prepared paper sent down from head office, the latest directives about safety or security or whatever. We get news about what’s happening in other offices. We get the latest figures: how many hours we went over last week, how many hours we are expected to manage with this week. Profit and loss. The weight of mail passing through (it’s always down). Any new initiatives that are being considered; new technology and the like.
It’s boring. People sit round polishing their nails waiting for it to be over. It’s just so much wasted time since nothing we say at these meetings will be heard in any case. We’re not important enough in the scheme of things to be heard. No one listens, no one cares what we think, so no one talks.
It feels like we’re back at school again, at school assembly, the headmaster delivering some pompous lecture on the nature of duty. That’s all it is. Propaganda.
Really it’s just to fill up the time because the management hate to see us getting away with anything.
Tuesday is a good day. Team Talk is their way of spoiling it for us.
There are one or two subjects which come up again and again.
Bicycle helmets is one of them.
It’s a stock subject. Whenever they can’t think of anything else to say, they talk about helmets.
You see, no one wants to wear them. The Royal Mail insists that we do.
To wear or not to wear, that is the question.
Mostly we choose not to.
Generally management are too busy to notice or even to care.
This may sound petty. Indeed it is petty. But how else are we to show that we are still human beings and not just cogs in a wheel? How else are we to show that we are quite capable of making our own decisions?
Actually there are very good reasons why most of us choose not to wear bicycle helmets. It’s not only a symbolic matter. We are only required to wear them when we are riding a bike. Most of the time we are not riding a bike. We are scooting the bike or pushing the bike. The helmet is uncomfortable, too hot in summer, too cold in winter, it’s better to take it off. But then, where to you put it? Where is it supposed to go? We are already full up with mail. We have mail in our tray and mail in our panniers and mail in a bag over our shoulder, so where, now, is the helmet supposed to go? So mostly we leave the helmet in the office.
Management know this of course and occasionally we get lectured about it in Team Talks.
Someone in some office in Birmingham went out without his helmet once, and he came off his bike, over the handlebars and – you know what? – he cracked his head on the pavement and he died.
Therefore bicycle helmets are a requirement.
Even the union agree. Health and safety is one of the issues that the union can hold management to account over. Let’s face it, they have very little power otherwise. But no one can argue with health and safety. So the union have debated with the management about the need for a safe environment at work and both of them have agreed, everyone should wear a bicycle helmet for safety reasons. It’s mandatory.
So every so often we get the lecture, and every so often there is a crack down and every so often we have to go out wearing our helmets so we are forced to bump about on our round with this spare bit of kit getting in the way, rattling about in our bag or in the panniers or being left at a drop-off point so we have to go back and recover it later. And, then, after a while, management forget about it again and we all go back to normal.
But, you think, if this is really to do with health and safety, why can’t I choose?
Surely I am responsible for my own health and safety?
And if they say, “well no, not at work you are not, since management are liable for any accidents that might occur during your hours of employment,” then why don’t they just make us sign a waiver instead?
“I agree that if I fall off my bike and crack my head when not wearing a helmet, it’s my fault not yours.”
That would do it.
The other thing we’re often lectured about is how to ride our bikes.
We are not supposed to ride our bikes on pavements, to scoot, or to hold mail in one hand while guiding the bike with the other. We are not supposed to look at mail while riding our bikes. We are not supposed to bump on or off pavements. We are not supposed to carry too much weight. We are not supposed to lose sight of our bike at any point. If we park the bike to do a “loop” (up one side of the road and down the other) we must keep an eye on the bike at all times.
Often, as they’re giving us this lecture on how to ride a bike, I think, “They’ll be issuing instructions on how to walk next.”
The joke here is that if we actually did the job as we are supposed to, following all of these guidelines, then it would probably take about twice as long, and then we’d be in trouble for “deliberate withholding of mail”, a sack-able offence.
In other words, they issue instructions knowing that – in order to do the job – you are going to have to ignore them.
Such is the logic of work in the 21st century.
Walking while delivering.
1) When walking please use “feet”. Other parts of the body are not suitable for this activity.
2) Place feet firmly on the ground, preferably both pointing in the same direction.
3) Raise one foot, using leg, and with a forward motion, place it on the ground ahead of you.
4) Repeat procedure using other foot.
5) Once feet have been raised and lowered successively in a forward-moving motion a number of times, this is known as “walking”, and is the official Royal Mail recommended means of propulsion when not cycling.
6). DO NOT hop, skip, run or jump.DO NOT do backwards somersaults or scissor-kicks. DO NOT do John Cleese inspired “silly-walks”. Use only official Royal Mail forward-moving one-foot-before-the-other walking-motion. All employees using “unorthodox” walking-methods will be severely reprimanded.
7) DO NOT walk, fart and read letters at the same time as this may cause permanent, irreparable confusion. Farting is permissible only when reading has stopped.
8) It is recommended that you keep all “thinking” to a minimum as this has been known to tire the body and depress the spirits. If you cannot refrain from “thinking” please think official Royal Mail recommended “happy thoughts” available from the “happy thoughts” dispenser next to the coffee machine.
