Post, no haste

Dispute continues at Royal Mail as CEO faces questions

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A postal worker claims the future of the 507-year-old Royal Mail is under threat because of planned reforms that will see massive changes to the way post is handled and delivered.

In the wake of Royal Mail chief executive officer Simon Thompson being given a grilling at a House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Lancashire postie Alex*, who has been sorting and delivering letters and parcels for nearly 10 years, spoke of becoming increasingly disheartened with how the public service is becoming a commercial industry.

The committee has since raised concerns about the accuracy of the evidence Thompson provided and, in a rare move, summoned him back to face further questioning.

Committee chair, Labour MP Darren Jones, wrote to Thompson on Tuesday (24 Jan): “Following the session, I received a significant amount of correspondence from Royal Mail employees across the country, challenging some of the statements you made to the committee. The committee is now not confident that all the answers you gave during the session were wholly accurate.”

Although postal workers have been on strike, Alex said it is not all about pay but because of the changes that are proposed, which will have a serious and detrimental impact on Post Office users.

Alex said: “Royal Mail management is seeking to close almost every callers’ office in the UK, from this year. This is where you collect an item that could not be delivered because you were not in when the delivery person called.

“We have been told that in the future we will have three opportunities to deliver an item to a householder, or leave it with a neighbour, and if we are not successful then it will be returned to the sender.

“They will no longer be able to bring a card to a nearby callers’ office, which is often at a sorting office and sometimes attached to a post office, because they are being closed as early as 3 February.

“So if you have 50 parcels to deliver, and 20 go undelivered then those 20 will be added to the next day’s round, so potentially you have 70 to deliver. By the end of the week you may have hundreds, but no extra time.”

Letters given low priority

Staff have also claimed that they are being told to give posting letters a lower priority than parcels and Alex has witnessed piles of grey boxes full of letters in the sorting office at Christmas that went undelivered until January as the focus was on parcels.

Alex said a relative received a text from the NHS asking why they had missed their appointment but the hospital letter asking them to attend never arrived.

“Letters are a crucial way of communicating, especially for the elderly and the NHS,” Alex said. “Royal Mail is the only company that has the infrastructure to deliver to every single house in the UK. If they go through with the plans, then what is proposed will cause havoc.”

Management lies and bullying

After nearly four years, postie Ricky Stack quit his 25 hour-a-week job in Blackpool and, although he was ready to move on, he said the working conditions, management lies, and bullying culture forced him to leave early.

He agrees with everything Alex said, especially about letters being low priority.

“When you first start, the old boys talk about being part of the postal service as being something magical but say how much it has changed,” he said. “In less than four years I have also seen a change.

“The strike is not just about pay but the changes they want to make to our workload and the focus on parcels – they don’t care about mail. At Christmas we were told to get parcels out and leave mail.

“I left prematurely because of the way we were being treated. I couldn’t stand the attitude managers had towards staff. Over Christmas, there was so much pressure being put on staff to get all the deliveries out and as a postman you feel obliged to try to do the best for your customers.

“We were told to come into work even if we were ill and told that we would not be given sick pay. People were coming to work coughing and spluttering and people were physically crying. One colleague almost collapsed. His father took him to A&E and he had a lung infection. They took advantage of the vulnerable. I was coming back home mentally beaten and physically exhausted.”

At the BEIS Select Committee, witnesses from the Communication Workers Union voiced concerns about changes to the Royal Mail delivery service, including making staff redundant and replacing them with self-employed workers.

General-secretary Dave Ward accused Royal Mail bosses of an asset-stripping agenda and planning to break up the company.

He said: “It’s about replacing the existing workforce overtime with a new model which we have seen across the UK and is based on self-employed workers where they have to basically take the burden of paying for their own vans, they don’t get holiday pay, they don’t get sick pay, they don’t get pensions.

“It is all about stuff that we have seen in this country for too long and prioritising the shareholders in this debate over key workers.”

Alex said: “I worked seven days a week for 18 months during the pandemic, emptying priority post boxes in Lancashire to ensure that Covid test kits were collected and sent for testing. We did it because we wanted to help.”

Competing with parcels market

At the Select Committee, Ward said that led to the Royal Mail posting profits of £758 million in May 2022, but shareholders were given £566 million of those profits.

Ward told the committee: “What the workers are facing now, compared to the agreement that we had previously, is an attack on the number of jobs the likes of which we have never seen.”

He believed more jobs could be at risk than the 10,000 roles Royal Mail has officially said it was seeking. He cited intimidation that workers now faced from management and claimed this was to force workers out of their jobs to be replaced by cheaper employees.

Alex said: “All delivery workers have a PDA, a device that you use to scan the bar codes on parcels and to take a photo of it being collected, but these are also being used to monitor everyone’s whereabouts. They said they were not going to be used for that purpose. Staff have had bosses ringing them up saying they have to deliver quicker.”

It is also proposed that postal workers’ start times are staggered, with some beginning as late as 11am and then working into the evening, affecting family time. Alex said: “People I deliver to do not want me knocking on the door at 8pm.”

Thompson told the committee the business model for Royal Mail had changed significantly from 2003/4, when the service delivered 20 billion letters a year, to about 8 billion today: one letter per day to every other household.

He said the company was now focusing on investing to be able to compete in the parcels delivery market.

“Best and final pay offer”

When committee chairman Jones quizzed Thompson at length about various aspects of the changes, including a poster he had been sent on Royal Mail-headed paper in a sorting office that listed letter delivery as fourth in the list of priorities, he ended up warning Thompson about the seriousness of misleading parliament.

Big Issue North put all the points made by the operative to Royal Mail. A spokesperson said: “Every item of mail is important to us. Royal Mail does not operate a policy of prioritising parcels. We regularly remind colleagues that the delivery, collection and processing of letters and parcels should be treated with equal importance.

“Due to the amount of space they take up, parcels can restrict the movement of both people and mail in our offices, leading to health and safety issues and delays to other mail. At particularly busy times, such as in the recovery days after a strike, we may occasionally at a local level clear parcels to free up space and address health and safety concerns so that we can keep all mail – including letters – moving efficiently through our network.

“We are proud to have the best pay and conditions in our industry. In an industry dominated by the gig economy, insecure work, and low pay, our model sets us apart and we want to preserve it. Despite losing more than £1 million a day, and already offering a package that pays up to 40 per cent more than our competitors, we have made a best and final pay offer worth up to 9 per cent.”

The spokesperson did not confirm or deny plans to: close callers’ offices, the three delivery attempts and return to sender suggestion, changes in working hours, the use of PDA devices to monitor staff and claims there is a plan to make staff self-employed.

*Name changed

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