Goodwill among delivery workers is in short supply. After years of being sidelined and ignored, I’m refusing to put in overtime
From the Guardian, Comment is free: Wednesday 18 December 2013 11.10 GMT
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.
Royal Mail has a new regulator, but its proposals fail to protect the service from privatisation and unfair competition
From the Guardian, Comment is free
Friday 28 October 2011 08.00 BST
The Royal Mail now has a new regulator, Ofcom, which took over the role from Postcomm on 1 October. Ofcom has already issued a report in which a number of changes are proposed. There is a public consultation under way, which closes on 5 January 2012.
The most contentious of the proposals is the one to lift the cap on what the Royal Mail can charge for its principal service. According to some reports this could mean the price of a first-class stamp going up to £1. Less well recognised, but equally important, is the proposal to lift the cap on the price of bulk mail and business mail, which could also have an impact on customers further down the line.
The move to Ofcom follows on from proposals made in the Hooper report, which has been the basis of policy for successive governments since it was first published in 2008. It was updated at the request of the current government in 2010.
Hooper makes a number of recommendations, of which the change of regulators is just one. Other recommendations include the introduction of private capital through a “strategic partnership with a company with corporate experience of modernisation” – privatisation – and the removal of the pension deficit to the public purse, thus lifting the burden from any future buyer. In March 2010 the deficit stood at £8bn. Hooper states that his proposals must be taken as a package, which implies that privatisation is not far off.
The stated aim of both the Hooper report and the Ofcom proposals is the protection of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) by which the Royal Mail is required to collect and deliver letters six days a week at an affordable and uniform price across the UK. None of the other mail companies has this obligation. It is interesting to note that these proposals come on the eve of privatisation. They allow any future buyer the freedom, not allowed to the Royal Mail for the past few years, to set a price in line with actual costs.
Meanwhile Ofcom also offers safeguards to protect vulnerable consumers from onerous price rises by placing a cap on the price of second-class stamps of between 45-55p. It also, very significantly, promises “to require Royal Mail to continue to provide competitors with access to its delivery network”.
It’s at this point that we enter the bizarre world of “downstream access”. Hooper explains the term in his report, in a footnote on page 12:
“Royal Mail delivers 99% of all letters downstream. Royal Mail is required by the regulator … under the terms of its licence to deliver letters for competitors who collect and sort upstream in competition with Royal Mail. This is called the access regime or downstream access regime. Competition in physical mail happens upstream whereas downstream delivery of physical mail has the characteristics of a monopoly.”
Do you get that folks? “Competition in physical mail” – that is competition for profits – “happens upstream”, while “downstream delivery of physical mail” – that is, the actual work – “has the characteristics of a monopoly”. Royal Mail has a monopoly of the work, while the other companies get a share of the profits. And you wonder why the USO is under threat?
The Ofcom proposals continue: “Royal Mail would have the freedom to set the ‘wholesale price’ for access to its network but would be subject to rules regarding the allowed margin between the wholesale and retail prices. This would help ensure that efficient competitors can compete effectively with Royal Mail.” This is known in the business as “headroom”. It is the difference between what the Royal Mail is allowed to charge, and what the “competitors” – who don’t, in any recognisable sense of the word, actually compete – require in order to continue to generate profits for themselves.
Ofcom makes a sort of nod of recognition to the absurdity of the situation when it promises, in the next sentence, “to assess on a case-by-case basis any interest in providing so-called ‘end-to-end competition’ in the UK, where a postal operator receives the letter and delivers to an address without using Royal Mail’s network.” It is interesting to speculate what this might mean. Are we going to see rival pillar boxes on our street corners, and rival posties with different coloured uniforms vying with each other to get to the letter box first? Will there be a kind of postal workers’ turf-war going on, in which I meet my rival at the gate and have to fight him off for access to your letter box?
Of course not. The rival companies will only consider an end-to-end service if there is profit to be made, which means they won’t be in the slightest bit interested in the USO. If such a thing happens at all it will be delivery within one city, or between cities, no more. Rural and remote areas of Britain will never be graced by any but the Royal Mail’s characteristic uniform. Whatever else happens, the Universal Service Obligation will remain the obligation of one company alone. Which is the reason why the Royal Mail will always remain a special case.
Read more here
The Royal Mail’s decision to leave undelivered mail with neighbours fits in with its policy of closing delivery offices
From the Guardian, Comment is free
Monday 3 October 2011 10.09 BST
How well do you know your neighbour? Well enough to trust him with your valuables, for instance, with confidential information, with your cup-final tickets or your passport? Well enough to allow him to receive your latest bargains from eBay or your brand new iPhone?
