I went to live with my late husband in London in 1994. I found a part-time job (25 hours) as a postman/cook in the local sorting and delivery office. The office had won an award for being one of the most efficient SDO Offices in London. Out of about 50 men, there was one migrant from Asia, and the rest were native born, with a white to non-white ratio of about two to one. Morale was high. Everyone felt they were giving a good service and I felt with just a few tweaks it could have been an even better one. Those were the days of two deliveries. The men were out with their bags with the first class mail from about 7am. Many customers were getting their post before they left for work. Businesses would open to find their post waiting for them. Walks were about 300 doors. Conditions were good. Pay was reasonable – though not for London – where the London weighting hardly made up for the hugely greater cost of living. And big city postmen work the hardest. Retirement was at 60. Royal Mail was in profit and lining the government’s pockets. And RM had taken a pensions holiday as it was felt the pension funds were over-funded.
After I had been there for a couple of years, for no particular reason it seemed, the walks were rearranged. That meant about two walks were abolished and the remaining walks were re-jigged to absorb the work. This seemed to me a retrograde step. We were close to giving an optimum service. The change did not make any savings, just increased inefficiency.
A couple of years later the same again. Now it was a spoken policy to reduce the workforce. In fact all that happened was that walks were merged, the work became heavier, deliveries to some people were arriving later. Now the men were going out with two-pannier trollies. There was too much to carry. Walks were now about 400 doors. And the workforce remained the same because however you cut the cake, the cake was still the same size.
Another change, walks lengthened again. With the extra sorting there was no-one leaving the office at 7am. The men were now taking out 3-pannier trollies, and businesses and professional customers who work from home were complaining at the late arrival of their mail. Also the population density was increasing. Houses were being demolished and blocks of flats built in their place. Warehouses were converted into flats and in every space possible it seemed another building was being squeezed in.
Then the EU decided that all the postal services across Europe should be opened up to competition. Some countries objected (not the UK) that this would undermine the universal service, increase costs, reduce profits, and damage postmens pay and working conditions. Our parliament (Labour Government) waved the legislation through without discussion and the mainstream media ignored the change.
It was decided that it was “unfair” that the “competition” could not use the Royal Mail infrastructure. The Royal Mail ended up having to deliver their competitors mail for less than the price it cost to deliver it. The “competition” naturally, did not choose to take on deliveries to Scotland, or Cornwall, and they disdained household mail. They zoomed in on the easy to process, bulk business mail from banks/insurance companies and such like. The area where the Royal Mail had previously made a profit which subsidised the universal service and household deliveries. No business can stay in profit when the profit-making part of the business is taken away but it is forced to continue with the loss-making part.
The Royal Mail responded the only way it could. Now cost cutting measures and making savings was for real. The second delivery was abolished. More walks were merged. Postmen were laid off in droves. Night shifts were stopped where possible, increasing the amount of sorting for the postmen when they came in in the morning. Every attempt was made to find Sorting and Delivery Offices which could be closed and the premises sold. The postmen were now leaving the office at about 10am, pushing those large “coffins” which you now see which carry 110kgs. Our postmen were leaving the office pushing these, with bundles on top and carrying a bag. Businesses and professional customers were no longer complaining that they did not see their mail first thing in the morning, they were now complaining at getting their mail from 3pm to late in the evening, or not at all.
Several years ago, for the first time in I don’t know how long, the postmen did not get their annual raise. At just the same time the work had never been harder and the cost of living was soaring.
In the last five years in the office the only new staff intake were all migrants. One African migrant told me this “We African men have a problem. London is very expensive. So we have to work hard to support our families here. We also have family at home in Africa to support. We cannot stop working”. Overtime was reduced to an unbelievable minimum. No longer if someone was on leave or off sick would a casual be brought in to cover, or overtime arranged. Instead that person’s work was just divided up and plonked on top of the work that the men already had to do. When I left London (when the rent wiped out my entire income) in 2011, the staff in our office, now reduced to below 50, were taking out in weight between 110kgs to 175kgs each day. Walks are now between 500-600 doors, often deliveries cannot be completed in the time allotted. The trollies break down. The men start to get ankle and knee injuries. If you have a steep hill in bad weather such as rain, pushing a heavy trolley is an accident waiting to happen. Deliveries in snow are impossible, unlike twenty years earlier, when a driver would drop a postman with a bag with the first class mail onto his route. A number of the postmen were doing two jobs – one an 80 hour week, just to meet the cost of living. The Royal Mail is squeezing the last drop of work out of their staff – and they prefer migrants as they are more exploitable. The men looked exhausted, you could see it around their eyes. Retirement is now 67.
What changed? Twenty five years ago, when I first started work with the Royal Mail in Bradford, morale was high. I was a sorter then and then worked on the code desk. Work conditions were good. Pay was reasonable. The pension fund was in surplus. The RM was in profit and paying millions to the government, so they were unable to re-invest. Something they were criticised for. Our postal service was among the best, if not the best, in the world, in terms of reliability and value for money and providing a service that people wanted. When you compare our postal service with other European countries, especially Southern European ones, the RM definitely gave our businesses a head start.
The EU’s diktat of opening up the service to competition destroyed it. Gordon Brown’s pension raid torpedoed the pension. Thanks to Europe instead of a cheap, universal reliable service, we now have an expensive, increasingly erratic, unreliable service. The postmen of twenty years ago who were happy in their work providing a good service and retiring at 60, are now worked into the ground providing a lousy service which everyone condemns, and get the blame for circumstances which were forced on them.
Since I left London, Nine Elms, a major distribution centre in South London has closed down.
The excuse for privatisation is that it would improve customer choice, reduce prices and improve service.
We have none of these and an exploited labour force. Courtesy of a political agenda that nobody voted for.