I started working for the Royal Mail sometime after the turn of the Millennium. It was a job I had always wanted. Healthy, out in the fresh air, involving at least four hours a day of intense exercise, and a degree of autonomy, with no managers looking over my shoulder – at least while I was out on my round – it was the perfect job. Still is in many ways.
The basics of the job haven’t changed. I still walk from one address to the next sticking letters through letter boxes. What can possibly go wrong? Well a lot actually. They can destroy the industry by undermining the pension, introducing a form of fake competition, and then privatising it. Competition was introduced in the wake of the third EU Postal Services Directive of 2008, which required all postal markets to be opened up to other companies.
I say ‘fake competition’ because how can you introduce real competition into what is, in its essence, a natural monopoly?
I started working for the Royal Mail sometime after the turn of the Millennium.
It was a job I had always wanted. Healthy, out in the fresh air, involving at least four hours a day of intense exercise, and a degree of autonomy, with no managers looking over my shoulder – at least while I was out on my round – it was the perfect job. Still is in many ways.
The basics of the job haven’t changed. I still walk from one address to the next sticking letters through letter boxes. What can possibly go wrong?
Well a lot actually. They can destroy the industry by undermining the pension, introducing a form of fake competition, and then privatising it.
The pension was undermined between 1990 and 2003 when the company took a pensions holiday, failing to pay its share into the pension pot. They could not possibly have done this without the agreement of the government. This left an £8bn pension deficit, later rising to £10bn, which the government used as a way to begin the privatisation narrative. Look, the Royal Mail is failing, they said: we need to privatise it. It nationalised the liability – taking the pension deficit in-house – while beginning the process of selling off the assets on the cheap to its mates in the private sector.
I say ‘fake competition’ because how can you introduce real competition into what is, in its essence, a natural monopoly?
The Royal Mail – or Post Office as it was more commonly known – had only ever been in the public sector during its entire 500 year history. It had created the whole distribution network – the systems, the methods, the procedures – as a seamless unity. Indeed, there’s a good argument to say that the Royal Mail is responsible for the creation of our modern-day nation. It brought together the different parts of the country by giving everyone an address and a post code, accessible to all for the price of a single stamp.
How can there be real competition when one company, and one company alone, is required, under the Universal Service Obligation (USO) to deliver to every address, no matter how remote, in the whole of the United Kingdom: not only from Land’s End to John o’Groats, but from the Scilly Isles to the Outer Hebrides, from the Isle of Wight to the Isle of Man?
It’s easy to make a profit delivering from city to city, from London to Manchester to Glasgow, or from district to district inside the same city: much harder if you take in all the towns and villages as well; almost impossible if you include every isolated cottage, croft or farmstead in between. Only the Royal Mail is obliged to deliver to all of these.
The way they engineered the competition was through a process called ‘downstream access’. Previous privatisations gave access to the industry network – the electricity grid, the water pipes or the gas pipes – to all the rival companies on an equal basis.
In the case of the postal industry the equivalent of this was us: the postal workers on our rounds.
So the Royal Mail’s rivals were allowed to bid for the bulk mail and city-to-city contracts of all the main services – the banks, the utilities, the NHS, Amazon, eBay and all the rest – and then expect us to deliver it for them.
In other words, in this industry, me and my labour – my living, breathing, heart-pumping, energetic body – is viewed as the equivalent of the tangles of copper wires or the networks of underground pipes that serve as the infrastructure in other parts of the economy.
Even then the other companies would have been unable to make a mark. The Royal Mail was too big and too well-established. It could have crushed the other companies underfoot. So the government introduced a principle called ‘headroom’. When the Royal Mail charged the other companies for its downstream access services, it was obliged to leave financial space for them to make a profit.
So there was never a ‘free market’. It was a highly regulated market from the outset: that is, the Royal Mail was regulated in order to allow the other companies the freedom to compete with each other.
And then there was privatisation, which took place in October 2013, as I’m sure you all remember.
Part of the justification for this was that people’s habits were changing. People didn’t send letters any more: they sent emails and texts instead.
