Looking for a hook to begin this pro-forma rant about the impending privatisation of Royal Mail, I got caught up thinking about children’s TV in the early nineties. As far as my hazy recollections of being aged four go, pre-school popular culture back then was by and large dominated by two characters: Fireman Sam and Postman Pat.
There’s definitely something significant in the fact that subconsciously a whole generation was raised with the mainstays of kids’ TV being working class people who were employed by the state and in their uniquely rural, provincial contexts, held a strong public service ethic. Secure pensions, decent jobs, a large level of autonomy in their everyday work and a knack for saving cats from trees – little wonder their respective unions in the real world – the CWU and the FBU – adopted each as mascots. (For the sake of this analysis I’ll push aside the rigid top-down classism of Thomas the Tank Engine or the Lion King’s proto-fascism, two other high points of 90s animation).
Further investigation derailed any point I was going to make about the heartless Tories ruining everything with their plans to float Postman Pat on the stock market. As it turns out, Pat was made to bow before the forces of neoliberalism over a decade ago. Stripped of his Royal Mail badge in a flashy new series, Pat has been re-invented as a courier for the ‘Special Delivery Service’, every episode a race against time to get his consignment completed by whatever means possible – helicopter, motorbike, parachute… management don’t set those targets for nothing kids! In any case, it’s a far cry from the reassuring banality of the Postman Pat I remember, who was more concerned about making sure all the farm animals got across the road safely and delivering the mail at a leisurely pace.
Where children’s television goes first, Tory policymakers soon follow. Earlier this month, Vince Cable announced that wholesale Royal Mail privatisation is on the cards for the autumn. As the ‘modernised’, 21st century Postman Pat – with his precarious hours, target-driven salary and pushy management can no doubt testify – it’s a spectacularly fucking stupid idea.
ONLINE RETAIL: A BOOMING SECTOR FOR SHIT JOBS
When I’m not blogging here/sleeping, I unfortunately spend most of my time answering calls and emails for a major retailer, which despite its history and ‘premium’ façade is basically run by a bunch of cutthroat venture capitalists who do everything as cheaply as they can get away with, while aggressively expanding their online operations. Online shopping, the part my (outsourced, naturally) workplace deals with = home deliveries, a sector experiencing rapid growth, and in reality is where all the money is to be made now for retailers struggling to make a profit on the high street and those in the delivery trade alike. This situation has developed in parallel to the steady deregulation of the postal network over the past two decades, now set to reach its zenith with a full-on stock flotation of Royal Mail. So parcels are big business (while letters have gone into freefall), with an alphabetti spaghetti assortment of different firms competing with each other in this sector. And as we all know, in a competitive free market, everyone’s a winner! Prices are driven down, efficiency is improved, customer & client satisfaction is maximised and the market is cut free from burdensome bureaucracy, all in the name of the profit motive… Of course, things are rarely this simple, particularly in the realm of macroeconomics…
For one, the new retail economy is founded exclusively on low wages and precarious labour. Your online order begins in a massive hangar in some regional backwater – probably sited especially for the sake of getting huge government subsidies. Amazon got £10m (i.e. four times their annual corporation tax bill!) of Scottish Government cash a couple of years ago to set up outside Dunfermline for the purpose of generating 1500 jobs, half of them seasonal. A former employee told A Thousand Flowers that the company are ‘notorious’ in Fife for their bad practice, with workers paid minimum wage, forced to pay for their own uniform and expected to walk 15 miles a day, picking things off shelves, their every move monitored by a computer. When they need to get rid of staff – as they do in their hundreds every January – work targets are set to an impossibly high level and inevitably failed. So even when you get sacked it’s your own fault.
Then there’s deliveries, which for the bulk of online purchases means either Royal Mail, their private competitors like UK Mail and TNT, or the dodgiest bastards of them all, the budget couriers – Hermes and Yodel being the the prime examples – whose drivers are technically “self-employed”. This means couriers work on a per-parcel rate, something like 50p per delivery, with which they have to provide their own vehicle and fuel, and being “self-employed” forfeit rights like, er… keeping their job when they’re off sick. After costs, Hermes couriers often end up working for about £3.50 an hour.
