Monday, 29 April 2013

TNT Explosive

Paul Mills writes:

Last week marked the formal announcement by the Minister for Business and Enterprise Michael Fallon that the Royal Mail will be sold off by next April, setting the ball rolling on what is set to be the biggest privatisation for over 20 years.

This follows the deregulation of postal services in 2006, which has allowed companies such as TNT post to win contracts to deliver mail on behalf of private and public sector organisations. TNT post are in a pilot phase in West and Central London this year, providing competition to Royal Mail to deliver letters directly to the doorstep for the first time in Royal Mail’s 360-year history. They intend to expand their operation across the country in the coming years, aiming to employ up to 20,000 postal workers.

In light of recent changes in the postal system, upon hearing of problems with mail turning up late and sometimes not at all, I went undercover as a delivery operative for TNT post for Channel 4 DispatchesSecrets of Your Missing Mail (airing at 8pm tonight) to examine the quality of service provided by privately owned companies. I found cause for concern on several fronts, arising from the profit-driven privatisation of an industry that remains an important public service; the contracts up for grabs include the delivery of crucial letters for hospital appointments, benefit assessments, credit cards statements and household utility bills, so it is paramount that these letters are delivered reliably, punctually and securely.

However, I found that the important task of getting crucial and confidential letters to people on time jeopardised by profit-oriented thinking that prioritises getting postmen back to the depot to meet targets. On several occasions, I was called back to the depot in the early afternoon with bundles of mail left to deliver, frustrated as there were no logistical reasons as to why these letters couldn’t be delivered that day. This attitude, combined with the fact that TNT only deliver to each address every other day, means members of the public can be kept waiting unnecessarily for days or even weeks before receiving crucial letters. One of our contributors, for example, missed an appointment for a cancer test due to the late arrival of a letter from TNT Post, and was then made to wait agonisingly for three weeks to receive the letter with his results. Whilst TNT have not confirmed the reason for this delay, it is clear that if they are handling letters of this importance, mail should only be returned to the depot if there’s absolutely no other alternative.

Furthermore, operating as private company - free from many of the regulations that bind the Royal Mail - allows TNT to operate on an uneven playing field. TNT are not obliged, like Royal Mail, to provide a universal service: Royal Mail are committed to delivering post up and down the country, six days a week, whether in Sheffield or the Shetland Islands, with a uniform pricing system allowing equal access to its services for everyone in the country. TNT, however, can simply cherry-pick highly profitable areas in which to operate, bidding only to deliver in dense urban areas such as West and Central London. There is a genuine concern amongst organisations such as the Communications Workers Union that this universal service will no longer be possible if private companies undercut Royal Mail for lucrative contracts, as it will leave Royal Mail unable to foot the bill for costlier deliveries in rural areas. Individuals and small businesses will be hardest hit, whilst the winners will be the large organisations that need to send out huge batches of mail.

Unlike Royal Mail, TNT have no obligation to meet the targets set by Ofcom, the independent regulator for the communications industry, so are not required to publish statistics or results on the quality of their service. Security practices were extremely poor at the depot in which I worked, as we delivered mail on bikes with no locks on the panniers containing the letters, leaving the bikes unattended in busy areas for lengthy periods of time whilst we walked large sections of our round. TNT hires temporary staff and students on zero-hour contracts and, whilst most of my colleagues were conscientious and honest, a combination of poor training, low pay and a transient attitude towards the job can only increase the likelihood of postal workers taking shortcuts and dumping mail, a practice that Channel 4’s Dispatches also exposed in this investigation.

Our investigation highlights worrying problems with privatised postal services; not only is our much-valued universal service under threat, but also the quality and integrity of services provided. If, as expected, privatisation continues to be rolled out across the country, the 29 million homes and businesses that rely on the service are entitled to expect better. 

And:

"TNT scum! How dare you set foot in the Post Office? Get the f*** out!"