If you listen to the Royal Mail, they will tell you that there has been a 40% drop in mail volumes in the last ten years. This might be true, although there does seem to be a marked increase in advertising mail at the same time. But the one thing they failed to mention was the increase in packets. The same technology that has effaced the ancient and noble art of letter-writing – never something the majority of the population engaged in anyway – has also, at the same time, allowed us to buy our goods online.
This has been by far the greatest shift in the industry since the onset of the digital revolution: the sheer number of packets we carry, a much more profitable enterprise.
I can’t believe the government hadn’t predicted this when they decided to sell off the Royal Mail, or that experts in the industry weren’t already aware of it.
In other words, it’s been one giant-sized con from beginning to end.
The other element that comes into this has been the separation of the Post Office from the Royal Mail.
The Post Office has always made a loss. The Royal Mail has always made a profit. By retaining the Post Office in public hands, while selling off the Royal Mail, they’ve ensured ever increasing profits for the private sector, and ever increasing burdens for the public.
There’s been extraordinary pressure on Post Office Ltd, the government owned company that runs the counters that sell you your stamps, to cut costs and make efficiency savings. What this has meant is that post offices are being franchised out into supermarkets, where the staff are paid at retail trade rates under minimum hours contracts, rather than the well-paid and secure jobs that skilled post office workers used to command. The Post Office is no more than a minor adjunct of the retail industry these days.
Most post offices are also grossly understaffed, which has meant massive queues this Christmas… and for all Christmases to come, unless the industry is brought back together again.
I’ve called this piece ‘The Year They Privatised Christmas’. That’s because the Royal Mail was always an integral part of the Christmas story.
Still is. We deliver all your Christmas cards and most of your parcels. All holiday rights are cancelled for the season, and most postal workers – at least in the past – were willing to go into serious levels of overtime to get the job done. Our MP always comes down to the office to congratulate us on our work. We are like modern day Father Christmases in our red vans, wrapped up against the cold in our red fleeces, delivering presents to your door.
By privatising the Royal Mail the government has effectively privatised Christmas.
It has turned me into a mere utility: an overground delivery system without a will of my own.
The management may not be looking directly over my shoulder, but they make me carry a PDA – a ‘postal delivery assistant’: effectively a tracking device – which tells them where I am and where and am heading every minute of the day.
They make me work harder and faster for the same basic wage. They are constantly ratcheting up the pace and the work load, to make sure I do more work in the same number of hours. They have degraded me and degraded my job in order to squeeze out more profits for their shareholders.
So you won’t be surprised to hear that most of the good will is gone. Postal workers are less and less likely to go into overtime. We are less and less likely to want to do management any favours.
That’s why we voted so overwhelmingly to strike in October – 89.1 per cent in favour on a turnout of 73.7 per cent – not only to secure our pensions and our jobs, but also to secure the future of the Royal Mail – and Christmas! – for all.
Today is the last day for sending first-class post if you want it to arrive before Christmas. You’re lucky there’s anyone to deliver it. In October, the Communication Workers Union held a ballot which came out overwhelmingly in support of strike action – 89.1 per cent in favour on a turnout of 73.7 per cent – but the Royal Mail got a High Court injunction to stop the strike.
If you believe Royal Mail, letter volumes have declined by 40 per cent in the last ten years as people have increasingly taken to email. But there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable loss from where postal workers are standing. In fact, volumes are as high as they’ve ever been. It’s true that people don’t write so many personal letters any more – that was always a minority interest anyway – but the loss of personal mail has been more than compensated for by a marked increase in advertising mail. I’m sure you’ve noticed it too.
It’s a joke in the office. ‘Figures are down,’ we say, while loading all those extra bags into the back of the van. And it’s here we see a really strange thing in the conduct of the postal industry in the UK. There are just as many letters as there were before privatisation, but many of them are now ‘handled’ by rival mail companies like UK Mail and TNT, who, while they take the profit for handling it, don’t actually deliver it. We deliver it. Yes, that’s right: the Royal Mail delivers its rivals’ mail. Management tells us that if we go on strike it will strengthen our rivals, but without us, our rivals can’t exist.
The rival mail companies are allowed to use Royal Mail staff and equipment to deliver their post, through a process called ‘downstream access’; at the same time, none of them is hampered by the Universal Service Obligation, which requires the Royal Mail to deliver to every household in the country, no matter how remote.
Meanwhile, the privatised Royal Mail is now under an obligation to increase profits to pass on to shareholders. What this means is that there is growing pressure to cut costs, to deliver the same amount of mail using fewer staff.
The way they achieve this is through a process called ‘lapsing’. What they do is to break down two or three rounds in the office into their constituent parts – they ‘collapse’ the frames – thus saving on the wages of the workers who would otherwise have delivered those rounds. They then hand the extra bundles on to the rest of us to deliver.
Which is fine on a light day, but these days we lapse almost every day; and because of the pressure to cut costs there is no longer any spare capacity in the office. There aren’t enough staff, and if something unexpected happens, like one or two people going off sick, or a surge of mail, there isn’t the man-power to cope. This is when mail gets left behind. This is when third-class mail is given priority over first-class.
Which is what happened recently. There was a last-minute surge of mail, including a significant quantity of first class letters. Well, I say ‘last-minute’. It was last-minute as far as delivery staff were concerned, but the management, who brought it in from the lorries, and the people who run the sorting machines, must have known it was there all along.
There were howls of protest from the staff. How are we going to sort and deliver this, and take out the lapsed mail?
That’s when I heard something I’d never heard before in all my years as a postman: instead of dropping the lapsed mail, some of which was just the third-class advertising junk known as Mailsort, we were told to leave the first-class mail under our desks.
You may ask why they did this. And the answer is: I have no idea. But I can take an educated guess. It was about saving money. They didn’t have anyone to take out the lapsed mail, so, rather than bring in casual workers, which would have cost them, they decided to delay the first-class mail instead.
None of this happened when we were publicly owned. First-class mail was always given priority, and most postal workers were willing to go into overtime to get it delivered. Not any more.
Christmas arrived for us posties on Wednesday the 4th of December this year. The start of the week had been quiet, with just a trickle of festive mail, but on the Wednesday there was suddenly an avalanche of post falling on top of us: thousands of cards and hundreds of parcels, as well as all the usual advertising, Christmas catalogues and charity begging letters. It’s been like that ever since.
I must admit I don’t deliver all of it. I sort it, bag it up, and deliver some of it. The rest I pass on to one of my colleagues to deal with. For the first time since I started working for the Royal Mail over 10 years ago, I “cut off” on my round: that is I work my hours and refuse to go into overtime.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the influx of temporary staff, or the army of casual workers on rolling contracts, the Christmas mail would never get delivered. It always used to be a matter of pride to me that I would finish the job, no matter how hard it got. Not any more. There are a number of reasons for this. First, they got rid of our bikes and replaced them with trolleys, meaning that mail delivery now involves four hours or more of relentless walking, a much more tiring activity than cycling.
Second, they moved our delivery office to the nearest city, several miles away. I now have a half-hour commute to get to work in the mornings, a half-hour drive to get to my round, another half-hour to get back to the office and yet another half-hour drive home again. I used to cycle into work and then cycle to my round. I was far more inclined to do overtime when it took place 10 minutes from home. It is much less appealing when it means driving home late, tired and in the dark.
Third, all the goodwill I used to have has gone. I no longer feel any loyalty towards the company I work for. Years of being sidelined and ignored, of a failure to consult over the most fundamental aspects of my working life, has left me feeling estranged. I used to love my work. These days it’s “just a job”: something I do because I have to, not because it gives my life any meaning any more.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Privatisation has merely intensified the mood. Of course, if you were to believe Vince Cable or his advisers, you’d think that without privatisation the Royal Mail would be finished by now. Figures are down, they used to tell us. People are using email and text these days, they don’t need a postal service any more.
Christmas is a reminder that this was always nonsense. People don’t send Christmas texts instead of cards, and no matter how good the technology gets, it will never be possible to send a parcel by email.
