I was just watching a news item on Sky. It was a programme about TNT, the Dutch national mail company that has recently been ‘liberalised’. This is the company that earlier in the year Peter Mandelson suggested as a possible buyer for the Royal Mail.
Postmen over there are losing their jobs. Fixed contracts are being replaced by ‘flexible’ contracts, full-time postmen by ‘freelance’ postmen. People who have been doing the same round for 31 years are being got rid of and made to reapply for their jobs, but on a freelance basis.
The Dutch minister responsible for the change was being interviewed. ‘As consumers,’ he said, ‘and especially from business to consumer, there is more flexibility. Competition has made mail companies modernise, and that’s where consumers profit from.’
You have to pay attention to the words here.
Liberalised: That means open to competition, regardless of the quality of service. Cleaning services in hospitals were ‘liberalised’ and that gave us MRSA. Catering facilities in schools were ‘liberalised’ and that gave us turkey twizzler dinners. Rail maintenance and engineering got ‘liberalised’ and that gave us the Paddington rail crash.
Flexible: Flexible always means more work for the same pay; or in the case of TNT, more work for less pay.
Freelance postmen: Is this like being a freelance writer? Can I pick up the post any time I choose? Can I only post those letters I’m interested in? Of course not. What it actually means is ‘casual’, meaning you have no fixed contract, and anyone who’s willing to work for less can undercut you at any point.
But it was the Dutch minister’s words that were the most interesting. He used the word ‘consumer’ three times, but he did a clever thing. He shifted the meaning of the word from the beginning of the interview to the end. At the opening of his statement he meant it in the generalised sense, meaning everyone, you and me. Then he added that word business – ‘from business to consumer’ – and by the third use of the word it is clear that he is referring to something else entirely: to business consumers. Corporate consumers. Consumers who will make profits.
So now you know who is driving these changes to our mail service. It isn’t being done for the benefit of the ordinary customer, but by the corporations for profit.