This was the hostile introduction I got on my first day working undercover as a TNT postman for Channel 4's Dispatches investigation, Secrets of Your Missing Mail.

A weathered old-time postman was visibly irate when he saw me in the distinctive orange uniform of Royal Mail's rivals TNT, venturing on to his patch as I delivered a letter to a Central London Post Office . While this postie had picked the wrong person to do battle with – after all, I was just another guy trying to do a job – I soon understood his angry reaction to the imminent privatisation of the Royal Mail. Apart from the obvious threat to universal service, privatisation represents a direct affront to the working conditions that have been so hard-fought for by workers and unions over the years.

Last week marked the formal announcement by Michael Fallon, the minister for business and enterprise, that the Royal Mail will be sold off by next April, setting the ball rolling on what is set to be the biggest privatisation for over 20 years. This follows the deregulation of postal services in 2006, which allowed companies like TNT Post to win contracts to deliver mail from the supplier all the way to the letterbox on behalf of private and public sector organisations. TNT Post, who I worked for over the course of a month, are in a pilot phase in West and Central London this year, providing competition to deliver letters directly to the doorstep for the first time in Royal Mail's 360-year history. If successful, TNT will expand its operation across other parts of the country in the next five years, aiming to employ up to 20,000 postal workers.

So what does this mean for the 134,000 postal workers represented by the Communication Workers Union? And what can these changes in the postal industry teach us about how ongoing privatisations affect workers? As postal worker and blogger Roy Mayall points out, private companies are allowed to bid for these contracts with no obligation to meet the pay and conditions that Royal Mail workers have fought for over the years. During the time I spent as a TNT postman, I was able to see firsthand the ways in which widespread privatisations are leading to regressions in working conditions, with private companies exploiting the large numbers of desperate young unemployed to offer employment packages far inferior to their Royal Mail counterparts.

I was one of a growing number of workers on what is known as a "zero-hour contract". This term is used to describe an extremely precarious form of contract, in which workers are not guaranteed any hours of work. The number of major employers hiring on zero-hour contracts has risen from 11% in 2004 to 23% in 2011, with unions blaming government privatisation of services for this rise, denouncing these contracts as a throwback to the Victorian era.

Denied any fixed hours of employment, I was forced to hustle for my next day's work on an almost daily basis. Sometimes I took a gamble to come in as a "relief worker", arriving at the depot at 7.30am in the hope that someone would have dropped out so I could cover their rounds.

While zero-hour contracts prove convenient for students and part-timers, the reality is that these groups make up the minority of the workforce. For most workers, it proved to be a myth that zero-hour contracts translate to greater flexibility; I was advised by several colleagues that I should be ready and available for work whenever called upon if I hoped to get more regular shifts. It became clear that the balance of power in these arrangements is heavily weighted in the favour of employers.

Indeed, bosses are inclined to over-hire staff to ensure that they will always have enough staff for any given shift, which can leave workers without enough hours to make a sufficient living: on £7.10p/h (with London weighting), it is nearly impossible to make ends meet if you miss out on shifts for just a day or two. Workers are left walking this financial tightrope on a week-by-week basis.

This kind of "underemployment" is particularly insidious considering the fact that many of those recruited come off benefits upon gaining employment, only to earn an insufficient salary to adequately live on once they are actually in work. Official statistics of course show these people as being employed, despite the fact that in reality they are denied regular hours. This leaves workers obliged to navigate an uncomfortable no-man's land between secure work and benefits.

Furthermore, these kinds of contracts leave workers almost entirely at the whim of their bosses. With the decision as to who gets given shifts ultimately resting with the supervisor, workers are left vulnerable to favouritism. Employers do not need to find a reason for dismissal; they can simply phase out shifts until employees find themselves with little or no work.

A growing private sector workforce is being forced to live with no guaranteed level of earnings, unpredictable schedules, weak employment rights and precarious conditions.

In light of this, I can't say I blame the Royal Mail postman for losing his rag with me.

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