Indeed, this is the distinguishing characteristic of this year’s Christmas mail: the sheer number of parcels we have to deliver. I’ve never seen so many. The great skill of our job these days is in keeping a track of them, in knowing how to incorporate them into the rest of the mail.
The very technology they claimed spelled doom for the postal service allows people to go online at any time of the day or night, buying stuff on eBay and Amazon, most of which gets sent through the post. These could be the boom years for the Royal Mail as the margin of profit on parcels is much greater than it is on letters.
Even before privatisation profits were increasing. Pre-tax profits were £233m for the six months to 29 September, up from £94m a year earlier. This was all within the public sphere, so no one can pretend that privatisation had anything to do with it. In other words, everyone knew that there was a bonanza on its way. The real point of privatisation, it seems, has been to allow the private sector to cash in on it.
Something that hasn’t been mentioned much in the post-privatisation analysis is the amount of money the Royal Mail stands to make out of its immense property holdings. One building alone in the company’s portfolio of disused offices in London – the mail centre in Nine Elms Lane – has been valued at half a billion pounds. That’s one-sixth of what the government sold the whole company for.
The office was closed in 2012, more than a year before the sell-off. And it’s not the only one. Dozens of delivery offices up and down the country, including mine, were closed in the run up to privatisation. Several of them remain unsold.
Could the offices have been kept empty on purpose? Royal Mail bosses now stand to make a lot of money out of the company they once used merely to manage.
“A postal duty is, in effect, a four hour intensive workout, and it gets increasingly difficult the older you get. Any further pressure on delivery staff is likely to leave us suicidal.”
According to the Daily Telegraph, “American activist investors” – who are becoming the main buyers into Royal Mail – believe that the company “could execute deeper cost cuts and yield far bigger profits”.
Staff costs are one of the areas being looked at.
“The productivity improvement rate is really pretty low, given the amount of new technology at the company,” said a source. “Now 80% of mail is sorted by technology, yet the productivity costs have only come down marginally in comparison. The company could be far more aggressive on driving the costs savings through.”
We all knew this would happen. The pressure will soon be on to cut staff numbers and to increase workloads in order to improve productivity.
But I can tell you now that this is just not possible, at least where delivery duties are concerned. When Panorama did a programme about the Royal Mail in 2009, it arranged for former Royal Marine and military fitness expert Tony Goddard to test a duty. He was unable to finish it in the allotted time, saying that it was “unreasonable” to expect postal workers to do it five days a week.
A postal duty is, in effect, a four hour intensive workout, and it gets increasingly difficult the older you get. Any further pressure on delivery staff is likely to leave us suicidal.
However, there is some truth in the assessment. The productivity improvement rate is, indeed, pretty low given the amount of technology that has been introduced. There’s a reason for this. It’s called “Methods”.
This is the internal name for the modernisation programme which the company has been undertaking since 2009. It involves the scrapping of bikes and their replacement by trolleys: two postal workers working out of the back of a van using customised golf trolleys, carrying two bags apiece.
The ostensible reason for the new method is so that we can carry more packets: packets being the new growth area within the postal business. However, it is also considerably slower than using a bike. Just to give you a measure of this: my round used to take around three hours and fifteen minutes. Under Methods we are supposed to manage our rounds in four hours. That’s already forty five minutes longer than before. However, there is never a day when we can complete the round even in this time, often going as much as an hour over. In other words, the new method is at least a third slower than the old method.
It is also much more tiring. Using a bike we were constantly changing position: sometimes walking, sometimes scooting, sometimes cycling, sometimes freewheeling down a slope. All we do now is four hours or more of relentless walking, mile after mile: around twelve to fifteen miles a day. My hips and my back ache from the strain and all I can do when I get home these days is to eat my dinner and fall asleep in front of the telly.
Slowing down the work while making it harder: I wonder whose bright idea that was? The reason it’s called “modernisation” and not “a big pile of shit” is that it is being modelled through a computer. We’ve replaced an old technology – bikes – which were very efficient at delivering the mail, with a new technology – computers – which are very efficient at measuring the process. We’ve privileged the needs of the office over the needs of the job. Now you tell me which is more useful in an industry whose sole purpose is the delivery of mail?
