When Royal Mail modernisation means a worse service - Roy Mayall

Postal worker Roy Mayall describes the reality of Royal Mail's much-heralded 'modernisation', and the upcoming further 'deregulation' of the postal sector.

Submitted by Django on July 20, 2010

Last week we had our first batch of walk-sequenced letters through. These are the letters sorted by the new multimillion-pound walk-sequencing machines that the Royal Mail has brought in as part of their new modernisation and investment programme.

Essentially, what they do is to sort the mail into the order it appears on the sorting frame. The first letter goes into the slot on the bottom left-hand corner of the frame, and the rest of the letters follow from that, moving along the frame to the right, and up to the next levels, sequentially. The final address is on the top right-hand corner of the frame.

This makes the process of "throwing off" (finishing) the frame easier, as we always know where the next letter will go. Previously, letters were walk-sorted but not walk-sequenced. The letters would arrive in no particular order and the postal worker had to remember where on the frame the letters should go. The skill was in knowing your frame. It would usually take a week or two before you had properly learned your frame and were up to speed.

What the new machines have done is to take away the last element of skill from our job. There's no memory involved any more. We pull out a letter, and we stick it in a slot. We pull out the next letter and stick it into the same slot, depending on the address. Once all the letters from the first address are finished, we move on to the next address. We carry on and on like this until all the letters are sorted.

This does not necessarily speed up the process of throwing off the frame, as most postal workers know their frame so well they can sort it almost as fast without the walk-sequencing technology. Estimates are that it will save about six minutes a frame. Previously, it took about an hour and a half to throw off an entire frame, so six minutes doesn't really make all that much difference. But what it does mean is that the Royal Mail can now use unskilled labour to do what was once a moderately skilled job.

Some staff were knowledgeable in a number of frames, and could always be called upon to help with the sorting if there was pressure. Their skills are now entirely redundant. Anybody can do the work. You could pull any old clown off the street and hand them a box and tell them to get on with it and it would be done almost as fast as the most experienced postal worker.

At the same time, start-times have been put back to accommodate the new machines. Although they speed things up at the end of the process, in the delivery offices, the walk-sequencing machines slow it down at the beginning, in the sorting offices, as they take a lot longer to run than the old walk-sorting machines. Each frame's mail has to be run through the machine three times to make sure it is sequenced properly. The machines service a number of different offices and hundreds of frames. The mail for our office is now arriving one and a half hours later than it used to, which has put back delivery times by the same amount of time. Some posties are expected to be out on the street as late as 4pm.

In other words, modernisation, in this case, means a worse service for our customers. Small businesses and shops reliant on an early post will be particularly affected, and we have yet to see what the results of this might be.

This comes at a time of unprecedented changes for the Royal Mail. Not only is there a promise of privatisation and a new CEO in charge, but Postcomm, the postal regulator, is proposing a new set of regulations to be brought into effect in 2011.

Consultations began in May 2010 and are due to finish on 31 August. The proposals are as follows:

*The deregulation of price controls on packets and parcels weighing more than 750g. This is based on Postcomm's assessment that the market for this kind of product is already fully open to competition.

*The partial deregulation of "pre-sorted bulk mail". This is the stuff known to postal workers as "downstream access". It is mail that has been picked up and sorted by a private operator and then delivered to the Royal Mail for "final mile delivery". Even though large volumes of letters are previously handled by private mail companies, 99% are still delivered by the Royal Mail.

The Postcomm document goes into jargon-mode at this point, and it's worth quoting, if only to show how impenetrable some of the language is: "Changes to the regulation of access and changes to the headroom control, including reducing the level of headroom and creating a basket of regulated access and headroom controlled retail products allowing Royal Mail more pricing flexibility," it says.

What this means in plain English is that the Royal Mail is not allowed to undercut its rivals in the pricing of its own bulk-mail products. That's the meaning of "headroom": the difference between what the private companies charge and what the Royal Mail is allowed to charge by the regulator. Postcomm is proposing certain limited changes that will allow the Royal Mail to compete more effectively in this market.

Something very interesting comes up at this point. The process of opening up the postal market to competition is often called "deregulation" in the literature. But in order to achieve it, the Royal Mail has to be heavily regulated.

And then, when you look at who does the regulating – that is, who the officers and commissioners for Postcomm are – it turns out that a significant number of them have interests in the private mail market. The chairman, Nigel Stapleton, for example, is an independent director of KazPost, the Kazak postal services provider, while the chief executive, Tim Brown, was previously the sales and marketing director at DHL Express.

Or take Ulf Dahlsten, who was appointed a commissioner on 1 January 2008 for a three-year term. According to his entry on the Postcomm website, he has been "actively involved in the deregulation of the Swedish postal, taxi and telecom services".

Note that use of the word "deregulation" again. Deregulation for the private sector always means regulation for the public sector. It means restricting the public sector in order to allow the private sector to siphon off profits. When applied to the public sector regulation is always a good thing, but when applied to the private sector it is always bad.

Do you ever get the feeling we are being shafted here?

First published on Roy Mayall's blog.