'The postal system is reliant on minimum wage temps'

A day in the life of a Royal Mail temporary worker
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The Independent Online

I have just completed an eight-hour shift without a lunch break (because I’m only technically “employed” for five hours I only have a tea break) consisting of three separate delivery rounds plus sorting.

This follows on from my night shift, a solid four-hour late night stint unloading and sorting mail bags and parcels from aircraft. It is continual physical work.

Large metal canisters are wheeled into the sorting house and a small army of yellow-jacketed sorters descend upon them, avoiding one another like dancing bees as parcels, bags and boxes of letters are swiftly sorted into metal cages and loaded onto articulated lorries and vans. Meanwhile, the same vans have unloaded mail to go to the aircraft. The shift goes on until 2am. Two of the younger temps stay only for the induction, before sloping off. They will probably get paid. As nobody signs us out, it is easily done.

The next day, the letters have been electronically sorted to some extent, but what remains is one of the most labour intensive systems I have ever seen. Ranks of postal workers, backed up by a number of temps, undertake the mind-numbing task of sorting the mail by hand into “walks”, cross referencing each mistyped, badly scrawled, dot matrix printed periodical and letter against a list, to put them on a shelf for further sorting. This box then goes to a “walk station”, where the letters are sorted by street and number, then bagged up by the postman.

The work is not hard, but it is dull. What makes it difficult is the lack of regular staff. During the day, it seems the whole system is reliant on minimum waged temps. Not only that, but due to a lack of vans I am often asked to use my own car to transport bags and personnel.

The round follows. I have two heavy bags, plus parcels. Thankfully it is dry, as is the wit of the people I meet. When it gets to the point that I’m delivering mail to shops at 5pm, I joke that the mail is not late, it is tomorrow’s mail today, being sent by Tardis.

The “two hour” round actually takes me three, because I am unfamiliar with the route. When I reach the last bundle, I realise I have delivered a few letters to the wrong apartment block. Since I have not been issued any red cards, I have to put any undelivered parcels back into the system. Later on, I discover an escaped letter under my passenger seat.

Working full-time hours for the minimum wage, I earn less than £11,000 per year. But because I’m an agency worker with no formal contracted hours, I do not qualify for tax credits. Instead I lose other benefits, which means I’m technically worse off than on the dole.

So where is the incentive? Well, after months of unemployment, I need to be back at work, and to be simply doing something. I need to set an example to my son, and I live in the hope that this will lead to something better. Meanwhile, I will stay at my post. I have little choice right now.

The postal system does need to be modernised, but it also needs more frontline staff. If one leads to the other, it should be the goal for both sides of the dispute. Naturally, the temps have no say in this – we’ve been told we are not required during the dispute. While I’m glad I’m not crossing a picket line, I could do without losing the money.