The appalling state of working conditions in the Leicester garment industry has been known for at least a decade. Channel 4’s Dispatches broadcast an investigation in 2010 that revealed all the trademarks of endemic exploitation: pay at half the minimum wage; dangerous and unsanitary conditions; harassment and abuse. In 2015, the Ethical Trading Initiative commissioned research that found significant under or non-payment of wages; excessive working hours; a captive, vulnerable and exploited workforce; absence of contracts; egregious health and safety violations.
On 13 May, Italy’s government unveiled an economic support package that, among other measures, includes an amnesty for undocumented migrants who work on farms and in social care. ‘It’s true. I cried,’ the agriculture minister, Teresa Bellanova, who had proposed the amnesty, wrote on Facebook. ‘Because I fought for something I believed in from the beginning, because I closed the circle of a life that is not only mine, but that of many women and men like me who worked in the fields.’ Bellanova, who was born in the southern region of Puglia in 1958, began work as a day labourer on farms around Brindisi at the age of 15. She says she saw girls her age die from the harsh working conditions. She spent years as a trade unionist before being elected to parliament in 2006.
Within days of Covid-19 taking hold in the US and Europe, demand for fast fashion crashed. The production line was frozen. There were products in the design stage, fabric on order, fabric waiting to be cut, already cut, sewn, finished, ready for shipping, en route to stores, sitting in warehouses waiting for distribution, hanging in shops waiting to be bought. On any given day, these goods have a total value of billions of pounds. The question, when the crisis hit, was what to do with all the orders: some in progress, some finished and ready for shipping, some already shipped and awaiting sale.
When I was at primary school, one of the things they did to keep us occupied was make us perform a strange, tuneless chant about a factory worker named Joe. ‘Hi!’ we would shout. ‘My name’s Joe! And I work in a button fac-tor-ee. One day, my boss came to me and said “Joe! Are you busy?” I said “No!”’ As the chant developed, poor Joe would be given more and more instructions. First it was ‘Push this button with you right hand!’ and we would have to jab our right index fingers rhythmically in the air while continuing to chant. Then it was the left hand, then the right foot, then the left foot, then the head. I don’t remember there being any natural stopping point. It just went on until we made mistakes, forgetting some of the ‘buttons’ or losing our balance and falling over.
Earlier this month, on a Lebanese variety show called Menna W Jerr, a man performed a skit dressed in blackface – he wore a braided, beaded wig – and a domestic worker’s uniform. In the sketch, the overworked domestic worker berates her employer for complaining that he has no money, and constant headaches, but meanwhile ‘has fun with’ his wife every night. The audience laughed, but one of the show’s judges, the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, spoke out against the portrayal. There was no need for blackface, he said, and the sketch was especially insensitive considering the system under which most domestic workers in Lebanon are employed. The programme issued an apology on Twitter, saying it meant no harm to domestic workers, whom ‘we consider part of the family.’
Cleaning and catering staff at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have been on indefinite strike since 15 July, having taken selective action over the preceding months. They are not employed by BEIS: the cleaners work for one private facilities management company, ISS; the catering staff for another, Aramark. What was once an integral part of the business of government delivered by civil servants, all entitled to the same terms and conditions fought for and won by trade unions, is now a complicated patchwork of contracts, often owned by large international corporations, with workers on vastly differing rates of pay, entitlement to holiday and sick leave, and other benefits.
On Christmas Eve 2011, I was laid off as a seasonal sales assistant at HMV. I’d been employed just a few weeks before for the Christmas rush at the chain’s flagship Oxford Circus store, and expected to work until January or beyond. But in December 2011 the company reported losses of £40 million, and ‘extra capacity’ was now considered superfluous. As a ‘special’ gesture, the manager told me, I could work until 31 December. Other casuals – many were migrant workers hoping for a permanent post – got no notice at all: a young Frenchwoman was told she could take an ‘extended holiday’ from the following day.