It’s a pity they never thought to ask us posties. We would have told them that it wasn’t going to work. TNT – one of the rival mail companies currently experimenting with end-to-end delivery in some parts of London – do so using bikes, while Deutsche Post has recently been testing electric bikes on the streets of Berlin.
The reason the CWU went along with the new method is that it was supposed to take the weight off our shoulders. In fact it has done the opposite: it has put weight onto our shoulders, as in an effort to get the work done on time, many posties are now dispensing with the trolleys.
But the real measure of the insanity of this is that despite the fact that it was extensively trialled, and that it has consistently shown itself to be slower and more costly than the old method, it has nevertheless been rolled out throughout the country.
This is the reason why the productivity improvement rate is so low, despite the amount of new technology being deployed. If “activist investors” really wanted to improve productivity, then they could start by bringing back the bikes. After that, they might consider reducing staff numbers by getting rid of everyone who thought that “Methods” was a good idea in the first place. That includes Moya Greene.
Here’s a summary of the whole advert, in one paragraph:
There’s a Sikh postie walking along a corridor; a little girl placing stamps upon a parcel; a pen drawing hearts in red ink upon a sheet of paper; a man paying for his parcel delivery on-line using a tablet computer; a shot within a parcel depot featuring parcels running on a conveyor belt with lasers reading the addresses; delivery to a café (the café owner opens his arms as if he’s about to embrace the postie) followed by a series of other deliveries in quick succession: to a stately home, to a garage complete with garage-band, to a little girl’s birthday party; a Muslim postie walking passed a training centre with the words “For Hire” painted on the wall; delivery to a factory; a black female postie smiling (the only woman postal worker in the advert); delivery to an upmarket London townhouse; two rain soaked posties; another Royal Mail parcel depot featuring brand new, sparkling-clean Royal Mail lorries; a Royal Mail lorry driving passed a remote rural village; a little girl opening up a letter box in anticipation of a delivery (an intense light bursts from the letter box like a mystical sign); that Sikh postie again, in a massive block of flats (an Indian woman answers the door wearing rubber gloves); another postie dwarfed by another huge, semi-circular block of flats, followed by the slogan, “We deliver one billion parcels a year”; a shot of a postal worker raising his arms in apparent blessing of the contents of a Royal Mail van (he’s like Jesus blessing the loaves and the fishes) ending with the words, “We love parcels.”
Everyone is smiling.
All of that to the words of All You Need Is Love:
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need.
And there you have it: the hypocrisy of advanced capitalism in precisely one minute.
The Royal Mail delivers none of that. It doesn’t deliver love. It doesn’t deliver diversity. It doesn’t deliver a welcoming smile. It doesn’t deliver to stately homes, to garages or to birthday parties. It doesn’t deliver hope and anticipation. It doesn’t deliver mail to remote communities. It doesn’t deliver friendliness in the rain. It doesn’t even deliver parcels. We do all of that: the men and women of all backgrounds and ethnicities who work for the Royal Mail. That’s our job.
Now that it is privatised, the Royal Mail’s job is simply to deliver returns to its investors.
For a long time now the Royal Mail has been divided, between management and postal workers, between those who see it as a business, and those who see it as a service. The people who commissioned that advert are the former rather than the latter. It’s not a service to them, it’s a way of making money.
“Granny Smith” is the postal worker’s affectionate nickname for you, the customer. Or rather, for the people that we regard as our customers, the people we meet on the doorstep everyday. But the Royal Mail management doesn’t regard you as their customers. They don’t meet you but once in a lifetime. You are merely the recipients of the mail. Their customers are the people who send the mail in large quantities: the utility companies, the banks, the advertisers, the bulk deliverers, the people who churn letters out by the tonne using advanced computer systems, the mail-shot companies using lists they’ve purchased from other advertisers, the conveyors of junk mail and other unwanted material, the people who fill up your halls and your bins with garbage, the landfill merchants. Those are the Royal Mail’s customers, not you. The people they make the money off.
