May 19, 2024


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Working for the Royal Mail sounded like an ideal job. But I discovered it’s falling apart, just like its vans | Gareth Roberts

6 min read

For most of my life, I worked in the media. In early 2023 I returned from a job abroad, and it had been intense: six weeks in a remote mountain environment. I needed another job quickly, but could not face an office or the blank gaze of a laptop. The Royal Mail seemed to be on an aggressive recruitment drive: ads for drivers and postal workers flickered across my socials. I applied.

The Royal Mail is part of our national fabric – its workers are everywhere, delivering post six days a week and parcels seven. I always imagined it must be a relatively stress-free job, strolling through leafy suburban streets delivering birthday cards and gas bills, providing the country with a vital service, one that has been running for 500 years.

After a surprisingly rigorous round of telephone interviews, I was offered a job as a parcel delivery driver at a depot in West Sussex. The depot is one of the largest in the region, so I imagined a state-of-the-art operation. My first day on the job put things into perspective.

‘The depot is derelict.’ Photograph: Gareth Roberts

The depot looked like it had been abandoned after an earthquake. There was no technology, no machines, no computers, no chairs. I struggled to find a socket to charge my phone. Thousands of parcels sat inside metal cages called Yorks; the mail was shelved in row after row of individual sorting frames, representing areas, roads, estates and shopping districts. Smaller parcels were stacked on the top shelves. It looked chaotic.

I was sent out with an experienced driver, originally from Benin, who had been working for Royal Mail for three years. That day, we had to deliver 120 tracked parcels to rural towns and villages in the West Sussex area. I was given a personal digital assistant, which had the route loaded on to it, and which I had to follow until the van was empty. My new colleague told me that we would be driving his favourite van today. I laughed out loud when I saw it: it looked a bit like it had been dragged out of a lake.

It’s not until you get up close and personal with those little red vans that you realise how decrepit they are. Apparently held together with duct tape and grime, the bodywork mirrors the organisation itself. The interior cabins are worse. Two-seat biohazards, a miasma of stale smoke and Red Bull, haunted by the ghosts of a thousand dead sausage rolls.

Not all the vans were bad. They had a small fleet of electric Peugeots that were great. Unfortunately, they were being relocated to south London; the Ulez expansion means that they need electric vehicles. In return, our depot would get their old bangers – nobody was happy about that.

My training consisted of three hours watching comically bad orientation and induction videos on the upper floor of the depot. I was told not to venture up to the third floor as it had suffered years of flood damage from a persistently leaky roof. When I went up and took a peek, I saw ceiling tiles hanging off. In a corner there was a dartboard; the darts sticking out of it looked like they’d been thrown in anger.

The ‘recreation’ area. Photograph: Gareth Roberts

Weeks went by, and conversations with the older guys, some of whom had been there since the 1980s, became more animated. Privatisation has stripped the service to the bone, they told me. It’s a “service in name only”, a “stone-cold business” – and its stakeholders are unlikely to lose much sleep if your great-aunt Edna doesn’t get her Christmas card this year.

And she may well not, at least not on time. Letters can sit in the frames for days. Despite official denials, it was clear to me that parcels from retailers like Asos, PrettyLittleThing and Amazon are prioritised, because that’s where the money is. Nobody says this, though: the delivery office managers (DOMs) are not big on communication. In fact, when I questioned the DOMs about almost anything, be it clapped-out vans or impossible delivery targets, the stock answer was always: “It is what it is.” A union rep told me that the plan seemed to be to emulate the Evri business model. The look of exasperation on his face revealed everything I needed to know about that.

There seemed to be open hostility between the managers and the posties. Out of the 10 guys who joined when I did, eight left. The work was hard, much harder than I imagined. The shifts are nine hours; you get a one-hour mandatory unpaid lunch break, which you might have to spend parked in a layby somewhere in the middle of nowhere with the rain hammering down on your windshield. One guy started smoking weed during his shift: a customer smelled it and he was quickly fired. Another guy was found slumped over the steering wheel of his van, a sack of undelivered mail on the passenger seat and an empty litre bottle of vodka in his lap.

Staff retention was terrible, the turnover high. Gaps were plugged with a stream of agency drivers, who were paid considerably more than the staff drivers. Most were not from the area and struggled with the routes. It added to the overall sense of despair that permeated the depot.

Most of the older posties, the ones who had been pounding the pavements for a decade or more, seemed to be carrying injuries, limps, bad backs. Everyone in the depot looked knackered. Many were just holding on for retirement. Many could no longer drive vans. Accidents were not uncommon, and if it was your fault, then they’d take the keys off you, usually for good.

‘The vans are very much biohazards.’ Photograph: Gareth Roberts

I found the Christmas period to be brutal. Customers are generally friendly and hugely supportive, but tensions simmer when mail arrives weeks late. Whole streets will be left out. When the depot managers finally found someone to service a neglected area, they’d be shoving up to 25 letters through each letterbox. I was stopped one day by a sixtysomething guy mowing his front lawn – he had not had any post for 10 days. He shoved both hands into his front pockets, rocked on his heels and puffed: “Unfucking-believable is what it is!”

I quit in March. The manager just nodded when I told him; there was no conversation about it. It’s just expected. I had worked every weekend since I joined. My left foot ached constantly from the pressure required to work the ruinous clutch in the vans. I thought about never having to hear the ubiquitous chime of another “smart” doorbell or listening to a customer insist “he’s totally harmless” as their dog furiously shredded an Amazon box. I left feeling empty and disillusioned at the catastrophic failure to pilot this amazing institution into the future with an iota of dignity.

A postie who has been at the depot for 30 years told me what it has been like watching the service decay in front of his eyes. The depot was once the most efficient in the country. It won awards. There was tremendous pride among those who worked there; they knew their community and were a trusted part of it. Thousands of individuals make up the Royal Mail, and you will never see the backbreaking effort that goes into making a broken machine work, week in, week out. But you will miss it when it’s gone.


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