Last November, the International Labour Organisation closed its case on a complaint about working conditions in Qatar. Reforms meant that some two million workers now enjoyed better protection. ‘Qatar has set a new standard for the Gulf States,’ the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said, ‘and this must be followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE where millions of migrant workers are trapped in modern slavery.’ In April, the ILO inaugurated its project office in Doha, its first in the Gulf, to support a programme on working conditions and labour rights in Qatar.
I sometimes think there’s a special relationship between postal workers and dustmen. We deliver the rubbish, they take it away again. We used to get paid per item for the junk mail we dropped through your letter box. These days we get a delivery supplement: a fixed amount per week no matter how many advertising leaflets we carry. The maximum we are allowed to deliver has also increased, to seven per household.
This morning the vice chancellor sent a message to all staff of the University of Oxford: Dear Colleagues, I am writing to follow up on yesterday’s meeting in the Sheldonian which my colleagues have told me about. I was very sorry not to be there myself but I had scheduled a trip to New York on university business before the meeting of Congregation was called. In light of the depth of feeling of so many colleagues we will convene a special meeting of Council today at noon and will be recommending that Council reverse its response to the UUK survey in line with Congregation’s resolution.
As feared, 21 people stood up in Congregation today to block a debate and vote on revising Oxford's position on pension reform. At least some of the 21 were university administrators, and included the pro-vice chancellor for diversity, as well as other members of Council (the university's executive body). The vice chancellor was not there.
At 2 p.m. today the University of Oxford's legislative body, Congregation, will meet in the Sheldonian Theatre. All academic staff are members of Congregation, and any twenty of them can propose a resolution for debate. For consideration today is a resolution that would revise the university's submission to Universities UK's September consultation on staff pensions. Oxford, along with Cambridge, was among the 42 per cent of employers who called for the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) to take 'less risk', which in practice means a shift from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension. It now appears that one-third of the employers calling for 'less risk' were constituent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.
Next Thursday, staff at UK universities will begin a wave of strike action in defence of our pensions. Fourteen days of strikes will roll across 61 of the ‘pre-92’ universities; the other seven are being reballoted by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) as they didn’t meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act. On days not covered by the strike, we will work to contract.
The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that employment tribunal fees are unlawful. They were cancelled immediately, and the government will have to pay back every claimant charged since fees were introduced in 2013. There are different estimates as to how much this could cost, but Unison, the public sector union which brought the litigation, puts it at £27 million.
Having finished my PhD, I’m looking for a job, checking the academic recruitment websites every few days and keeping an ear out for teaching assistant positions. Most jobs with a September start advertised this late in the year are part-time and fixed-term. A Russell Group university in London, for instance, has been looking for a lecturer in British Intellectual and Cultural History, who will be paid the equivalent of £40,000 a year. On a half-time contract over ten months, they'll get about £16,700: just enough for a single person to be able to afford to live in London, according to the Living Wage Foundation. They will probably be able to pick up some more work, but their chances of reaching a full-time entry-level lecturer's salary (£32,004, according to the nationally agreed pay scale) are slim. It's more likely that they will be forced to use most of their unpaid time to do the research on which their prospects of a future academic career hang. Problems of this kind in academic employment are not new. But another vacancy which recently closed appears to plumb new depths.
The government recently published a list of 360 companies that underpaid their staff. But workers need more than the ‘naming and shaming’ of employers, when low pay is institutionalised and the government is quick to blame poor working conditions first and foremost on immigrants. Addressing the Conservative Party Conference after she became prime minister, Theresa May claimed to be on the side of people who ‘find themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration’. If the left focused its efforts on uniting and organising low-paid workers regardless of where they were born, it could begin both to quell anti-migrant sentiment and to fight back against low pay and poor working conditions.
At the High Court last week, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the parent company of Southern rail, failed to secure an injunction against Aslef, the train drivers’ union. On Monday they took the case to the Court of Appeal, which also dismissed it, allowing the first drivers’ strike in the company to go ahead on Tuesday.
Wearing smart uniforms and carrying enormous insulated rucksacks, most of the Deliveroo riders I've seen don’t look much like the typical London bike messenger. Many of them appear to be everyday cyclists. Some ride creaky mountain bikes, others woefully unsuitable shoppers. I've seen them consulting maps on their smartphones, sellotaped to the handlebars of their bicycles. Deliveroo is just one of many companies trying to crack the same-day food delivery market in London, but it's certainly the most visible. Last year Amazon experimented with using bicycle messengers in New York as part of their ‘Amazon Prime Now’ service, which aims to deliver goods within one hour of their being ordered. They recently began offering fresh food delivery too. Uber is trying to corner the food delivery market with ‘Ubereats’, run on a similar model to their taxi service, with self-employed owner-riders doing the legwork. But Deliveroo, armed with a start-up investment of half a billion dollars, has been the most aggressive recruiter so far. Riders have seen very little of that money.
To supplement my freelance writing income, I started working as a waitress in the staff restaurant of the News Building in London Bridge a few months after it was renamed by Rupert Murdoch (it used to be known as the Baby Shard) and inaugurated by Boris Johnson. If I managed to ignore the curry-stained newspapers with their anti-immigration front pages while clearing the lunch, I could finish a shift with my dignity largely intact. We had a half-hour break, more than the twenty minutes required by law. Most people were nice – including, I suppose, the writers of anti-immigration copy. Nearly everyone employed in the restaurant was foreign, and most of us were European (there was one Londoner on what must have been the most boring gap year in history). My manager was Italian. The hospitality industry is the largest employer of EU-born workers in Britain; 94 per cent of them would fail to meet the visa requirements for non-EU nationals.
The Twitter hashtag #fawcettflatsFriday was started by the Fawcett Society after a woman was sent home from her temp job at PricewaterhouseCoopers for wearing flat shoes. Women (and a few men) have today been posting photographs of themselves at work wearing flats. To send a woman home for not wearing heels is clearly terrible in principle, and as a temp she presumably lost out on a day’s pay. Temp workers, most of whom are women, are typically precarious, and unprotected by large swathes of employment law. For many of them, losing a day’s wage can have serious consequences. Sending the worker home was garbage, and PwC have been rightly criticised. But the hashtag, too, however well-intentioned by the individual women using it, raises some disquiet.
Last week I lost my part-time job that feeds us. I had it for 16 years. It did not pay well, but I didn’t have to speak to anyone and I could do it anywhere there was internet. It also gave me the time and space to write two novels. I can’t save lives or fix broken pipes: I need a job with the potential for staring into space or reading Pinget on the side – a car park attendant seemed ideal. I found an advert online and immediately entered a car park of excessive adjectives. The parking lot attendant they were looking for needed to ‘Be a trail blazer … Be Bold, Open-minded & Entrepreneurial’.
In the House of Commons last Monday, the business secretary Sajid Javid said Britain’s steel industry had experienced an ‘absolutely devastating’ few months. ‘Punitive tariffs and sky-high duties always seem like a nice, easy solution,’ he went on, ‘but the truth is that excessive, protectionist trade tariffs simply do not work.’ Conservative MPs voted down Labour’s motion, which called for tougher penalties on the dumping of Chinese steel in Europe, by 288 votes to 239.
In March, Theresa May announced that Christopher Pitchford, a serving lord justice of appeal, would lead an inquiry into undercover policing. It followed a series of revelations about members of the Met’s disbanded Special Demonstration Squad, who infiltrated protest groups and in some cases had long-term sexual relationships with their targets. Just after Pitchford was appointed, a former SDS officer revealed he had spied on members of four trade unions; another officer posed as a joiner to infiltrate the builders’ union Ucatt. The most prominent trade unionist known to have been targeted by undercover police is Matt Wrack, the leader of the Fire Brigades’ Union.
