Saturday 17 December 2011


DAY 14:

Well, that was a good shift.

In the face of widely publicised nationwide strikes and walk-outs, a highly embarrassed top brass stepped in, and we've all just been paid an emergency, non-taxable hand-out, in cash. (We'll wait and see if any additional monies earned come through too.)

After that, the night went from strength to strength, as evinced by the following conversation with the young Bangladeshi lad, sorting mail beside me.

"So, is you full-time then, bruv?"
"Who me? No mate, I'm just a Christmas casual, like yourself."

"Oh, you is a graduate then, innit."

"Ha... about 20 years ago."


"Well, exactly how old do you think I am?"

"26? 30, maybe?"

I gave him my last Rowntrees fruit pastille in gratitude.

Going Postal

DAY 13:

Just checked my bank balance, and I have in fact got paid, a week in arrears, for last week's shift.


I'll just repeat that.

Thirty-four of your English pounds. And thirteen pence.

So that's Christmas sorted then.

Sugar and Salt

DAY 12:

I've put on half a stone in two weeks while working here. Depressing work is made bearable by depressing food: crisps, chocolate bars, sugary pop. The salt brings you down; the sugar lifts you up again. We're all artificially high under the halogen lights. During break times, some slump in chairs or sprawl on the floor of the rest area, staring at the door through heavy-lidded eyes. A face pops round the door. Does anybody have any Rizlas? The face disappears again. It's back, 15 minutes later. Does anybody have a light? I sip a hot chocolate from the vending machine. On the machine are the words, "Busy Day? We live life at such a pace that taking time out is important. So choose yourself a drink, take a moment and enjoy." It strikes me that somebody was actually paid quite a bit of money to dream that kōan up. At 40p, the squirt of brown silt is overpriced, and repeats on you on the way home.
My neighbouring sorter has spotted the gaudy orange packet sticking out of a pigeon hole. "Crips" he says, pointing. "Crips", I agree. "Give me a crip" he says, pointing at his mouth and rubbing his stomach in the universal language of appreciation. I proffer the packet of Happy Shopper Cheese Curls to him. Instead of reaching in and plucking a few out, he proceeds to up-end it and pour half the packet into his enormous paddle of an outstretched palm for what seems like an eternity, crisps cascading around his hand and onto the floor. "Sure you've... got enough there?" I say. "Good crips" he says, biting the head off a curl. I let him keep the bag.

J is complaining that the line managers have been picking on her - again! This time, about the way she's been sitting on her stool. "I've got a bad back" she complains, "I have to sit like this". She demonstrates: mile-long legs, stretching out like two motorway lanes, at right-angles to the sorting table. An hour later, they've told her off - again! This time, for talking to her friend. "Why are they always picking on meeee?" Young and female - but most importantly, young - J may as well have the legend "Prime Target" tramp-stamped on her lower back.  

They leave me alone, generally. Mainly, because I walk around, quite quickly, with an expression of unalloyed hatred on my face. For those in their early twenties, however, there's no chance. 

"As we're not getting paid, I'm only giving this job 30 per cent" says the cocky 21-year-old Bangladeshi lad sorting beside me. Before a postman strolls over to tell him off for not sorting quickly enough. "It's because you're young" I tell him, when he rolls his eyes at me. "If you want to be left alone here - act older than you is."    

A postcard of an Indian Sadhu has been decorously placed on top of one the sorting shelves in a neighboring aisle. After checking with a line manager that it does, in fact, need to be sent to somebody, I pull it down, and pop it in a pigeonhole. "I didn't see it" confesses the line manager. It had been there for two weeks.

Usage & Abusage

DAY 11:

So, after that rather pompous wig-out, some advice today concerning envelope usage and abusage, as some of you out there still haven't got the memo. The MEMO, dear. It's really not like emailing. You actually have to do some extra work.

1) First off, do write something on the envelope. Generally, this will be an address. As delightfully zen as it is to receive an envelope with a single stamp on it and nothing else (three of these today), they're fairly tricky to file.