Currently the Royal Mail is the only postal company not allowed to leave undelivered mail with your neighbours. Instead a 739 (“Sorry you were out”) card is left and the items returned to the local delivery office for collection.
In future, if you are not in, the postal worker will be expected to try delivering to a neighbour instead. A neighbour is defined as someone who “lives within close proximity”. It’s up to the postal worker to decide who this might be. If the neighbour accepts the item, then a 739 card will be delivered to your door detailing the address where the mail is left. If the item requires a signature, then the neighbour’s signature will be taken. If the neighbour is not at home, or refuses to accept the item, then the postal worker will return it to the delivery office in the usual way. The Royal Mail will not accept liability for loss, damage, or delay once it is in the neighbour’s hands.
According to the latest research by GfK NOP market research carried out on behalf of Consumer Focus, customers are generally suspicious of the proposals. Four out of five of those questioned said that they should be allowed to opt-out of the scheme if they wished, while nearly half (49%) said that neighbours shouldn’t be allowed to sign for recorded post. One in five people said they were unhappy for any neighbour to be given any post.
The Royal Mail states that the reason for the change in procedure is to “bring its service into line with other providers”.
That’s “modernisation” for you. Because other mail companies provide a lesser service, the Royal Mail feels obliged to reduce the quality of its service too. I always thought the idea of competition was that it would improve the service. Not so, it seems …
Actually, I think the company is being disingenuous here. I think it has little to do with saving money or with competition. Something else is going on, something you will know about if it is happening in your area, but which you will not have heard of otherwise: the large-scale but mostly hidden closure of delivery offices up and down the country.
Just to give you some idea of the scale of these closures: in the last month I’ve had notification of the impending closure of more than 10 delivery offices in the UK. This includes the closure of a number of delivery offices in the RG7 postcode area around Tadley, Hook and Thatcham and their removal to Reading, about 11 miles away. The Reading delivery office is also due to close, and the whole lot moved into an industrial estate outside the town. Also planned for closure are offices in Dundee, Hull, Holbeach, Fishguard, Droitwich, Guisborough, Malmesbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay.
The most high-profile closure is that of the central London delivery office in Rathbone Place, which serves W1, WC1 and WC2, which Great Portland Estates has just bought for £120m. I have to say that sounds like a bit of a bargain for a 2.3 acre site, just off the eastern end of Oxford Street, in the heart of the London’s fashionable West End. The Royal Mail operation will be moved to the Mount Pleasant office in Phoenix Place, Islington, a significant bus or tube journey away.
These are only the ones I’ve heard about in the last month. According to the Royal Mail annual report 2010-2011, 19 delivery offices closed last year. This should give you some idea of the on-going scale of the programme.
The reason news of the closures remains hidden is that the story always appears in the local paper and as yet there has been no notification in the national press. There are small-scale protests happening throughout the country, as local people are beginning to recognise the implications of the closure of their particular delivery office, but no recognition of the sheer scale of the closure programme, nor what this will cost in terms of extra journeys to and from distant offices for the nation as a whole.
Just to give you one example of this, if the Herne Bay and Whitstable delivery offices close and their operations move to Canterbury, some eight miles away, then this could mean in the region of 1.5m extra miles of road journeys per year for staff going to and from work and for customers forced to pick up their undelivered mail.
Hence the need to change procedures. While staff will have to undertake the journey regardless, customers might well prefer to risk having their mail dropped off with a neighbour rather than having to drive to some out-of-the-way office on an out-of-town industrial estate to pick it up.
Royal Mail is supposed to be a low-carbon company. As it says on the website: “We want to make sure our services have a positive impact on society and a minimal impact on the environment – and we’re working with you and our partners to make it happen. For us, sustainability affects every part of our business, every day, and we can all make a contribution.”
Meanwhile the Royal Mail are raking in vast amounts of cash for the sale of prime real estate in the heart of our towns and cities. Where will all the money go I wonder?
Read more here.
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.
A Panorama programme on postal junk was compelling, but didn’t mention that the market is skewed against Royal Mail
Junk mail. We all hate it don’t we?
Postal workers probably hate it more than anyone else, as we see more of it than anyone else. You only have a few items a week to deal with, we have hundreds of items a day. Sometimes we have as many as six separate items per household to load into our frames. That could be well in excess of 3,000 items a week. You can’t imagine how tedious this is.
