Is the government misdirecting the public over Royal Mail?
As newspapers sober up to a future without want or need for their dead trees, Royal Mail continues to sound alarm bells about the death of the letter. Peter Mandelson has been calling for the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, justifying the stance by claiming the system is outdated and delivery numbers continue to drop due to competition from emails and texts. The government is keen to bandy about the claim that the amount of mail being delivered has dropped by 10 per cent.
That's not quite the case however, according to one postman. He recently posted anonymously on LRB to talk through why the figures are anything but down, but why you're still reading headlines to the contrary. Here's a sample from his post on why those standing on your doorstep every morning don't believe the government's death knell for Royal Mail:
Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. The mail is sorted from these boxes, put into pigeon-holes representing the separate walks. This is what is called internal sorting and it is the job of the full-timers, who come into work early to do it. In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains, decided on by national agreement between the management and the union. That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.
Doubting the accuracy of these numbers, the union ordered a random manual count to be undertaken over a two-week period in a number of offices across the region. Our office was one of them. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain only 150 letters, actually carry 267 items of mail. This, then, explains how the Royal Mail can say that the figures are down, although every postman knows that volume is up. The figures are down all right, but only because they have been manipulated.
"Figures are down," we chortle mirthlessly, as we load the third batch of door-to-door catalogues onto our rounds, adding yet more weight to our bags, and more minutes of unpaid overtime to our clock. We get paid 1.67 pence per item of unaddressed mail, an amount that hasn’t changed in ten years. It is paid separately from our wages, and we can’t claim overtime if we run past our normal hours because of these items. We also can’t refuse to deliver them. This junk mail is one of the Royal Mail’s most profitable sidelines and my personal contribution to global warming: straight through the letterbox and into the bin.
People don’t send so many letters any more, it’s true. But, then again, the average person never did send all that many letters. They sent Christmas cards and birthday cards and postcards. They still do. And bills and bank statements and official letters from the council or the Inland Revenue 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 and other items purchased at any one of the countless online stores which clutter the internet, bought at any time of the day or night, on a whim, with a credit card.
You can't help but read the full post and detect a whiff of bullshit-baffles-brains on behalf of the government. Has the internet killed the letter, or simply provided a route of communication for those too lazy to ever write one? And if online retail is harming the high street, it can't simultaneously be damaging companies like Royal Mail, can it?