2)  Postcodes. Ah, you'll like this one. Whatever they tell you, you needn't write the whole postcode on the envelope. Just the first 3 letters will do. We'll do the rest, see? Put your feet up; have another pint of scotch. You dodged a bullet there.

3) Teeny tiny envelopes. Aww! Wook at der teeny-tiny enwullops! Teeny-tiny enwullops! Just for Christmas. Dey're so cuuuuuuuuuuuuuute. Wondering why your cute widdle enwullop didn't reach its intended target? Think long and hard now.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Return to Sender

Day 10:

(Please press play on the Youtube video and then read this simultaneously. Go on. It’ll be a laugh.)

I’m going back into work tonight.

Tonight, and every night until Christmas Eve, as I agreed when I signed my contract. A contact I now know not to be worth the paper it was printed on. The pay dispute incurred after a soon to be privatised Royal Mail hired the cheapest, nastiest, most incompetent recruitment agency it could, has now become a national news scandal. For the privilege of working for minimum wage and being treated like utter scum by pinched-faced hirelings with additional duties, the Christmas Casuals and I are not going to be paid – perhaps ever.

But I am still going back into work tonight.

I am 41 years old. I’ve worked all my life until the last two years, during which I’ve been pretty much continuously unemployed after being made redundant, along with some brilliantly talented colleagues. There’s been the odd freelance gig, but it doesn’t pay the bills. All I want to do is work. And that is what I intend to do, cycling 10 miles across town in foul weather in order to do so.

Not for Royal Mail, not for David Cameron’s bland, branded, PowerPoint-presented vision, not for any boss. Just for me, and the admittedly dimming sense of pride I feel in doing a day’s work; in feeling my back ache after some manual labour; and, yes, probably like old Boxer the horse, in feeling halfway alive simply by doing so.

And that is why I’m going back into work tonight.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Secret Agents

DAY 9:

In the lobby, the receptionist is muttering grimly about another cock-up by RM's hilarious recruitment agency. "Don't even mention their name to me" he groans. "Do you think it might summon them, like the Devil, if we do?" "At least with the Devil, there's something to summon. I can't even be sure these people exist."

He has a point. The last physical contact any of us had with the company was at the clearing interviews, in early November, where we sagged in line for up to 8 hours to fill out some forms. If successful, we were told, we'd be notified within a couple of days. A month later, I received a text: "Congratulations! We'd like to offer you the role of Christmas casual"... at a depot 10 miles from your most conveniently appointed one. Should a blizzard steer your bicycle into the path of a left-turning articulated, while you pedal home in a catatonic daze, we assume no responsibility for your funeral costs.

When you try calling the company you're given 5 or 6 options: Christmas casual-related, managerial-related etc. Trying the first is an outright no-no: "Thank you for calling the Christmas line." Why, thank you. "But due to the sheer volume of calls, we are unable to take calls at this time." Ah. Yet calling the other options is an exercise in Sam Beckett-style futility too. Out of curiosity, I once left the phone ringing continuously, on speaker, while I went for a shower, made myself a sandwich, read half a paper. Watched the entirety of Heimat.

Occasionally, however, they'll forget themselves - and who you are - and send a text asking you to call them if you fancy doing some other kind of non-RM related work. I did once. Bored-sounding woman answered. I explained at some length. Moreover, that I was concerned I was going to compromise my safety, and the safety of others, in the work place, through being tired and unfit for purpose. "And I'm positive that's not a scenario you'd wish to entertain!"

"If you want the work, you'll travel" she snapped. *click* prrrrrrrrr.

It's 6am. Clocking off time. A signing-out sheet is produced. Utter chaos ensues. Ironically, for an organisation heavily associated with queuing, there's no semblance of a queue whatsoever: instead, a heaving morass of jostling, hi-vis-clad bodies hurling themselves repeatedly into the signing scrum, amid cries of "Don't push me, bitch!" "Bitch, you pushed me!" and "Push me, I'll push you, bitch!" A line manager stands well out of the way, gently shaking his head in disgust.

Any more news about the pay-backlog?" I ask him. Daily, complaints fly around that the recruitment company hasn't paid anybody when they should have done, or only paid them partly what they're owed. "We know nothing about it" the line manager says. "Only what we're hearing from you casuals." It's always the same, he says. RM used to employ its workers directly. But out-sourcing is almost always a recipe for disaster. "Same with the trains, gas, electricity, anything."