9) DO NOT step off cliffs, walls or high buildings, as this will cause a “falling” sensation, quickly followed by a “crunching” sensation as legs and other bodily extremities are concertinaed into easily removable parts. Falling off cliffs and high buildings is not to be mistaken for “flying”, a wholly different concept altogether.
10) “Feet” are usually found on the end of legs, just below ankles. If foot is found in or around other parts of body (ie, in mouth) please see a manager immediately for corrective therapy.
11) Please keep “feet” in good repair at all times, well-oiled, and free from toe-clag. They must be appropriately encased in “shoes” or “boots”. Accidents caused by inappropriately encased or ill-maintained feet are not Royal Mail’s responsibility.
It comes in different forms. Sometimes it’s in an envelope, with “Delivered by the Royal Mail” on the front. There’s no name on it as it goes to every address.
Sometimes it’s a little booklet with various products for sale. Or a large card with a detachable portion with a return address advertising such things as double glazing or hearing aids.
We’ve been sending out the same advert for hearing aids ever since I came to this office. It goes round and round the office, from walk to walk, from postman to postman. And then, when everyone from every walk has delivered every one of them to every door, we start out all over again.
Hearing aids, hearing aids, hearing aids.
How many deaf people do they think there are in this little town? How many ears to they think we have?
Worst of all are the glossy A4 sheets. They’re big and shiny and they smell of ink.
They stick together.
They flop about.
They rip. They crumple. They won’t go through the letter box.
You try to push them through the letter box and they turn into something resembling papier-mache. They go soggy in your hand. They soak up your sweat. By the time you’ve finished clutching a bunch of them they’ve half-melted, turning into a mush and sticking to your fingers as you try to force them through the letter box.
It’s like trying to post fresh salad. Not letters, lettuce.
And we’re not even paid for them.
We used to get paid per item, 1.67p each. That worked out at about £20 a week. Nowadays it is included in our workload. We have to stick them in our frame, one for each address, up to six items per household per week.
Think about it. I have 600 delivery points on my round. That’s “letter boxes” to you. Each delivery point has a slot on my frame with a house number underneath. (The roads are colour coded.) So I have to throw each one of each Door to Door item into each slot individually. I couldn’t say how long that takes. It varies from week to week and on the nature of the item (the A4 glossies are the worst): but it’s never less than an hour and a half.
On top of that you have to deliver them. This is all weight in your bag, in addition to the regular mail. Our bags are supposed to be a maximum of 16 kilos each. Sometimes they throw spot checks to make sure you’re not going over the limit, although everyone does of course. But all this extra weight means extra bags, which mean extra journeys to the drop-off points, which means you are later going home.
Me: if I had the choice I would refuse to carry it.
I hate it.
The customers hate it.
Sometimes it’s all I have to deliver.
Sometimes people come to the door to collect the mail, and it’s all I have to hand them, this trash. A bulk letter about home-insurance, a glossy sheet about boiler repairs, and a large printed card about hearing aids. Always something about hearing aids. And I hand it to them and say, “Sorry, it’s only rubbish,” and they look down at it, wrinkling their noses, and then back up at me with real disappointment – for some older people the postman’s visit is the highlight of the day – and they say, “I’ll just redirect it to the council, shall I? That’s straight in the bin then,” and I think, “What am I doing this for? I never became a postman to deliver this rubbish.”
Because that’s what it is. Rubbish. Literally rubbish. From my hand, through the door and into the bin. They might as well put a bin next to the letter box with two arrows. “This is for the mail” pointing at the letter box. “And this is for the rest of the junk,” pointing at the bin.
Or maybe we should just deliver the whole lot of it direct to the dump.
I wouldn’t mind so much if the advertiser did some basic research. Like I deliver to a block of flats. It’s 11 stories high, sheltered housing, owned by the council. How many of them are going to want double glazing? And still I’m posting double glazing adverts through their doors, week-in and week-out, year after year as I have been these last god-knows how many years.
They’ve already bought all the hearing aids they will ever need.
Or I deliver items for the blind. This is the kind of stuff I like to deliver: the weekly talking newspaper. But then I have to shovel another bunch of stuff through the letter box that the sight-impaired person on the other side of the door couldn’t read even if she did want double glazing or a new hearing aid.
Why does she need a talking newspaper? It’s because she can’t read. So why send her stuff to read then?
Basic research. Don’t just throw paper at people. Find out if it’s appropriate first.
What I hate the most is our contribution to global warming.
Whole forests are being chopped down so that you can cast a quick glance at a glossy sheet or an envelope and then throw it in the bin.
Trouble is the union are complicit in this. I spoke to my union rep. I said, “can’t we run a campaign against junk mail?”
He looked at me as if I’d gone loopy.
“It’s all money,” he said.
“I should be allowed to refuse it on ethical grounds,” I said. “The government should make it illegal. Anything. Just so I don’t have to deliver junk mail any more.”
“Money,” he said, repeating himself.
If you ask me that’s the whole cause of the problem.