In the latest instalment of our What a way to make a living series, Daniel Freeborn tells us about the daily grind at a Royal Mail sorting office.
A shift in a Royal Mail sorting office starts with pushing through a turnstile that will usher you into the sorting hall. From the moment you walk through the doors, the workplace itself creates divisions between workers. Where Royal Mail employees are allowed to simply walk through the turnstile, the agency workers not employed directly by Royal Mail have to press the intercom and wait until someone attends to them. This is ostensibly for security reasons, but it also signifies a number of fairly significant divisions between staff.
The objective of the job is to sort, under intense pressure, and dispatch letters and parcels to their various destinations – to meet up with strict dispatch times. I am currently on the Cancel-Facing-Culling (CFC) machine and this involves a team of 5 workers around a huge machine that process letters with normal Royal Mail stamps.
The work, in general, is physically demanding. Depending on the work area, some people get to sit while others stand for the whole duration of their shift. Strained backs and legs are not uncommon, and there is a regular shortage of stress mats to cope with the demand. Other workers, such as those on transportation duty within the sorting office have reported covering up to 20,000+ steps during shifts. There are regular complaints about the tedious nature of the work.
Ever since the company was privatised in 2013, there have been problems staffing, especially to cover sickness and other absences.
The sorting office is loud, shifts are long and the work is repetitive. By the end of the shift, you come back home completely enervated. The fact that it is an unnatural environment where a lot of the moving, twisting and turning you make – particularly for people standing on their feet – is inconsistent with your posture, doesn’t make it any easier. As a worker, you become, to quote Marx, ‘an appendage of the machine’.
In a gender- and ethnically diverse workplace, it is not uncommon to hear about cases of harassment and discrimination. Managers play an important role. A good manager can try to shield you from the worst excesses of the company. Managers are, however, acting on behalf of the company and ultimately are answerable to it. Bad managers will abuse health and safety rules, ignore complaints from staff and focus ruthlessly on meeting their targets.
While the arrival and dispatch time of the letters and parcels are the same, the forecast of the workload varies from shift to shift, day to day and season to season. For this reason, a business argument could be made for the use of agency workers as and when required. However, there can be no good reason for agency workers to be treated as second class workers. They deserve the same pro-rata terms and conditions as everyone else doing the job.
As an example of the different working conditions, whereas regular staff get a 1-hour break for an 8-hour shift, the agency workers are left at the mercy of their managers – sometimes they get as little as a 30-minute break for the same number of hours.
The regular staff of the business have a strong trade union behind them who mediate with Royal Mail on their behalf. This means that any changes or new systems introduced to the work area would usually go through the CWU representatives who, in many of the sorting and delivery offices, have their offices in the buildings.
Though the CWU can often exert its power over the workplace, the union needs to make more of an effort to recruit and organise agency workers. This will not be an easy task, given the precarious nature of their employment, and perhaps lessons could be learned from the excellent Better Than Zero campaign, but it will be essential if all workers are to be respected and treated fairly.
What a way to make a living is a fortnightly series, in which people in different working-class jobs to tell us about their working lives, how they feel about their work, what struggles they face at work and how (and if) they have tried to overcome them.
If you would also like to share your experience at work, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.