A postman's lament: 'All this belligerence, bullying and cajoling... we are being provoked'

A postman of five years' standing explains what the job has become and why the Royal Mail is worth saving. His name has been withheld

Related Topics

Old people still write letters the old-fashioned way: by hand, with a biro, folding up the letter into an envelope, writing the address on the front before adding the stamp.

Mostly they don't have email, and while they often have a mobile phone, they usually have no idea how to text. So Peter Mandelson wasn't referring to them in May when he pressed for the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, saying that figures were down due to competition from emails and texts.

I spluttered into my tea at that. "Figures are down." We hear that sentence almost every day at work when management try to implement some new initiative which involves postal workers like me working longer hours for no pay, carrying more weight, more duties.

"Figures are down," we laugh, as we pile the fifth or sixth mail bag on the scales and write the weight in the log book. It's our daily exercise in fiction-writing. We have limits per bag, on a reducing scale: 16kg the first bag, 13kg the last. If we did that we'd be taking out 10 bags a day and wouldn't finish till 3pm.

People don't send so many letters any more, it's true. But then the average person never did send all that many. They sent Christmas and birthday cards, postcards. They still do. Bills and bank statements and official letters still arrive by post; plus there's all the new traffic generated by the internet – books and CDs from Amazon, packages from eBay, DVDs and games from LoveFilm, clothes and gifts.

Royal Mail figures in May had the mail volume down by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by 10 per cent this year. Every postman knows these figures are false. How come I can't get my round done in under four hours any more? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight? How come something snapped in my back as I climbed out of the shower?

One thing you probably don't know is that the Royal Mail is already part-privatised. An EU "deregulation" directive means that any private mail company – or any of the European state-owned, subsidised mail companies – can bid for Royal Mail contracts.

Look at your letters next time you pick them from the doormat, at the right-hand corner, where the Queen's head used to be. You'll see a variety of franks: TNT, UK Mail, Citypost and others. These companies bid for the bulk mail and city-to-city trade of large corporations, undercutting the Royal Mail, and then have the Royal Mail deliver it.

TNT has the lucrative BT contract. TNT picks up all BT's mail from its main offices, sorts it, scoots it to mail centres in bulk, where it is sorted again and handed to postmen to deliver. Royal Mail does the work. TNT takes the profit.

These companies don't have any delivery obligation, as Royal Mail does. They aren't rival mail companies in a free market, as the propaganda would have you believe. None delivers any mail. All they do is ride on the back of the Royal Mail system and extract profit from it.

So if "figures are down", that doesn't mean volume is. Volume, over that last few miles to your door, is decidedly up. Even if Mandelson was telling the truth, that volume was down by 10 per cent, staff levels are down by 30 per cent. Each postman has a lot more work.

There is increasing tension in Royal Mail offices. There was a strike in 2007 and a national agreement on "pay and modernisation", but this year management has consistently implemented new practices, putting more pressure on the dwindling ranks of full-timers.

There is increasing pressure to collapse more "frames" – a frame is what used to be an individual postman's workstation, with his round divided into roads and numbers and a slot for each address.

Management are becoming more belligerent. For some weeks now the managers in our office have been bullying and cajoling everyone, saying that another frame must be collapsed – "figures are down" – that someone would lose a job, and that the workforce would have to decide which frame that would be.

Everyone refused. No one wanted to be responsible for making that kind of decision, for shafting their workmates. Then last week, it was announced, on the heaviest day of the week, and without notice, that a frame was going to be collapsed regardless. The shop steward's written objection was ignored.

Such was the resentment and the chaos that a lot of mail wasn't delivered that day. There's a feeling that we are being provoked. Everyone is gearing up for a strike.

The truth is that the figures aren't down at all – we have proof. The Royal Mail has been fiddling the figures. This is how it is done.

Mail is delivered to the offices in standard-size grey boxes. In the past, the volume was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There was an estimate for the number of letters in each box, decided by national agreement between management and the union: 208. So the volume of mail passing through each office was worked out: 208 letters per box, multiplied by the number of boxes. But in the past year, Royal Mail has arbitrarily reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box from 208 to 150.

Doubting the accuracy of this number, the union ordered a random manual count. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain 150 items actually carry 267. This manipulation explains how the Royal Mail can say figures are down when every postman knows that volume is up.

Like many businesses, the Royal Mail has a pet name for its customers: "Granny Smith". Granny Smith is everyone, but particularly every old lady living alone, for whom the mail service is a lifeline. When an old lady gives me a Christmas card with a fiver slipped in and writes, "Thank you for thinking of me every day," she means it. I might be the only person in the world who thinks about her every day, even if it's only to read her name on an envelope and put it through her letterbox.

There is a tension between the Royal Mail as a profit-making business and the Royal Mail as a public service. For most of the management – who rarely, if ever, come across the public – it is the first. To the delivery officer – to me, and people like me, the postmen who bring the mail to your door – it is more than likely the second.

We had a meeting a while back at which managers laid out the proposed changes: to hours, to working practices, to our priorities. We were told that the emphasis should be on the corporate customer.

Someone, an old-fashioned sort of postman, the kind who cares about these things, piped up: "What about Granny Smith?".

"Granny Smith is not important," was the reply. "Granny Smith doesn't matter any more."

So now you know.

This article first appeared in 'The London Review of Books'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Auditor

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: IT Auditor , Information Governance, NHS...

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The daily catch-up: heatwave update; duck tape and market socialism

John Rentoul
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

The grand plan of Tory modernisation has failed under an increasingly right-wing David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform