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PORTSIDE  April 2011, Week 4

PORTSIDE April 2011, Week 4

Subject:

In the Sorting Office

From:

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Date:

Wed, 27 Apr 2011 23:42:51 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (125 lines)

In the Sorting Office

James Meek
LRB Vol. 33 No. 9 . 28 April 2011
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n09/james-meek/in-the-sorting-office

Somewhere in the Netherlands a postwoman is in trouble.
Bad health, snow and ice and a degree of chaos in her
personal life have left her months behind on her
deliveries. She rents a privatised ex-council flat with
her partner and so many crates of mail have built up in
the hallway that it's getting hard to move around. Twice a
week one of the private mail companies she works for,
Selektmail, drops off three or four crates of letters,
magazines and catalogues. She sorts and delivers the fresh
crates but the winter backlog is tough to clear. She
thinks her employers are getting suspicious. I counted 62
full mail crates stacked up in the hall when I visited
recently. There was a narrow passageway between the wall
of crates and her personal pile of stuff: banana boxes, a
disused bead curtain, a mop bucket. One of the crates has
crept into the study, where the postwoman's computer rears
up out of her own archival heaps of newspapers and
magazines. Should these two streams of paper merge they
would not be easily separated. The postwoman hasn't given
up. She had a similar problem with the other private mail
company she works for, Sandd, a few years back. 'When I
began at Sandd in 2006 I delivered about 14 boxes of mail
every time,' she said. 'I couldn't cope and at Christmas
2006 I had about 90 of these boxes in the house. By New
Year's Day we had 97. There were even boxes in the
toilet.' The postwoman is paid a pittance to deliver
corporate mail. She hasn't done her job well, yet so few
people have complained about missed deliveries that she
hasn't been found out.

Across the world, postal services are being altered like
this: optimised to deliver the maximum amount of unwanted
mail at the minimum cost to businesses. In the internet
age private citizens are sending less mail than they used
to, but that's only part of the story of postal decline.
The price of driving down the cost of bulk mailing for a
handful of big organisations is being paid for by the
replacement of decently paid postmen with casual labour
and the erosion of daily deliveries.

I agreed not to name the Dutch postwoman or to give away
any detail that would identify her. Even if she wasn't
sitting on months of undelivered mail Sandd or Selekt
could sack her in a heartbeat. She works, she reckons,
about 30 hours a week for the two companies, earning about
five euros an hour, although the legal minimum wage in the
Netherlands is between eight and nine euros an hour. She
has no contract. She gets no sick pay, no pension and no
health insurance. One of the companies gives her a dribble
of holiday pay. Selekt gave her a jacket and a sweatshirt
but she gets no other clothing or footwear and has to pay
to maintain her own bike. The company is able to offer
such miserable conditions because of loopholes in Dutch
employment law. The postwoman is paid a few cents for each
item of mail she delivers. The private mail firms control
their delivery people's daily postbag to make sure they
never earn more than [euro]580 a month, the level at which the
firms would be obliged to give them a fixed contract.
Somehow Selekt has not noticed it is getting fewer empty
crates back than it sends full crates out. When I followed
the postwoman to the kitchen, I saw, like some recurring
nightmare, 20 more crates filled with letters.

Selekt's crates are yellow and stamped with the black
hunting horn logo of Deutsche Post, the former German
state mail monopoly that, like its Dutch counterpart, was
privatised long ago. For years the two have been locked in
a struggle for business on the streets of the Netherlands,
part of a fratricidal postal war across northern Europe
from which Royal Mail - soon, if the government gets its
way, to be privatised like its Dutch and German peers - is
not immune. Privatising old state post companies doesn't
necessarily make it easier for rivals to compete with
them. Privatisation isn't the same as liberalisation. But
in Holland privatisation and liberalisation combined have
altered the post in a way far beyond anything Britain has
seen.

Every week Dutch households and businesses are visited by
postmen and postwomen from four different companies. There
are the 'orange' postmen of the privatised Dutch mail
company, trading as TNT Post but about to change their
name to PostNL; the 'blue' postmen of Sandd, a private
Dutch firm; the 'yellow' postmen of Selekt, owned by
Deutsche Post/DHL; and the 'half-orange' postmen of
Netwerk VSP, set up by TNT to compete cannibalistically
against itself by using casual labour that is cheaper than
its own (unionised) workforce. TNT delivers six days a
week, Sandd and Selekt two, and VSP one. From the point of
view of an ardent free-marketeer, this sounds like healthy
competition. Curiously, however, none of the competitors
is prospering. TNT is being forced by the hedge funds and
other transnational shareholders who control its destiny
to split up, even as it tries to beautify its bottom line
by replacing reasonably paid jobs with badly paid ones.
Deutsche Post is pulling out of the Netherlands and
selling Selekt to Sandd - a company that has never made a
profit.

for the rest of this (long) article, go to
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n09/james-meek/in-the-sorting-office

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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