Getting the message about privatised work

Two years back a post here highlighted the sorts of shenanigans that were going on in the aftermath of the Dutch privatisation of the postal service. The typical official position is that private ownership has increased efficiency and reduced costs, and if all we did to verify this was to look at those two broad accounting figures, we would have to agree that this is indeed the case.

We need to look deeper to find out exactly how, at a time when the internet has caused general paper mail to reach an all time low, private mail companies still manage to stay in operation, when none of these outfits are successfully making a profit (an argument constantly given in Britain in favour of privatising Royal Mail). The answer of course has been the casual/flexible work model: the practice of hiring people at arm’s length, without a proper contract, for day work, short-time seasonal work and as speciously designated ‘self-employed’ people to deliver the masses of corporate mail at the lowest possible price. This mail includes everything from routine business correspondence to the mountains of advertising ‘junk mail’ specifically handled in the Netherlands by companies like Selekt Mail.

There hasn’t really been much written in English about the situation in the Netherlands, which in fact serves as a useful case study of the effects of postal privatisation on employees. I’d like to point readers to an excellent essay in the London Review Of Books by James Meek which serves as a brilliant exposé of the shady goings-on in the privatised Dutch postal service.

The essay concerns an unnamed postwoman with a council flat filled to the point of intrusion with crates of undelivered mail. She is behind on her deliveries because of weather, illness, personal problems and fights a battle to make the crates disappear faster than the new crates can arrive.

‘I couldn’t cope and at Christmas 2006 I had about 90 of these boxes in the house. By New Year’s Day we had 97. There were even boxes in the toilet.’

Her story is really one of the common stories of people of all ages in the Netherlands employed in the massive casual work industry. Any high street in the Netherlands counts a myriad of casual work bureaus – most notably Randstad – that provide their ‘members’ with casual work that sometimes changes by the day (if it manages to be a full day of work). There is a mountain of unskilled work and warehouse work and this provision of short-term workers allows companies to dispense with the troublesome business of interviewing, hiring and maintaining properly employed staff. Meek’s essay captures the essence of how it works and what it means in terms of meaningful employment:

The postwoman is paid a few cents for each item of mail she delivers. The private mail firms control their delivery people’s daily post-bag to make sure they never earn more than €580 a month, the level at which the firms would be obliged to give them a fixed contract.

For the postal services it has led to the complete death of ‘The Postman’ in the Netherlands. As Meek points out, a Dutch household doesn’t have a ‘postman’ it has postmen/women all working for competing firms as casual labour, earning nearly half the legal minimum wage without any job security. In many cases these are just students taking work in-between classes, not as worried about job security, less fussy about the sort of living wage a person with a family might worry about.

The private postal arrangement is particular pernicious in the way it intrudes into lives. Meek mentions people sorting mail out on the sink and in bed. It is a classic extraction of surplus-value technique masquerading as self-regulated work, which is what really lies at the heart of the casual work scam. A pretence of increased freedom and responsibility about your own working life which actually manifests itself as the unpaid carrying of extra responsibility and the carrying out of work for the lowest remuneration possible.

Meek’s essay is but one highlighted part of a horrible jigsaw puzzle of fractured work in the face of privatisation and employment liberalisation in Europe. It’s worth reading to help get the message.

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