Not so special delivery

He's been pilloried as a thieving layabout. But is the average postie really stealing the cash from Granny's Christmas card? Mike Dunn goes undercover to find out
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The Independent Online

At a cavernous warehouse in the west of England, the Royal Mail's Christmas workers are clocking on for the morning shift. It's 6.45am and, in the pre-dawn gloom, we nod half-asleep hellos and wait for a manager to sign our timesheets. We drift out onto the vast sorting room floor where millions of letters, cards and packages are waiting to be stamped, sorted and dispatched. Huge sorting machines normally deal with the bulk of the post, but at this time of year they are overwhelmed by the volume of festive mail. Over the next seven hours each of us will sort through thousands of items by hand and send them off for delivery around the UK.

At a cavernous warehouse in the west of England, the Royal Mail's Christmas workers are clocking on for the morning shift. It's 6.45am and, in the pre-dawn gloom, we nod half-asleep hellos and wait for a manager to sign our timesheets. We drift out onto the vast sorting room floor where millions of letters, cards and packages are waiting to be stamped, sorted and dispatched. Huge sorting machines normally deal with the bulk of the post, but at this time of year they are overwhelmed by the volume of festive mail. Over the next seven hours each of us will sort through thousands of items by hand and send them off for delivery around the UK.

Every December, the Royal Mail simply buckles under the pressure of the Christmas post. For the rest of the year, the system creaks and groans under the weight of 83 million letters and parcels a day, but in the run-up to Christmas the nation's mailbag almost doubles in size. By the end of this week, Britons will have posted some 140 million items a day.

The British may have invented the Christmas card and send more than any other nation on earth, but somehow our postal service is always caught off-guard by the festive rush. Knocking postal workers, and its casual workforce in particular, has become something of a national pastime. If you believe everything you read, casuals are to blame for almost all of the postal service's woes. Undercover reporters, on television and in the press, have relished exposing their alleged criminality. But are the 25,000 staff who are employed at this time of year really a load of thieving shysters, stealing money out of Mrs Goggins' Christmas cards before dumping the rest of Greendale's post in an old skip at the back of the depot? I have joined them to find out.

First, however, I have to go through the application process. Even for a four-week post, which will pay just over the minimum wage, I have to fill in a 12-page application form that asks for my address three times, my national insurance number four times and demands five signatures. "If successful, an offer of employment will be sent to you as soon as possible," states the Jobcentre's letter. "Any such offer will include reporting details, training dates, shift times and information on what you will need to bring with you on your first day of employment." It never arrives. Instead, a gruff phone call invites me to an induction.

About 20 of us turn up, a CD of Christmas carols plays in the training room while we wait. The manager is disarmingly frank: "Thanks for coming. It's complete chaos here over Christmas." She makes us sign a security form, which contains a confidentiality agreement warning us of the consequences of stealing, destroying or damaging letters, plus a clause about Official Secrets. She also tells us how to spot letter-bombs. She then explains how much we'll earn (£35 for a seven-hour shift), tells us there won't be any overtime and warns us that we may be sent home if we don't have our identity badges. She emphasises that we are not allowed to park in the staff carpark. "So once again, welcome to the Royal Mail," she concludes, before adding, with no trace of irony: "Shall I put the carols on again while we wait for your badges?"

Somewhat ominously, a couple of days before I start work, the regulator Postwatch announces that customers should simply not bother using first-class stamps this year. "More than three in every 10 letters posted first-class has failed to be delivered the following working day," it warns. "Postwatch recommends customers use second-class stamps. At Christmas time a first-class stamp does not mean a first-class service."

Midday, the following Monday, and about 25 of us have turned up for our first shift. We stand around in reception, arms folded. A framed copy of "The Night Mail" by WH Auden hangs on the wall, alongside cheerful paintings of postmen sorting mail and driving vans. There's a flurry of phone calls as we wait - the management is clearly not expecting us and have little idea who our supervisor is. "This is pretty embarrassing," murmurs one. Half an hour passes before a supervisor turns up. He takes us on to the sorting room floor and wanders round looking for work for us. Finally he leads us to a corner by the toilets. He explains how to hand-stamp mail and points to a huge rack of letters. We're then left alone to get on with it. We quickly run out of work and are left standing around. One of the regular workers comes over to unblock a sorting machine. We tell him we've run out of letters. "There's no rush here," he says. "Have a cup of tea and come back in half an hour."