Being a bicycle courier is incredibly dangerous. In terms of days lost through injury it’s up there with farming, meat-packing and deep-sea fishing. Most couriers are classified as self-employed subcontractors for tax purposes, but many courier companies treat them as contracted employees. The freedom to chose what work you do turns out to be a mirage: turn down a job or two and you’ll quickly be asked to hand back your radio and find a new company to work for. It’s also badly paid. At CitySprint, one of London’s largest courier companies, a low-priority bicycle delivery from EC2 to SW1 pays the rider £1.25. The company defends its rates by arguing that no courier is ever asked to go on these schleps across the city with just one job in the bag: if you’re quick you can pick up several packages in one part of town and deliver them all at the other end. But what you’ll earn for the work is pretty much the same as it was twenty years ago.
Many of the rooms at the National Gallery were closed last week. More than 200 staff were on their second five-day strike over plans to outsource security and visitor services. In the rooms that were open, the remaining attendants were hovering awkwardly near their chairs. CIS, the private contractor brought in to staff the recent Rembrandt exhibition, bans its employees from sitting down. I asked one of them how he felt about the arrangement. ‘I honestly don’t know why they’ve put chairs here,' he said. 'But I like walking around, it means I can speak to people. If I was sat down nobody would speak to me.’
There was an emergency conference on North Sea oil in Aberdeen on Monday. More than a thousand jobs have been lost since the global oil price collapsed from $110 dollars a barrel to under $50. Two men I met in the lounge car of the Caledonian Sleeper on Sunday evening – strangers to each other – had both held senior positions at major oil companies. They had different axes to grind, but agreed that the North Sea was no longer a profitable option for the major firms, who would pull out altogether before long.
More than half the academic staff at London Metropolitan University – around 840 people – are on zero-hours contracts. Their hours of employment vary from term to term or year to year. Most earn nothing during the university holidays. They do the same work as permanent staff but have no job security, minimal prospect of advancement and inferior benefits. Many are teaching courses that they designed: their work is not incidental or unskilled. They can be fired at a month's notice. Many have been in this position for years.
Xu Lizhi threw himself from a Foxconn workers’ dormitory building in Shenzhen on 30 September. He was 24 years old, a migrant worker and a poet: neither line of work looks promising in China at the moment. In the 1980s ‘poet’ was a prestigious job-description, and did wonders for your love life. Now none of the papers would waste space on a poem, even as filler; if a self-advertised ‘poet’ turned up on a dating site there’d be no takers and plenty of eye-rolling: poets must be weird or poor, or both. Modern poetry was more or less buried, along with China’s golden 1980s, in the year we’re not suppose to mention.
Rembrandt: The Late Works will open at the National Gallery on 15 October. It has been described as the first major show focused on the artist’s later years. The curators say it will 'illuminate his versatile mastery by dividing paintings, drawings and prints thematically in order to examine the ideas that preoccupied him'. The gallery’s workforce meanwhile are preoccupied by plans to outsource security and visitor services to a private company.
Last Friday, a majority of the cleaners and porters working at the University of London's halls of residence in Bloomsbury – the Garden Halls – began a five-day strike. Later this summer the halls will be closed and demolished. Some of the staff will be moved to jobs elsewhere in the university, but many will be made redundant. They are employed by Cofely GDF Suez, the multinational firm to which the university outsources its cleaning and maintenance services. The last day of work is 30 June. The strike – unlikely to succeed at this point, as some of the workers admit – was held to demand that Cofely guarantee no compulsory redundancies and transfer all workers to other jobs, in the university or elsewhere, on the same pay and conditions.
Khem Sophath was 15 when he disappeared. He was last seen by a friend bleeding from what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the chest. His friend, who was shot in the arm, was forced to leave Sophath and run for cover as Cambodian security forces fired into a crowd of striking garment workers in Phnom Penh on 3 January.
The details of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka a year ago have become familiar: the workers coerced into entering the structurally unsound building, the first tremors, the two minutes it took for the factory to fall to its foundations, the 17 days of searching for survivors in the rubble, the tally of 1138 bodies. Despite the photographs and the personal accounts, the event seems oddly distant and too readily memorialised in much of the recent coverage. In the UK, 24 April is Fashion Revolution Day: shoppers are encouraged to wear their clothes inside out to bring attention to the conditions in which they were produced. But the general popular response to the Rana Plaza disaster – aside from the dogged work of long-running campaigns such as Clean Clothes, Labour Behind the Label and Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops – has been limited and fragmentary.