See: that’s the hypocrisy of that advert. They know that postal workers are held in high regard by the public. They know that most of us will go out of our way to look after our customers, that we will do our best even in adverse circumstances, that we will give that cheery smile in the rain. That was always the case in the past, though it’s getting rarer and rarer as time goes by.
In the old days, we loved our job. It was great getting out and about, on the streets of our towns, delivering the service we knew you wanted. The work was energetic but satisfying. It brought us face to face with our neighbours. And we had a little time to spare back then. There were enough of us doing the job to get the work done and still have enough time left over to lead lives of our own.
Fifteen years ago, the average delivery span was two and a half hours. That’s two and a half hours of high-octane energy expenditure: a workout by any other name. It kept us fit, it kept us happy, it kept the endorphins flowing to our brains. It kept us smiling.
We would get up early to greet the dawn and have the mail on your doorstep by breakfast.
That’s not the case any more.
Ten years ago the delivery spans were increased to three and a half hours.
These days the average delivery span is four to four and a half hours. After two and a half hours of intense work the endorphins cease flowing and the pain starts to kick in. We walk till we ache. We no longer have time for our customers and we’re so dog-tired at the end of the day that we don’t even have time for ourselves. We eat, we sleep, we work, that’s all. There’s no energy left for anything else.
This is called “productivity”. Less posties doing more work, at a faster rate. In the past decade the company has lost 50,000 jobs, with more job losses promised now that it has been privatised.
Less jobs means more work for me. More hours on my feet. More weight in my trolley. More gates, more doorsteps, more letter boxes. More endless miles of trudging drudgery on the streets of my town.
The choice of the X Factor and Downton Abbey to air the advert was very telling.
The X Factor represents the illusion of capitalism, that we may find a way out of its servitude one day: that some of us, at least, through good luck or talent, will be given the keys to escape. Downton Abbey represents the reality: a servant class serving a privileged elite.
As a public service our service was to you, the public. As a privatised monopoly our service will be to the shareholders from now on.
One of my neighbours came over to say hello the day the Royal Mail was privatised.
‘I expect you’re looking forward to getting your hands on all that money you’ve just made,’ he said. The shares allocated to me as a member of staff had gone up by almost 40 per cent in a day. The government had brought forward the date of the IPO in order to beat a strike ballot by the Communication Workers’ Union. Most of us, like most people, were against the privatisation. It felt like my neighbour was congratulating me on taking a bribe.
I lost my temper, and told him what I really thought about the privatisation. I pointed out the contradictions: that the state has spent billions of pounds of public money to subsidise the bargain basement sell-off; that the pension fund was nationalised to sweeten the deal; that the loss-making Post Office was decoupled from its more successful partner and retained in public hands; that pricing restrictions were lifted in anticipation of privatisation, allowing the company to increase its profits.
None of this has got anything to do with the free market. This is direct government intervention to create a rigged market. If the price restrictions had been lifted ten years ago, the entire argument for privatisation would have disappeared overnight.
My neighbour said that governments shouldn’t be involved in the business of running companies. He said that privatisation would allow the company access to future investment. He said that previous privatisations had been a great success, and cited British Telecom and British Airways as examples. He said that taxpayers were fed up with subsidising the Royal Mail.
The argument went on for a while. Every time I was about to get in my car he’d say something that I had to contradict. I finally lost patience and drove away when he talked about the investors who were going to help the company become a big success: ‘They are wealth creators. They build the factories so that we can have jobs.’
You hear that phrase ‘wealth creators’ a lot. It is a commonly used justification for the privatisation agenda, the idea that these individuals generate wealth by their investment. They are the ‘wealth creators’, and we are the beneficiaries of that wealth. It’s a form of magical thinking, like the pharaohs believing that their rituals were responsible for the flooding of the Nile, a post hoc fallacy: because they have invested in the company and increased their wealth, their investment somehow ‘created’ the wealth. The actual wealth creation, the work that my colleagues and I do, in this version of reality, is an accidental by-product of the process, a privilege I am allowed by the goodwill of these magically endowed individuals.
Moya Greene, the chief executive of Royal Mail, has already told us to expect job losses. Very soon I expect to be begging for the privilege of working longer hours for less money.