If private companies can pick the best bits of the network, the obligation to deliver to all is undermined. That’s why we’re considering action
According to a headline in Wednesday’s Daily Mail, postal workers are threatening “to ditch half of their deliveries in bid to protect Royal Mail from ‘unfair’ competition“. The Mail makes it clear with those quotation marks exactly where it stands on plans by the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) to ballot its members on whether to boycott letters handled by rival companies.
As the article says: “Royal Mail has lost business to the likes of TNT Post and UK Mail over the past seven years. Currently, half of all letters are handled by a rival company, with Royal Mail responsible for only the final mile of the delivery.” Again, it’s that little word “only” which betrays its prejudice. In case you’ve forgotten, the business of a postal delivery service is to deliver the post.
The Royal Mail doesn’t “only” deliver the final mile. The final mile is the actual work. All the rival companies do is collect the mail from the bulk mail contractors (such as banks and utility companies) and then drive it to one of the Royal Mail’s delivery hubs for distribution around the country. We do all the rest.
It is Royal Mail postal workers like me who walk along your street and up and down your garden path, six days a week, in order to get the mail to you. The technical term is downstream access. Private mail companies have access to the Royal Mail’s distribution system. The Royal Mail has to apply something known as “headroom” in fixing its price for this service. Headroom is the difference between what the Royal Mail is allowed to charge for its bulk mail contracts and what it can charge its rivals for access to the network. It has to allow rival companies headroom to make a profit.
The whole system is administered by Ofcom, the postal regulator. In other words, the Royal Mail is heavily regulated to achieve what is sometimes called “deregulation”, ie access of private companies to the postal market.
This is what the CWU is talking about to when it refers to “unfair competition”. As the union says: “CWU is concerned that unfair competition is undermining the sustainability of the universal service … Private postal company mail makes up 45% of letter volumes delivered by Royal Mail, a figure which has consistently grown under competition arrangements. New end-to-end competition is a worrying expansion, further undermining the USO [universal service obligation].”
Guardian readers will not be surprised by this statement, as I’ve been banging on about the issue for the last three years at least. What is new is the introduction of so-called end-to-end competition into the postal market. Currently only one company, TNT, is doing this, with around 300 delivery staff delivering mail to about 350,000 households in west and central London.
What this means is that TNT continues to use the Royal Mail’s downstream access service in all but those 350,000 households, although in a recent press release it said it planned to increase the number of its postal employees to 20,000 in the next five years.
There is no obligation on TNT to deliver the universal service, therefore it is able to cherry-pick those parts of the network that are the most profitable. Nor is there any obligation to match the Royal Mail’s pay and conditions.
In other words, what this amounts to is an attack upon our jobs. If TNT and other private mail companies are able to pick the best bits of the network with no obligation to deliver to the rest of the country and, at the same time, are able to pay reduced wages, then this is clearly a threat – not only to our pay and conditions, but also to the universal service. Personally, I will be voting yes when my ballot paper arrives.