At the end of last year the Federal Reserve started scaling down its massive $85 billion monthly asset purchase programme (commonly referred to as quantitative easing) by $10 billion a month for as long as the US economy continues to improve. The plan is to eliminate it by the end of 2014. So far that plan is on track and on 29 January the Fed reduced the asset purchase programme for the second consecutive month to $65 billion. The end of quantitative easing is a big deal not just for the United States and the mature economies of the global north, but for everybody. On 23 January, the Argentinian peso lost 15 per cent in one day. ‘The worst sell-off in emerging-market currencies in five years is beginning to reveal the extent of the fallout from the Federal Reserve’s tapering of monetary stimulus,’ Bloomberg reported.
After a thirty-month campaign for sick pay, holidays and pensions on the same terms as directly employed staff, and a two-day strike last week, outsourced cleaning, security and maintenance staff at the University of London have won major concessions from their employer, Balfour Beatty Workplace. The agreement doesn't give them the same rights as directly employed workers, and entitlements are dependent on length of service, but the changes are still significant. Instead of statutory sick pay, a cleaner who’s been in the job for six years could now be entitled to six months on full pay. ‘That's extremely rare in the cleaning industry,’ according to Jason Moyer-Lee, the secretary of the University of London branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain.
At the beginning of the year a group of workers at the Curzon cinema chain joined BECTU, the media and entertainment union. Front-of-house workers at Curzon are employed on zero-hour contracts, meaning that they have no guaranteed earnings week by week. If they’re offered no work, they earn no money.
Since the summer, members of the London Chinatown Chinese Association say, the UK Border Agency has been targeting businesses in Chinatown, looking for people who may be living or working in Britain illegally. Most of the raids, according to the LCCA, have been speculative ‘fishing’ trips, based on no intelligence and designed to intimidate. Almost every business in Chinatown has been hit. At one restaurant the officers showed the manager their warrant only after the raid was finished – they were at the wrong address.
For the past year, outsourced workers at the University of London have been demanding 3 Cosas – pensions, sick pay and holiday pay on the same terms as directly employed staff – and staging regular protests at Senate House with the support of students. Last week the university tried to put a stop to them.
Last month, Westminster School raised more than £7000 by auctioning internships with bankers, artists and barristers and a host of other placements set up by the private school’s alumni. Louise Tickle in the Guardian compared the auction to a Tory fundraising event in 2011, when party supporters stumped up thousands to get their children through the doors of hedge funds and banks. Private schools and the Tory party aren’t the only ones at it. The week before Tickle’s piece was published, Highbury Grove, a state comprehensive, auctioned a day’s work experience at the Guardian.
‘While China is starting to lose its attractiveness in this realm the sourcing caravan is moving on to the next hot spot,’ McKinsey’s Apparel, Fashion and Luxury Practice division reported in 2011. The ‘realm’ is the readymade garments industry and the ‘next hot spot’ is Bangladesh.
There are a few hundred outsourced workers at Senate House and other University of London buildings in Bloomsbury, including the intercollegiate student halls. Most of the caterers are employed by Aramark; the cleaners, security guards and maintenance by Balfour Beatty Workplace, the services arm of the construction giant. Most are immigrants; from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and, overwhelmingly in the case of the cleaners, Latin America.
Boredom’s use as a political weapon is underappreciated. It allows liberties to be filched by stealth, on the wild frontier beyond people’s attention span. Such is the case with Real Time Information (RTI), whose full ‘roll out’ starts with the new fiscal year on 6 April (it’s already being piloted). It's been described as the biggest change to Pay As You Earn since 1944, when PAYE came in, but few people beyond payroll managers, employers and accountants have heard of it. Under RTI the tedium that shrouds any accountancy-related matter is compounded by the blandness of a clerical rejig. Instead of reporting payroll details to HMRC at the end of the tax year, as now, employers will be ‘invited’ (at two weeks’ notice) to join RTI, where the data are supplied to HMRC in ‘real time’.
During Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to Eastern Europe in the summer, the governments of Romania and Bulgaria agreed not to vote in favour of the Palestinian state at the UN. Israel has since arranged several thousand work permits for Romanian and Bulgarian builders. This is supposedly a win-win deal that shows the creativity of the Netanyahu government (he also suggested replacing striking Israeli doctors with physicians from India). On the one hand, Israel wants to speed up cheap construction to solve its housing crisis. On the other, Romania and Bulgaria will earn foreign currency and reduce unemployment. The deal will also strengthen Israel's ties with Turkey’s European neighbours. When my grandfather Hezi Holdengerber arrived in Israel from Romania after the Holocaust, he and his brothers built roofs together. Now Jews work in construction only as bosses or engineers.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into ‘older people and human rights in home care’ has found ‘many examples of older people’s human rights being breached, including physical or financial abuse, disregarding their privacy and dignity, failing to support them with eating or drinking, treating them as if they were invisible, and paying little attention to what they want’. The report has been met with predictable outrage. The minister for care services, Paul Burstow, says that ‘this government won't tolerate poor care’ and has ‘ordered 250 immediate inspections of home care providers’. But they’re pressing ahead with their proposed cuts to the adult social care budget, which will see an 8 per cent reduction in services to over-65s. I work in home care for a private agency.
With Christmas approaching, the Royal Mail is taking on 18,000 temporary staff to help cover the extra work. This happens every year. This year, though, all job enquires are being directed to a company called Angard Staffing Solutions Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Royal Mail. It doesn’t just handle temporary staff over Christmas. There appears to be no way to get a job as a postal worker these days except by going through Angard.
Perhaps one of the reasons (to be generous for a moment) the Tories are so unconcerned about all the job losses they're enacting is that they really do believe the private sector will take up the slack. And for anyone who can't find work at Marks and Spencer or Vodafone, the housing minister Grant Shapps has come up with a perfect solution: they can run their own businesses from home! He's disappointingly vague, though, about what such 'home enterprise' might actually involve. It sometimes seems as if the Tory front bench view of 'running your own business' – or indeed 'finding work' – is that it's a bit like having a trust fund.
The Royal Mail’s Annual Report was published on 3 June, containing details of its executive pay for the previous year. According to the figures, Adam Crozier, the retiring chief executive, received more than £2.4m in the year 2009-10. With bonuses and pensions that figure rises to £3.5 million. Ian Duncan, the group finance director, took home a total of £1.4m, while Mark Higson, the managing director of Royal Mail Letters, received a total of £1.7m. Adam Crozier is the highest paid public sector worker in the country and his income puts the paltry figures earned by top Whitehall mandarins to shame.
I earn £8.98 an hour. I work a 20-hour week. I’d like to work more but there are no full-time jobs available. My basic pay is £177.28 a week, before deductions. That’s about £9200 a year. That means that I would have to work for nearly 380 years to earn as much as Adam Crozier earned last year.
Though classified as self-employed sub-contractors for tax purposes, most bike couriers have in practice a rather more restrictive relationship with the firms that hire them. You may not get a guaranteed income or any benefits, but if you don’t work a full week you’ll generally be out of work pretty quickly. You’re often obliged to wear some sort of uniform or carry a branded bag. The better companies take a deposit for radios and xdas (the palmtop computers on which you receive job details and record signatures) which you get back when you leave, as long as nothing’s been damaged. Last month one of London’s largest courier companies, CitySprint, informed its riders that they would have to fork out £3 a week to rent some new bags they’d ordered. A disgruntled courier leaked the memo:
There’s a Tannoy system in our office. It’s very rarely used. Most people just shout when they want to get our attention. The people with the loudest voices tend to gravitate towards the jobs where the most shouting is required. Pretty well the only person who uses the Tannoy is the manager. He doesn’t have a very loud voice and doesn’t play a significant role in the daily life of the office. Usually he is hiding behind his computer in his little office, keeping out of everyone’s way. So when the speakers crackle, and an uncomfortable voice starts to mumble into the microphone, we always know it’s the manager, about to announce something out of the ordinary. ‘Hello everybody. Can everyone hear me out there?’