And whereas in the past we were paid separately for it, as a supplement to our wages (which compensated us for it somewhat) these days it is part of our workload; and whereas the general estimate for the number of houses we cover on a daily basis is about 85%, for junk mail it is 100%, meaning it takes longer to deliver than ordinary mail.
Now a Panorama programme has been aired all about junk mail. It seems as if the Royal Mail is addicted to it – at least if you believe Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper report into the future of our postal services.
As he said in the programme: “There is absolutely no question that advertising mail, which the critics describe as junk mail, is central to the viability of the Royal Mail in the 21st century.” As proof of this he gave us some fairly compelling figures: about a quarter of the total letters market, of around £5.4bn, is advertising mail. Or as Tom Heap, the reporter, summarised it: “On the face of it, it seems the best way of ensuring the survival of our beloved postal system is to sign up to as much junk mail as you possibly can.”
Unfortunately, as the programme also pointed out, there are some pretty serious consequences to this, not least in the cost of disposing of the stuff once it comes through our doors, and – almost immediately – is chucked into the bin. Millions of pounds a year is spent by councils around the country, either in recycling the material, or in shovelling it into landfill sites.
It seems we are stuck with junk mail. Or are we?
The problem is that we were not given all the facts. There are a number of issues that Hooper – the acknowledged expert in the field – omitted to inform you about.
Central to this is something known as downstream access (DSA). This is the means by which rival companies are allowed access to the Royal Mail’s delivery network, at a loss to the Royal Mail. According to Royal Mail’s chief executive Moya Greene in December last year, this is in the region of 2.5p for every item of DSA mail we deliver. Some price changes have since been introduced by the regulator and the extent of subsidy and loss since the changes is as yet unclear [see footnote].
Yes, that’s right: we deliver our own rivals’ mail for them, and then we take a loss on it. By law. Or, to put it another way: we postal workers, and you members of the public, are made to pay so that rival companies to the Royal Mail can make a nice profit. This is what Hooper refers to as “modernisation”. It is the real drain on the Royal Mail’s revenues, and the reason why it is now so dependent on junk mail to survive. Sometimes we are made to deliver our own competitors’ junk mail.
It is achieved through a process known as headroom. What this means is that the price the Royal Mail is allowed to charge for bulk mail delivery – the bills and statements sent out by banks and utility companies, which is the prime source of all revenue in the letters market – always has to allow headroom for its rivals to make a profit.
Without this artificial skewing of the market – in the name of the so-called “free market” – the company would not be anywhere near as dependent on junk mail for its future survival.
Actually, the Panorama programme was effectively two stories in one. Only the first part was about junk mail, the second part was about scam mail. What the programme failed to come up with was a solution to this particular problem, but I can provide that: allow postal workers to identify scam mail and to report it, and then allow the Royal Mail the legal means to stop it at its source.
There’s one old lady on my round who has been receiving scam mail. Day after day she gets a pile of letters from someone who is described on the envelope as “the world’s most trusted psychic”. The envelopes are always the same, but the return addresses are from all over the world. Sometimes I’m delivering 10 or 15 of these letters a day. I reported it to my manager and asked if we could stop delivering them, but he told me we couldn’t. It is paid-for mail and we are obliged to deliver it.
This is a perfect example of what I have been suggesting over and over again: the company should learn to trust its own workers. Because unlike the high-tech machines which are being introduced in the much heralded modernisation programme, us postal workers actually know our customers. We can tell the difference between scam mail and real mail. We know who is vulnerable and who is not, and we can alert our managers when a vulnerable person is being targeted.
I’m certain that every postal worker would recognise this material. If there was a system by which we could report it, and a legal means of stopping it, we could get rid of it overnight.
• This footnote was appended on 7 July 2011. TNT contacted the Guardian after publication of the piece to say the reference to the DSA agreement is not applicable in the context mentioned. “In fact there has been a 22 percent price increase in charges by Royal Mail this year alone which renders this argument obsolete”, a company representative said.
From the Guardian Comment is free
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As profits dive, it’s clear this management isn’t modernising, it’s running the company into the ground – but why?
However, when you start to look more closely at the figures you begin to realise that all is not what it seems. For a start, the company did still make a profit, which is unique among public services. We don’t expect the police to make a profit, or the fire service or the NHS, do we? And I suspect that most of the British public aren’t at all worried if the Royal Mail makes a profit or not, as long as they get their letters delivered on time.