Then when everything goes wrong it’s left up to… low-paid call centre staff to try and clear it up! And on a distribution model staffed entirely by a low-waged, casualised workforce, it’s inevitable that things do go wrong quite a lot of the time, occasionally bubbling over into public controversy. “The Great Online Delivery Scandal” screamed the Independent on Sunday just after Christmas, while more recently Channel 4’s Dispatches secretly filmed UKMail staff chucking parcels around in a depot and discussing selling the goods on Ebay, and TNT postal workers binning letters. Predictably the companies involved – both of whom carve off more lucrative work from Royal Mail and then dump them with the unprofitable stuff – distanced themselves from ‘those guys running amok’, sacked them and then continued as they’d left of. To do anything else would undermine the model on which their entire business is based. Because for retailers and parcel companies alike, profits are rocketing but labour is unskilled, readily replaceable and, crucially, lacking in the organisation needed to push for something better. Every day I put refunds for damaged and missing parcels through to the value of several times my wages, but that margin of error is seemingly a price worth paying for ensuring a race to the bottom for terms and conditions.
WHAT ABOUT ROYAL MAIL?
Royal Mail is far from perfect, having been deliberately run down (‘modernised’) by recent Labour and Tory governments and oveseen by a distant, highly paid bureaucratic clique. For a solid overview of its current standing, this inquiry by a Glasgow postal worker on the appropriately titled It’s Getting Worse blog is good. As it makes clear, once in the private sector the only trajectory is downwards:
Postpeople want to do a good job, under reasonable conditions: I see no evidence of crime, or laziness – just overworked men and women doing their best to get through a tough week, every week. Preparations to become a private company are making this increasingly impossible. Under total privatisation, things will only get worse.
And things will get worse for everyone. Rural communities will find that doorstep deliveries six days a week somewhat conflict with the interests of profit hungry shareholders. In fact, in areas where TNT have started doorstep postal deliveries they only manage three days a week – and that’s in West London, hardly the most isolated part of the country! Vince Cable has promised that the universal obligation will still apply, but given the Government’s total subservience to corporate interests, it’s just a matter of time before this goes as well. Tory thinktank the Bow Group has warned that the price of stamps (already deregulated last year, leading to an immediate 14p jump in the price of 2nd and 1st class stamps) could dramatically rise, and that rural Post Offices would be driven to closure (Post Offices were separated from Royal Mail in 2012, and will remain in state hands… for now).
Or perhaps having realised that delivering letters to grannies in Tiree and Drumnadrochit is losing them money, Royal Mail PLC will just come crying back to the government for more money. A case in point is Virgin Trains, which has received billions in upfront cash handouts, state of the art new equipment and secret subsidies from the government since the railways were privatised in 1997. Our rail infrastructure, the tracks and stations on which Virgin rely, was semi re-nationalised as Network Rail in 2002 following a string of serious crashes… and currently runs at a £5bn loss a year. In essence the government is piling up debts so that Virgin, Stagecoach & First can continue squeezing profit out of something which, like the postal network, is a necessary public service and a natural monopoly. On that note, just for the sake of overseeing the postal privatisation process, the government will be handing over £30m to Goldman Sachs and UBS (famous champions of the common good) which is surely a forebear of things to come.
Call it what you want – ‘managed decline’ or daylight robbery, the sell-off of Royal Mail is bad news. How do we stop it? Key will be supporting planned industrial action by postal workers later this year, who’ve overwhelmingly rejected an 8.6% pay rise – a superficially impressive headline offer but one with all kinds of terms and conditions attached, including a no-strike clause. Workers want long-term job security, not temporary bribes to secure a smooth transition to the private sector. We can only hope that the threat of impending industrial chaos will be enough to ward off potential investors. In the meantime, it’s worth asking your MSP to sign the Scottish Greens’ excellent motion supporting the strike ballot.
As I’ve tried to show in the above though, this is a much wider issue than just what happens to the contracts of Royal Mail workers, the cost of a stamp or the fate of a rural post office – it’s about the kind of country we want to live in. The current terms of debate in Scotland could not be further from what’s unfolding in England. While the same parties privatising the post (+ Labour) in the No campaign hilariously claim that independence would put our ‘shared postal network’ at risk, the Reid Foundation’s Common Weal initiative is developing a coherent vision of an alternative path for Scotland. In reality, there’d be very little stopping a future government nationalising Scotrail, bringing our postal network back into public hands and dragging wages and conditions up in the private sector with a shift away from call centres, supermarkets and Amazon warehouses towards decent quality jobs doing more valuable work.
In an independent Scotland, there may be hope for Postman Pat yet.