From an interview to be published in the next issue of the 'LRB': One of the most expensive programmes in France, the retirement system for railway workers, was established in the years after World War Two. Its powerful Communist trade union negotiated a very good deal, particularly for train drivers. They could retire at the age of 54 on full salary until their death. At the time it was a very reasonable deal. These men normally started working when they were 13, and they had been working on steam trains all their life, which was physically difficult and dangerous work. When they reached 54, they were exhausted. Their life expectancy after that was about eight years. The pension was therefore not all that expensive for the state. Today their sons and grandsons have the same deal. But they leave school at 16, they go to work on the TGVs, where they sit on comfortable chairs, air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, and the most demanding thing they do is push a button; they retire at 54 on full salary and their life expectancy is another 24 years.
Reading some of the news reports about the national agreement signed between the CWU and the Royal Mail last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d secured the deal of the century. Under the headline ‘Pay rise and bonuses for striking postmen’, the Daily Express said: ‘Royal Mail postal workers who caused havoc with a series of strikes before Christmas are to get a pay rise, shorter hours and bonuses of up to £2500.’ Or try this headline from thisismoney.co.uk (owned by the Daily Mail): ‘Royal Mail strikers get more for less work.’
These reports read as if they’re based not on the actual agreement, but on the press releases handed out by the CWU and the Royal Mail.
Every so often postal workers get called up to the front of the office for a ‘huddle’. This usually involves the manager standing by the front doors, issuing a long-winded statement from head-office about procedures, while the rest of us stand about feeling restive because we are getting behind with our work. The word, as it applies to a management technique, seems to come from American football – those close-in, head-down strategy discussions in the middle of play. We used to have office announcements.
We were recently asked to deliver an insulting letter. Insulting to us as postal workers, that is, not to our customers. It was an advertising circular from Clifford James (established 1970), announcing their January sale. The insult was a statement on the front of the bright red envelope. The letter was an item of downstream access mail relayed through a private mail company called Secured Mail (I'd never heard of them before), and underneath the frank there was a label, 'Beat the POST!', across an image of a speeding van. And underneath: 'Our products are delivered by private courier NOT ROYAL MAIL.' The capital letters are all their own.
Cyclists, unlike motorists or pedestrians, tend to notice other cyclists. When I was working as a bike messenger, Jon Snow was an almost permanent fixture of Gray's Inn Road, shuttling to and from the ITN building. I saw David Cameron, for all his eco-trumpeting, only once. He was going down Whitehall with the telltale wobble of the amateur enthusiast. There was a car following, though whether it contained a change of clothes and briefcase I couldn’t say. And then there was Boris Johnson. A regular pick-up from the Angel going to Burlington House on the Strand would send me down Rosebery Avenue, where I’d often see him emerging from Amwell Street. On a particularly slow and dismal day I chased him down and said: ‘Giz a job.’
To a cycle courier, the conflict between public and private, between the rules of the road and those of corporate estates, is constantly apparent. The glee with which the police hunt down and fine couriers who jump red lights, while letting off their commuting counterparts, is well known. But the guardians of private land are just as intolerant.
I was talking to my union rep about the attendance procedure, the process by which posties are threatened with dismissal for being ill. ‘The union must have negotiated this,’ I said. ‘If the union hadn’t negotiated it, it wouldn’t exist.’ ‘But if the union hadn’t negotiated it,’ my union rep said, ‘it would be worse. Anyway, it’s not the procedure that’s wrong, it’s bad management and the way they use it.’ But as I pointed out to him, if the management can misuse the procedure to the detriment of postal workers, that means there are loopholes in it, which means it’s a bad agreement. This is the problem.