Update: Just seen this.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Into The Gulag

For the past week, I've been working nights as a Xmas casual for the Royal Mail, ensuring letters to Santa are distributed swiftly and efficiently throughout the capital.

Despite the fact I live just 10 minutes from the sorting depot I specified in the application form, the tinpot recruitment agency the soon-to-be-privatised RM hired this year have placed me in another depot altogether, 10 miles across London. That's a 10 mile bicycle ride there, and 10 miles back again. By the time I begin my shift, I'm absolutely knackered. (Particularly after last night's stinging hail, drenching rain, and uphill gale.)

Couldn't I take the tube? Well, sure - but it's expensive, even with an Oyster card. It'd be half my wages (minimum wage, £6 per hour) wiped out before I knew it. And yes, I've tried repeatedly contacting the recruitment agency. They simply will not answer calls or emails.

I  thought I'd share my daily experiences with you as a series of vignettes. As a friend says, "For all the stories about how desperate unemployment can be (and is), little is written about how miserable and dispiriting this kind of poorly-paid casual work can be, and how it really is no kind of substitute for real work. I fear that this kind of thing is the future for an awful lot of people."

DAY 1:

At 3am, I woozily ask a truculent line manager if I can have a 5 minute walk around the block, cos I'm falling asleep. Denied. "Some people have come in from Kent!!" he berates me. Yeah, but I bet they didn't cycle in, in sub-zero temperatures. For another thing, Kent's, like, about 5 miles away. I guess geography isn't the Royal Mail's strong point.

DAY 2:

Back again from the 'Prison': cages everywhere, miserable screws, strictly regimented breaks, terrible food, and everyone's wearing orange. Tonight, I offer to help fellow mail sorters locate missing postcodes (as envelopes invariably leave them off), with the aid of my London A-Z guide. *Silence* *Shrugs all round* Me, embarrassed: "Well, just thought it might help..." *More silence* *More shrugs all round* RM: officially not giving a toss about you.

DAYS 3-4:

Off with Winter bug. Taking bets on which end will explode first. I lost last time, but pretty sure I'm onto a winner this time.

DAY 5:

A crate of envelopes explodes on the sorting desk beside me, nearly taking my hand off. I've been caught sending a single 'goodnight' text at midnight. I hadn't even known it was verboten. "I expect you to keep your phone in your pocket!" the line manager with the wispy moustache and comb-over thunders. Whereas I expect you to swivel on this until your rectum caves in, my good man.

His co-manager's a howlingly offensive little witch, who looks like she used to carry out executions for the Khmer Rouge, and misses it. At 1am she waddles over and wordlessly dumps a mountain of envelopes bound for Australia or something on my desk. "Ah, no, hang on" I say, when I discover her mistake, "You've brought me the wrong pile." The human toad silently jabs her finger in the direction she wants, um, me, to take them back to, while she goes back to standing in a corner and glowering at enemies of the people.

Towards the end of the shift, we discover there's a serious backlog of payments. Far from being paid a week in arrears, we've now been told we may not get paid for anything up to 2 months after the gig finishes, in three weeks.

Hey, I'm not complaining. I'm just grateful to have some work in my forties.

DAY 8:

The little witch has ramped up the unpleasantries, all but hurling crates directly at people then stomping off to glare at invisible spiders.

On my left sits M, 21, who wants to work with difficult kids. A former difficult kid herself, who left school at 15, she wants to study for a diploma, but was informed by the authorities that the only way she could afford to go to college was if she got pregnant. She recently turned down a job in a Montessori nursery after being offered just £4 an hour. "My cousin is a postman here" she tells me. "Says out of all the Mail depots, this is the most horribilist."

On my right is F, mid-30s, who trained to be a nurse, but is finding it impossible to get a placement in a hospital. Not like the old days, she says.

Later, I pluck an envelope addressed to 'David Cameron, 10 Downing Street', out of the sorting pile. It has no stamp on it.