This is a letter written to the London Review of Books by a postal worker in London
Like Roy Mayall writing in your issue of 24 September, I am a postman and concerned at the absence in the media of any account of how mail delivery is organised and what Royal Mail’s modernisation programme entails. The programme was introduced because the popularity of email and texting has caused a drop in mail volume. Royal Mail’s first step was to reduce the number of walks. It did this by cutting some walks in each area and making the remaining walks longer. A postman who normally delivered mail to six streets, say, now found himself delivering to eight or nine. During the summer months, when mail volumes were low, he could, perhaps, just cope with this. But as autumn begins and the Christmas catalogues start to come out, every week and sometimes every day can be heavy. In the run-up to last Christmas, there were postmen who only finished their walks at 7 or 8 p.m., sometimes two or three times a week. In one depot alone, around 15 postmen phoned in sick. This Christmas, with the even longer walks, it could be worse. Royal Mail is a strong promoter of general health and safety, but as the walks lengthen and the loads increase, many of us feel that our own health isn’t being taken into consideration.
The next step in the modernisation was to stop overtime. The new, longer walks were generated by a computer program called Pegasus. We were assured that Pegasus had made all the new walks around three hours long. Some of the walks were indeed three hours long, and the postmen on those rounds had no trouble completing them in time. But a significant number turned out to be considerably longer – some of them up to four and a half hours long – and mail began piling up as postmen brought post back at the end of the day because they couldn’t deliver their loads without working extra, unpaid time.
The most recently introduced measure is to return from a four-day week to a five-day week. For postmen working a 40-hour week, this means there will be two hours fewer each day to deliver the same amount of post. It is now no longer possible for any postman – including those doing the three-hour walks – to complete his or her walk in the allotted time, no matter how fast they walk. As the pressures increase, many postmen who have been with Royal Mail for a long time are taking voluntary redundancy. A lot of knowledgeable, hard-working postmen are leaving.
Postmen speculate endlessly as to why Royal Mail is making it impossible for us to do our job properly. The most common theory is that Royal Mail actually wants to get rid of us and replace us with casual workers. Traditionally, Royal Mail hires casual staff to help deliver the heavy Christmas mail. This year the casuals never left. As required, they can be phoned at a moment’s notice to come in and help out. They may be asked to work for just a few hours or a whole day. If mail volumes are low, they are not called and are not paid. When paid, they are paid less per hour than the full-time postmen. And because, as casual workers, they cannot join the union, they have no representation if and when things go wrong. At present Royal Mail favours the casuals, but in time, if they start experiencing the pressures the postmen are facing now, there won’t be a union to protect them. In contrast to the casuals, postmen are mostly on 40-hour-week contracts. When they go on holiday or get sick, Royal Mail continues to pay their salaries. All these costs and difficulties fall away with casual workers. From a financial perspective, Royal Mail may think that getting rid of its long-serving postmen is worth it.
Maybe the fact that Royal Mail is now run by managers who have little or no hands-on experience and who use computer-generated models to organise everything is the explanation. We experienced this directly with Pegasus when some walks turned out to be considerably longer than others. The data that had been fed into Pegasus were standardised: each walk had a set number of destinations, with so many seconds to walk up a garden path, so many seconds to put letters through a letterbox etc. Not only did Pegasus get the total timings spectacularly wrong, but the walks made much less sense than when they were organised by the postmen themselves: for instance, a postman could find himself walking an extra 200 yards down the road to deliver mail to six letterboxes that would have more easily and naturally fitted into someone else’s walk.
A more cynical theory is that Royal Mail is being deliberately run into the ground so that when the next opportunity to privatise it comes around, people will be so fed up that they will accept it as the unavoidable solution to getting their post on time again.
A postman on a 40-hour contract works an eight-hour day on average. He or she spends the first two or three hours sorting the unsorted mail in the depots. He then takes 30 minutes for breakfast. For the next two or three hours he sequences the mail for his own walk so that he can deliver it door to door. He then has to travel to and from his walk and deliver his mail in the remaining time. It can’t be done, at least not without overtime, which Royal Mail has stopped altogether. Casual workers, however, don’t have to sort mail at the depot – this is done for them by the postmen on 40-hour contracts. Instead, they move straight to sequencing their door-to-door mail. When they leave the depot, they can take as long as they need to deliver their mail. On the heavier walks, some work 12-hour days. That’s how long it really takes to sequence and deliver some walks – and that’s without sorting!
Working for Royal Mail has become a bewildering experience. Depot managers pressure and harass us to comply to rigidly fixed unworkable schedules. They insist we take out full loads of mail, which they know and we know cannot be delivered in the allotted time. We therefore constantly bring back the undelivered surplus and waste time the following day getting it ready to take out again.
Meanwhile, the depot managers can report the walk as cleared to their superiors, who are obviously putting them under pressure too. It’s evident that some depot managers are just as unhappy with this state of affairs. Their orders are to push out as much mail every day as possible, regardless of the amount that comes back at the end of each shift.
Of course the strike is adding to the chaos, but it is not causing it. The one-day-a-week strike – now countrywide – is an attempt to pressure Royal Mail to come to the table to discuss the dire situation and a way for postmen to express support and solidarity with one another as we face an onslaught of unmeetable demands.