What happens on the sorting room floor is shrouded in mystery: mail is fed into giant machines with rotating drums and is then spewed out into several different chutes. A conveyor belt carries trolleys stacked high with mail from one end of the building to another. Uniformed postal workers and a huge number of temps empty out mailbags, sort letters, wheel around great racks of post and feed letters into the machines. Giant screens on the walls of the sorting room flash up cryptic messages: "mails cleared to TCP", "Outhouse sorted 25k overnight" and then "Happy Birthday Eileen from your friends on the meter".

At 2.45pm someone comes over to check that we're OK. There's been scant supervision until now, and she explains that we have been stacking the letters in the wrong way. "That's going to cause extra work for the next person who has to deal with them," she says. She disappears. A few more boxes of letters arrive, but not enough to keep us all busy. A couple of the younger temps drift away. Time passes slowly. Halfway into our shift we're taken to another part of the building where thousands of letters lie on a long table - we're told to sort them into first and second class. Three hours to go: 6pm seems a lifetime away.

For the rest of the week, we're on early shifts - 6.45am to 2pm. Thousands of A4 letters are waiting for us when we arrive. We sit at small desks surrounded by 56 pigeon holes, each one marked with a different postcode, sorting out boxes of 100 letters at a time. Again, after a few words of instruction, we're left alone: the supervisor disappears and no one checks whether we're getting it right. There's a discussion about whether we put the letters in the hole above the postcode label or below. We're equally divided and each decide to do it our own way.

This is how it will be for the rest of the week: sitting here, sorting thousands upon thousands of letters with no incentive to work hard or get it right. I try to find out if anyone is paying even the slightest attention to us: I wear my security badge once and then leave it at home - but no one notices. One morning, I take half an hour off and wander round the sorting room - again, no one seems to mind. The following day, I don't turn up for work at all - no one says anything.

Much of the media may blame problems at the Royal Mail on criminals and work-shy casuals, but the truth about the Christmas rush is much more prosaic: the people who are drafted in to help are badly paid, extremely bored and ill-managed. Many of them have a poor grasp of English and an even poorer grasp of geography. If the 25,000 other temps drafted in across the country to deal with the Christmas rush are anything like us, and are managed in a similar way, it's a miracle that any letters arrive in the right place at all.

One of our team is a desperately surly teenager who only communicates in grunts and nods. He is extraordinarily acquisitive, finding a fluorescent Royal Mail tabard on the first day, and commandeering anything else he can get his hands on: gloves, pens, the ties that bind mailbags. He is friendly, in an offish way, with the young girl in our team. She's small, quiet and for some reason never goes into the canteen. For almost a week, she says the same thing to me, three or four times a day: "Borin', innit?"

Another worker is a Somali who came to Britain to earn money that he can take back home. Recently divorced, he wants to start an import-export business in Somalia with his brother. "But we have had a long civil war and everyone needs to hire security guards," he says. He works hard but his British geography is poor.

"Very confused," he says one afternoon. "Where is Hanto?" I explain that it's actually "Hants", and that a handwritten "s" can sometimes looks like an "o". The letter is supposed to be going to Basingstoke. He nods and puts it in a box going to Southampton. If I got a Post Office job in downtown Mogadishu, I'm sure I'd make as many mistakes.

My other temporary colleagues include a couple more school-leavers, two men approaching retirement age, a landscape gardener who doesn't get much work over Christmas, an out-of-work commercial photographer, a motorbike courier with so many metal pins in his legs that he finds riding in cold weather too uncomfortable, a man in his fifties who has just been made redundant for the fourth time in his career, and several more immigrants from Somalia. A strange combination of divorce, redundancy, unemployment and hard times has brought us together for Christmas.

About half of the workers on one of the shifts are from an ethnic minority, so walking round you're as likely to hear Urdu and Somali as English. For all our talk of integration, this is where the real multicultural Britain is still to be found: in insecure jobs, just above the minimum wage. Looking around, I wonder how many people the Royal Mail rejected for this job.

Towards the end of the week, I ask one of the supervisors how well the system is working. "I don't know, I don't usually work here," he admits. "I'm normally in one of the sorting offices." We talk about the problems of Christmas deliveries - he explains that about 1.5 million letters are being sorted and dispatched during our shift. But he adds: "There's a lot of doubling up. Lots of letters are mis-sorted and sent off to the wrong town. That means they can be in the system for days going from office to office before they get delivered."

This Saturday is the final posting day for second-class mail - but if conditions are anything like they were in my sorting office, you really shouldn't leave it until then. Even with all the overtime, and the army of 25,000 temps, Christmas has once again crippled the postal service. My guess is that many of you will still be enjoying your Christmas cards come early January.

Mike Dunn is a pseudonym

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