Sunday, March 02, 2014

GUEST POST: Fear and Loathing at the Royal Mail (by Bartholomew Bundy)

2013 ended for me not in the blaze of literary awards shows and gala dinners, but in the hard slog of casual Christmas work for the Royal Mail. This is how it is for poets and artists in the underground, unless they get lucky, and no one complains about it. You start out believing it will give your work an edge, but then you realise that’s romantic drivel. Manual labour is as soul-destroying and spirit-flattening as any other kind of labour; usually after a day digging gardens or sorting in a warehouse all you want to do is get drunk, not write poetry. But while it’s no better than any other kind of work, for the poet, it’s no worse either, and even John Cooper Clarke spends half his life on tour. Unless you’re rich or dead you have to do something.

The Royal Mail job seemed like it would be okay. I needed the money, and we would only be doing 8 hours a day 5 days a week. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found at the freezing cold, leaky warehouse the Royal Mail had rented temporarily for the Christmas season. Some of it still echoes unpleasantly in my mind three months later.

At the warehouse most of the things being sorted and dispatched were parcels from Amazon and Kuehne-Nagel, and the workforce doing the sorting across early, late and night shifts were either all the Royal Mail’s own casual workers or people recruited from agencies. There were also two “workplace coaches” on hand to instruct workers in safe practice and give whatever other advice and support (work-related, in theory) that we needed. One flirted shamelessly with the younger females and took the piss out of a female line manager at every available opportunity; both slagged off their colleagues at the main sorting office across town and said that the union gave everyone there the excuse to work poorly and be obstructive.

Hatred for the union among the permanent Royal Mail staff at the warehouse was pathological. My line manager, who rightly or wrongly was described to me as a “man-eater,” kept stopping me in my work. When it wasn’t to show me texts from her son or a picture taken by a casual who had left the country, but whose number she had stored in her phone, it was to describe the petty, self-indulgent, immature behaviour of unionised workers who had “been there too long and thought the world owed them a living.” “Where else,” she said, “can you get paid what they do for an unskilled job?”

This line manager was ridiculed by everybody who worked in her section for her constant shouting. She would stop for fifteen minutes in an aisle to look at her phone or talk about everything except work to a casual, and then shout at someone else, usually a younger person, for taking a minute out to catch up with someone in a different section. I heard the same names over and over and over again. Most of the time, when something more than a name was being shouted, I couldn’t understand what she said because of the way her voice echoed around the high walls and roof of the warehouse. But when her nightly frenzy climaxed I could hear, “Sort don’t talk!” and “Work faster!” At one point she simply bellowed “WORK!” elongating the word in a way that’s impossible to describe.

Maybe this is common practice now, but I found it stupid, disrespectful and counter-productive. It’s bad enough that people should only be paid minimum wage to exhaust themselves daily; shouldn’t the compensation they receive for that be a recognition of their right to be treated in a dignified fashion? Or have we reached the point, in our hurtling journey back to the Victorian Era, where employees are expected to be grateful that they have any work at all?

One of the managers spoke to me towards the end of my contract about the things that had been achieved in the two months. Number one out of all the PSCs (parcel sorting centres) in the country since it opened (or nearly). He said “We wouldn’t have had that success if we followed the working model used in other places. This is the model we intend to move to. But that’s for the future.”

The model? Workers with no rights. More than one casual in my time there was fired on the spot because they were found, during one of the daily, and allegedly random, security checks, to have a mobile phone on the operational floor. Only the managers were allowed to carry phones, just as they were the only ones allowed to bring in water. You’d think it reasonably obvious that a manager might be able to steal, or arrange a theft via a mobile, as easily as a casual; but one of the managers explained the distinction to me while I was being checked: “Instances of theft among casuals are very high.” (Even if this is true, might a living wage rather than a subsistence wage go some way to solving the problem?)

Other people disappeared too, one after having two days off to look after her poorly child. If you’re a casual worker, of course, your manager can do that; he or she can flick you out of the building like balled-up KitKat paper from a desk. The most infamous of the departures was a guy who, when asked to come for a security check, told the manager to fuck off. After he was escorted from the building my line manager, who at the time I still thought—mistakenly—that I could talk to like an equal, came over to tell me about it. We agreed that he probably had something on him he didn’t want anybody to find. “But people do get upset about their human rights,” I said. “Maybe it was that.”

“It’s not an infringement of his human rights to be asked to turn out his pockets,” she bristled. “It’s in his contract.”

The Royal Mail hires now through an agency called Angard. At the end of the Christmas period every year the managers put forward names of suitable employees to Angard, who then, supposedly at their own discretion, take on those they like to fill in sickness and annual leave shifts at the mail centres. After long stints of working as an agency employee within the Royal Mail, you are then considered for permanent status. As our contract came to an end getting on the list was the talk of the workforce; nearly all of us, obviously, needed the money even if the work was boring us senseless. “It’s going to be a very small list,” one of the managers said to me, on the same day he talked about the model of work used at the PSC. He then went on to eulogise about the performance of one casual who’d stayed until four in the morning to help clear a backlog.

Which is fine; but not everybody can do that. And not just because they are old-fashioned, unhelpful jobsworths. The guy who did that was 25 years younger than me and 35 years younger than some of the others. People have families also. Is a labourer only worthy of his hire if, for minimum wage, he exists only to work?

I should have known then that my chances of getting on their exalted list and being put forward to work for Angard were fucked. I had done no overtime at all, primarily because I was scared that getting overly tired would affect my epilepsy. But my line manager had told me I would be on the list and I thought she was telling me the truth.

Then I really ruined it. On the last day the manager walked from person to person with feedback sheets. We were told to fill them in –“Be as honest as you like”—and sign them. While he waited to make sure that every person had completed one. Who ever heard of a feedback sheet that you sign your name to? Naively, I now realise, I wrote, “My only gripe is that we were not allowed to have water with us while we worked.” I could have written a hundred other things, but I was trying to be reasonable. The manager looked at it expressionlessly—he would make a good chess player—and slipped it into his pile of completed sheets.

A guy who had done nothing but bitch when we were in the canteen passed by. The manager stopped him and told him to fill out a form. He asked what he should write in the comments at the bottom. “Anything you want,” came the answer. “Be as honest as you like.” The guy shrugged insouciantly. “I have no complaints,” he said. “Everything is wonderful!” “Write that then,” said the manager, looking much more pleased with him than he was with me.

After the manager had moved on to tell the next victim to be as honest as they liked, I challenged the guy: “How could you say everything was wonderful? All you’ve done is slag everything off since you started here!” “Do you think those twats are gonna offer me any work after Christmas if I criticise them and put my name to it?” he asked. “Grow up.”

His words stung because I knew he was right, and the prediction turned out to be true. Several of the casuals I worked alongside at the PSC were invited by Angard to go to the mail centre in January; and despite my line manager’s promise that I was on the list, and her boss’ public declaration in the main entrance one day that I was doing a fine job on my station, I haven’t heard a word from Angard or the Royal Mail in three months. The price you pay in this country, it seems, for thinking you have a right to speak freely when you’re on the bottom of the economic ladder (a rung poets share with warehouse workers, cleaners and—bizarrely—care assistants) is social exclusion and penury.

And now the vacancies Angard advertise list, under requirements, “receptivity to change.” That’s that new model of work creeping slowly over the hill, the one that employees themselves will be forced to assist the managers in creating, by sheer economic necessity. It will be something like a strong cat putting itself to sleep, but what can you do? Food must be put on the table. It’s hard to take the longer view when your landlord is banging on the door for rent.

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