Historically the Royal Mail’s profits were used to subsidise the Post Office which is also an important public service. All of that will change, of course, when the Royal Mail is privatised and the link between the Royal Mail and the Post Office is broken. Once the Royal Mail is privatised, the Post Office will have to go its own way, and don’t be at all surprised when more and more rural post offices start to close, and the post office counter service becomes a small adjunct of Tesco, squeezed between the deli, the electrical counter and the pharmacy.
This shows you the mechanism by which the privatisation agenda operates. It splits a unified service into its constituent parts, hiving off the profitable bits, while keeping the unprofitable bits in the public domain. This is in effect a form of public subsidy. That which can make a profit is given over to the spivs and profiteers of the private sector, while the rest of us carry the can for the bits of the economy that can’t make a profit, thus threatening not only the particular services involved, but also the cohesion and unity of society as a whole.
Many blame the breakdown in Royal Mail profits on the incursion of new technology into the communications market. Or, as the Daily Mirror put it: “Royal Mail profits smashed by competition and Facebook.”
This is simply not true. Most of the letters that people sent are still being sent. We might send birthday greetings to people we don’t know very well via Facebook, but how many of you have replaced the Christmas card list with a Facebook list in the last few years? Very few, I would suggest; none but the very young.
When you look at the real reason why profits are down it has virtually nothing to do with Facebook. It has everything to do with the Royal Mail spending vast amounts of money on a so-called modernisationprogramme that simply doesn’t work. £400m was spent on new machinery that actually slows down delivery.
We have two mail deliveries these days, instead of one. One is first thing in the morning, the way it used to be. The second is at about 9.20am in our office, which means full-time workers are now forced to take a break to wait for the lorry. So how is this “modernisation” exactly? By what process is it decided that a new machine which is slower than an old machine is actually more modern, just because you bought it more recently, or that having workers sitting around eating sandwiches is more efficient than having them delivering mail?
Millions more have been spent on a fleet of new vans to replace the bikes the Royal Mail intends to scrap. How crazy is that? To replace the world’s most energy-efficient machine, bar none with the polluting, inefficient internal combustion engine dependent on oil from the war-torn Middle East. To replace a tried and tested method of delivery in use for over 100 years, with an untried and untested method, that, everywhere it has been brought in, has been disastrous, as I’m sure people in a number of towns will testify.
Something very strange is happening here. It takes a radical redefinition of the English language to describe any of this as “modernisation”.
Also we have brand new uniforms. Who on Earth thought of that? Every single postal worker in the UK is being issued with a brand new set of clothes. New shirts, new trousers, new jackets, new caps, new waterproofs. And how much, exactly, did this cost, the refitting of an entire workforce? In this time of austerity and cutbacks, it seems, the Royal Mail judges fashion sense a more important issue than getting the mail delivered on time.
Finally, it is closing down hundreds of local delivery offices all over the country and relocating them to major city centre sites.
All of this is being done in the name of savings. It will cost less to maintain a single centralised office than a number of smaller offices. That’s the theory at least. But is it actually true? I’ve had my calculator out again and I’ve been working it out.
There are 50 workers each in the two offices in our area that are due to close – 100 altogether. It will take about half an hour each way to drive to and from the city. All of this has to be done in work time of course. We’re not counting the journeys each postal worker has to make to get to work and back. So that’s an hour of Royal Mail time spent getting us to and from the start of our rounds. We earn £8.86 an hour, so it will cost the company £886 a day, which is £5,316 a week, or £276,432 a year. Knock off days off and holidays, and the figure still comes in at around £250,000 a year. That’s a quarter of a million pounds spent on just getting the workforce to the start of the round every day.
How is that a “saving” exactly?
What kind of accountant adds a quarter of a million pounds to your wages bill and then describes it as a saving?
This is not to speak of the extra pollution of having hundreds of vans spluttering about during the rush hour or the cost in maintenance, petrol, tax and insurance, of running a fleet of vans. It’s not to speak of the traffic chaos in the city or parking problems around the new joint delivery office. It’s not to speak of the inconvenience for customers of having to travel eight miles to pick up their undelivered mail. According to the Royal Mail’s own figures this will be in the region of 100 a day in each of the two offices. I will leave it up to you to work out the figures on that.
All of this can only lead to one of two conclusions: either Royal Mail management is grossly incompetent, or it is running down the company on purpose, for some end that the rest of us have yet to be informed about.
Read more here.
Vince Cable needs to look beyond the headline figures and develop a long-term solution to Royal Mail’s problems
From Comment is free.
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