One of the main appeals of bicycle couriering is the freedom it seems to offer. Freedom from the inanities of office life, the freedom of the city. But there's also the freedom to freeze on a slow day in the rain, the freedom to be injured on the job with no chance of sick pay, the freedom to die on the road. It’s a wild, unregulated business, which is part of its attraction. Cycle couriering is the modern equivalent of running away to sea, or joining the circus, without having to leave London.
My new book, Dear Granny Smith, describes the job of a postal worker 30 years ago, and compares this with the job today. Slightly unexpectedly, people keep referring to it as a nostalgic book, which wasn’t its purpose at all. Robert McCrum’s review in the Observer, for example, trades extensively on the notion that the book is an elegy for a lost world. There’s a false dichotomy being set up, between ‘nostalgia’ and ‘modernisation’.
Riding a bicycle round London for ten hours a day is grindingly difficult. A bike courier is paid £2-£3 per job (with a 10 per cent bonus for working a full week if you’re lucky), income can be fickle, and a slow week spent standing in the rain is no fun at all. Though it varies dramatically, couriers cover distances averaging around 300 miles a week. Couriers are obliged to deliver whatever a client wants delivered as quickly as the client requires; if you can’t get from pick-up to destination within 40 minutes, you don’t get paid. Covering London from (roughly) Wapping to Knightsbridge and Camden to Elephant and Castle, you see a lot of the city, a lot of weather, and a great many post-rooms.
The postal strike is off. You don’t need me to tell you that. What you may not know is how this has affected us posties. I first heard the rumours in the office on Thursday when I got back from my round. The union rep said: 'You’d better watch the news.’ I'm sure I wasn’t the only postie glued to his TV that afternoon, waiting for clarification. It seemed a strange way of finding out whether or not you were going into work in the morning, waiting for a BBC newscaster to inform you. The atmosphere at work on Friday was slightly odd, slightly out of kilter. Someone had turned the volume up. Everyone was a tad more animated than usual, a fraction louder, a notch more bellicose. But after that – well you get on with things, don’t you. There’s a job to do. By Saturday everything was quieting down, and by Monday it was as if the strike had never happened at all.
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.
I’ve just got back from the picket line. There were ten of us at the gate while about the same number had crossed the picket line and gone into work. That was a bit sad. Some of them weren’t members of the union, so had no choice. Mind you, they had the choice whether to join the union or not, and would take the benefits if we won the dispute. One or two of the younger members were still on their trial contract, so were worried in case it wasn’t renewed. I have a lot of sympathy for them. But the sad thing was seeing union members go in. One of them was overheard to say that he used the union when he needed it, but otherwise he wasn’t interested. I don’t think I can ever respect the man again. On the other hand, we had a spy on the inside who was popping out every so often bringing us regular updates about what was going on.
At the Royal Mail you are sometimes made to come into work even when you are sick or injured, on threat of dismissal. It’s called an ‘Attendance Procedure’. They monitor your attendance. If you are off work for sickness or injury too many times, or for too long, you are given a Stage 1 warning. If you go over the limit a second time while still on the Stage 1 warning, you are given a Stage 2 warning. If you exceed the limit for a third time you are given a Stage 3 warning and threatened with dismissal. The limits are: either three absences in the space of a year, or one absence of three weeks or more. This is whether or not you are actually ill. All illnesses are assumed to be genuine, but all illnesses, no matter how desperate, also count towards your warnings. They don’t take any mitigating circumstances into account.
Outside the main gate of RAF Wittering, on the A1 in Cambridgeshire, just past the funny old sign that says 'Beware: Camp Entrances', is a shiny new sign saying: 'Now Recruiting'. It's there outside RAF Scampton, on the A15 in Lincolnshire, too. And then in a lay-by on the A165 in East Yorkshire there's a big camouflage-green truck with a sign suggesting that if you'd like to drive it, you should think about joining the army. Back in London, on every other phone box (which are surely just glorified advertising billboards these days) I see there's an army recruitment ad, reminding people that doctors and engineers are needed too; it's not all about killing and being killed.