TOM RAWSTORNE: With even a second-class stamp costing 68p and strikes causing chaos, is there any point in sending Christmas cards this year?
- Small businesses are seeing customer complaints and lost revenue due to strike
- Crucial NHS letters and Christmas parcels being held up in system ‘nightmare’
- Companies urging customers to order earlier to make sure parcels are delivered
For an online retailer like Hannah’s Games, the run-up to Christmas should be the busiest and best of times.
But the reality is that this year it is fast turning into a ‘catastrophe’.
‘It is an absolute nightmare,’ says Hannah Daragon, the founder of the Plymouth-based party games business. She estimates that strikes by postal workers have already cost her £20,000 in lost business – 10 per cent of her annual revenue.
‘This time of year should be our annual peak,’ the 41-year-old says. ‘But the last posting date for Christmas is earlier than ever and a game that cost £5 a month ago is now £7.99 because I am having to pay for tracking.
Hannah Daragon, the founder of the Plymouth-based party games business said she’s been receiving customer complaints due to delays
More strikes are planned for tomorrow and on Wednesday and Thursday next week, followed by two further days ahead of Christmas
‘Royal Mail has still not cleared the backlog from late November. The workers are not motivated to clear it because, rightly or wrongly, their aim is to cause chaos. They are at war with Royal Mail and I am caught in the crossfire.
‘I am being deluged with customer complaints. They blame me and are angry with me but I am powerless to do anything about it.’
The real worry is that things are only going to get a lot worse.
After strikes last week, more than 100,000 Royal Mail employees once again walked out yesterday.
More strikes are planned for tomorrow and on Wednesday and Thursday next week, followed by two further days ahead of Christmas.
With the increasingly bitter dispute over pay and conditions showing no signs of resolution, the latest industrial action has been timed to coincide with the Royal Mail’s busiest period. But, as Hannah knows only too well, even before the latest strikes, the postal system was bursting at the seams.
This week photographs emerged of sorting offices piled high with sacks of undelivered post. While Royal Mail insists that it is always a busy time of year, postmen and women have told the Daily Mail there are already lengthy delays in clearing backlogs.
‘The offices are so busy they are running out of room to store stuff,’ said one postman. ‘I have seen trolleys of mail and parcels left in canteens, outside and in corridors.’
Postal workers on strike meet in a pub yesterday before heading to Parliament Square to join with the demonstration. Strikes are expected to cause significant disruption in the coming weeks, which is typically Royal Mail’s busiest period
The CWU has refused to accept a deal offered by Royal Mail. It says the company wants to force through thousands of redundancies and enact changes that would see the Royal Mail transformed into an Uber-style gig economy parcel courier
The Royal Mail has offered postal workers a pay deal of 9 per cent over 18 months. A female postal worker from Essex described the situation: ‘It’s like being the child in the midst of a bitter divorce of two parents. The stress is next level’
Another added: ‘We are only clearing about a third of what there is each day.’
They say they have been instructed to prioritise getting parcels out ahead of letters.
The Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents postal workers, claims that this is because parcels represent the most profitable side of the business for Royal Mail.
While the privately owned company insists all mail is treated equally, it does admit that in order to free up space after strikes, sometimes it is necessary to clear parcels first.
Which may in part explain the experience of a growing number of customers who say they have not received vital letters for NHS appointments, or have been left waiting for days or weeks for replacement bank cards or other important documents.
Even those who have attempted to sidestep the chaos and use other courier companies are having little luck.
Evri, previously known as Hermes, one of the UK’s largest courier firms, has been hit by delays too.
Exasperated customers have resorted to going to its depots to track down their packages.
When the Mail visited Evri depots in Durham and Norwich this week it saw parcels from retailers including Next, Disney and Asos scattered across puddle-strewn car parks.
All of which hardly bodes well for the coming weeks.
As Hannah observes: ‘It is just like throwing a product into a black hole and hoping it comes out when it is meant to. The whole system is in meltdown…’
The Royal Mail has offered postal workers a pay deal of 9 per cent over 18 months.
But the offer is subject to agreeing changes to working practices designed to stop the business losing £1million a day.
The CWU has refused to accept the deal saying the company wants to force through thousands of redundancies and enact changes that would see the Royal Mail transformed into an Uber-style gig economy parcel courier.
‘Postal workers want to get on with serving the communities they belong to, delivering Christmas gifts and tackling the backlog from recent weeks,’ says CWU general secretary Dave Ward.
‘But they know their value, and they will not meekly accept the casualisation of their jobs, the destruction of their conditions and the impoverishment of their families.’
Dave Ward, General Secretary of the CWU, said posties wanted to get back to work but ‘knew their value’ and would not accept the destruction of their working conditions
For those on the frontline of the dispute, the impact is impossible to ignore: ‘There were days last week that the managers told us not to even sort letters out and just concentrate on parcels,’ said one postman from the Midlands who asked not be identified.
‘I was delivering some parcels to a customer yesterday and he came out and explained he was waiting for an important letter – an NHS letter for cancer treatment.
‘As my dad is in the same situation as this gentleman, when I finished for the day, I found this guy’s letter and delivered it on my way home in my own time.’
A female postal worker from Essex described the situation: ‘It’s like being the child in the midst of a bitter divorce of two parents. The stress is next level.’
Royal Mail has already brought forward last Christmas postage dates to December 12 for second class mail (stamps costing 68p) and December 16 for first class (stamps costing 95p).
Other companies have brought forward their final ordering dates by as many as six days.
Brands such as Boohoo, Paul Smith, Selfridges and The White Company are among those urging customers to shop early to avoid pre-Christmas disappointment.
The strikes have also led to companies and individuals switching to other courier firms. The electrical retailer Currys is one of the biggest companies to have done so.
But it can incur added expense, something Martin Gerhard discovered after reluctantly switching from Royal Mail to other couriers a fortnight ago to ensure items ordered from his gifting firm Boostology arrived on time.
It now costs him more than double – £3.20 instead of £1.50 with Royal Mail – to send items in padded envelopes and up to 50 per cent more – £4.80 instead of £3.20 – to send small parcels.
The 51-year-old said: ‘This year has already been tough because of the cost of living crisis. We are substantially down on sales. This adds to it and is very worrying. People are put off ordering online. It will not be a Christmas to remember for us.’
Across the country, there are growing reports of unhappy Evri customers too: three weeks ago it was ranked as the worst parcel firm in the UK in a Citizen’s Advice survey for a second year running.
On social media and in local newspapers there are reports of long delays and poor communication over missing parcels.
One woman who visited an Evri depot in Stanley, Co Durham, saw the parcels on the ground in the rain, describing it as a ‘disgrace’.
Similar complaints have been made about a depot in Norwich.
When the Mail visited them both last week parcels were spread over the ground as couriers attempted to fit them in to cars and vans. In Norwich, one courier could be seen loading parcels, including those marked fragile, into the back of an open flat-bed truck.
An Evri spokesman said: ‘We are sorry that some customers are experiencing short delays in receiving their parcels. We can confirm that due to capacity issues following higher than normal parcel volumes driven in part by the Royal Mail strikes, in some cases our couriers are sorting parcels for delivery outside.’
As for Royal Mail, a spokesman apologised for any disruption, while making it clear where the company believes the blame lies.
‘The CWU is striking at our busiest time, cynically and deliberately holding Christmas to ransom for our customers, businesses and families across the country,’ she said.
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