At the Royal Mail you are sometimes made to come into work even when you are sick or injured.
They monitor your attendance. If you are off work more than a certain number of days they put you under threat of dismissal. It doesn’t matter how ill you are, they still threaten you.
If you are off work for sickness or injury more than three times in a year, or for more than three weeks in a row, you are given a warning. This is a Stage 1 warning. If you go over the limit a second time you are given another warning. This is a Stage 2 warning. If you exceed the limit for a third time you are given a Stage 3 warning and threatened with dismissal. After that you can’t afford to take time off from work no matter how severe the illness.
The Attendance Procedure works whether you are ill or not. All absences are assumed to be illnesses, but all illnesses, no matter how severe, count towards your absences. So a day off from work with a hangover is counted the same as a week off from work for a hernia operation; and a month off work after a heart attack will count the same as three separate days off for sheer laziness. Hernia operations and hangovers and heart attacks are all counted the same in the Royal Mail book of illnesses.
So say you have an accident and you’re off work for more than three weeks. At this point the office starts to ring you up asking when you will be back at work. They will ring you up daily, hassling you to come back to work. And no matter how ill you have been, you will get a warning when you do eventually come back.
You could come in on crutches, and you’d be given a warning. You could be bandaged up to the eyeballs. You could have coughed up your oesophagus. It makes no difference. You’ve been off work, so you will be warned. Three weeks off twice in a year and you’re up for dismissal, and that’s that.
We’ve all seen it. People who have had heart attacks or hernias, or some other major illness, crawling into work to avoid the warning, or hauled up before the “lino” (as we call the manager) and given a reprimand. People under severe stress, or with depression. People with broken arms or legs or twisted backs. People on medication, too drugged up to walk in a straight line, pleading for some understanding.
It’s no good protesting that you are ill. The lino loves his job. He will smile at you – sweetly, or gravely, or maliciously, depending on his personality – and say he’s sorry. But he’s not sorry really. He doesn’t have the choice, he’ll say, the computer has flagged you, and you have to be given a warning. No space for personal initiative here, or judgement, or an intelligent weighing up of the circumstances: you’ve had too much time off and you will be punished.
Also, one day off counts the same as a week. So if you’re off for one day you might as well take the week off. If you underestimate your illness and come back to work too soon, only to find you are still ill, or the illness recurs, and you take another day off, this will count as two absences, and the computer will flag it, and you’ll be one step nearer a warning.
The result of all of this is twofold. One: you will take a week off work even for the slightest illness. Two: you will sometimes have to go into work even if you are sick and contagious.
In other words, the Royal Mail would rather you came into work and make everyone else sick than allow the possibility that occasionally people might ring in sick and take a day off because the wife is feeling horny that morning.
Such is life in the modern Royal Mail.
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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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 LRB blog
- Going Postal
- 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
- The not so jolly postman | Roy Mayall | Comment is free | The Guardian
Postal worker Roy Mayall loves his job the fresh air, the early starts, even the Christmas rush. But this year it’s not quite so much fun
- Dear Granny Smith: A Letter from Your Postman by Roy Mayall
Dear Granny Smith: A Letter from Your Postman: Amazon.co.uk: Roy Mayall: Books
“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 red elastic, and then packed into bags, turning the letters where there’s a packet. All this weight of communication on his shoulders, all this dizzying constellation of words. All these presents to be opened. All these thoughts to be remembered. All this love in scrawled handwriting. Love from Mum and Love from Dad and Love from your dear Aunt Vera. How much love have us posties carried down through the centuries? How much kind regards? How much that is now forgotten? How much that is yet to be written?
The everyday postie on his round, a secret conveyor of love.
From the Guardian.
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The Royal Mail’s Annual Report was published on 3 June, containing details of its executive pay for the previous year. According to the figures, Adam Crozier, the retiring chief executive, received more than £2.4m in the year 2009-10…
From the London Review of Books
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