My duty begins with a long, tree-lined “dead walk”, so called at my office because there are only houses along one side of the street. Unlike the usual delivery loops, where you walk up one side of the road delivering to all the odd numbers, for instance, then cross over the road and deliver to the even numbers on the walk back to the van, dead-walking posties must return to their vans empty handed, alone with the thoughts about life, work and lockdown that busyness keeps at bay. My thoughts return to the crushing fatigue, and how much longer I can last in this job.
As lockdown began in south Wales, friends and family, stuck indoors, often asked me about life outside. Knowing how hard it has been for some, I’ve been quick to say that things are great: I’m paid to be outdoors several hours a day; the weather has been superb. Customers are never less than lovely: posters and messages of thanks are taped on to windows and doors, or chalked on to drives in bright colours; cold drinks are left on windowsills, and kids and their parents wave from front-room windows. Friends and family joke that they wish they could be me for a day.
The truth is, since lockdown started in March, my days begin with nausea. The job looks so good on paper, but the reality is barely tenable. Like many postal workers hired since privatisation and an increasing number of people in my office, I’m on a part-time contract with little to no chance of full-time hours. My annual take-home income, due to the part-time hours, is so low that I simply can’t pay the bills. Even before lockdown forced everyone indoors, causing a huge surge in online parcel deliveries, the workload was backbreaking. A colleague showed me his pedometer – he had walked 16 miles that day. Despite only being in his early 30s, he has received cortisone injections in his feet and shoulders to work through the pain. His situation is not uncommon; plantar fasciitis is endemic, and I see a lot of illness, injury and burnout.
Lockdown has only compounded this; despite a drop in letter volumes, the enormous increase in parcels is well in excess of what we handle at Christmas. This unrelenting work stress has brought new aches and pains, as well as bouts of insomnia, depression and disordered eating. I’ve moved through the summer in a high-functioning torpor, sleepless with stress-related stomach ache, and failing to convince myself that I’m coping. After four months of breakneck pace, postal workers and managers alike are exhausted and demoralised.
Before Covid-19 swept every other subject aside, all talk in my office was of the vote to strike won in January. Royal Mail Group has been dying a slow and painful death in the wake of privatisation, and the feeling on the ground has been one of uncertainty and fear of the future.
People’s suspicions seemed to be confirmed when, shortly following National Postal Workers Day on 29 April, Royal Mail announced it would cut Saturday letter deliveries as a temporary measure to cope with staff absence and self-isolation (the Communication Workers Union estimated that about 26,000 people, or 20% of staff, were off work at that time). This was presented as a way to ease pressure on postal workers but, in practice, made our jobs much harder. Our Saturdays were still brutal shifts full of parcels, only now we had to deliver twice as much mail on Mondays. The sheer volume of work required us to go in early, work at a manic pace, skip breaks and work overtime most days.
To many in my office, this move – which came to an end in June – felt like a cynical ploy to undermine the universal service obligation (Royal Mail’s promise to deliver to every address in the land six days a week at a uniform price), and part of a larger scheme to sell off Parcelforce and leave the mail delivery business to rot, something the CWU fears could lead to thousands of job losses.
There is a problem in this country about the kinds of work we value. In Know Your Place, one of the writers, Andrew McMillan, laments “the idea that we should all be striving toward middle-class living” as “such a narrative means that working class becomes something you’re meant to not want to be … ” This is something I was reminded of in my interview. My manager was baffled as to why I’d want to take on such a physically demanding and relatively low-paid job; I have a degree from Cambridge, I read three languages, I’ve lived and worked all over the world. Surely, I’d want something “better”?
And I used to. I grew up on a council estate, was the first in my family to go to university, and felt a pressure to find a job commensurate with my skills and experience. I worked hard at various white-collar jobs in my 20s and early 30s, but, in spite of the good money, I felt unchallenged, unvalued and bored senseless once the learning curve had levelled off. When I found the postie job, I wanted something simple and stable. This was so condescending in hindsight, as well as indicative of those mixed feelings about being working class, as though it would be some low-stakes day job I could coast through while I worked out what I really wanted to do with my life. In truth, the job has proved to be a lot harder and a lot more fulfilling than I could have ever expected. I’m more content, grateful and satisfied after a day’s work than I ever thought possible.
This is why lockdown has been so heartbreaking. The pandemic has exposed how essential the services carried out by key workers are, and how callously the government has treated the working class at every stage of the crisis. According to data from the Office for National Statistics in May, the highest death toll has been among men in low-skilled jobs. My dad, a factory worker, returns to work in a few days. My siblings, who have screen-based jobs, will not. With the layoff of 2,000 Royal Mail managers announced in late June, as well as tens of thousands of jobs threatened at British Airways, British Gas, Rolls-Royce and a long list of household names, it’s hard to know what to expect.
The roads are refilling. As social distancing is relaxed life is returning to normal, although “normal” is only that which we’ve forgotten to notice. The Thursday night applause for NHS and key workers was encouraging, but awareness is not action. Unless we protect our essential workers over the coming months, confront issues of pay, precarious contracts and working conditions, we will lose this moment of solidarity and hope for change, and the chance to reconsider the kind of country we want to live in.
• Dan Bradley is a writer and Royal Mail postal worker
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