Express delivery: are independent couriers eclipsing Royal Mail?

The children’s television character Postman Pat was a beloved, familiar face in the 1980s and 90s. Not just on TV, but in real life. Pat the puppet was based on the stereotypical ‘postie’ that all households would be familiar with. Postmen would get to know the people on their rounds personally, and generally play a big part in the local community, just as Pat does in the show—though they rarely brought their black and white cats along.

To modern viewers, Postman Pat is a nostalgic anachronism, an icon of a forgotten era. The show still airs to this day, but Pat now represents the mythological role of the postman, just as John Wayne characters represent cowboy archetypes that only existed on Hollywood sets. Today, our deliveries are increasingly being handled not by Her Majesty’s postal service, but by independent couriers, often under contract for major global corporations.

As of September 2017, the Royal Mail handles less than half of deliveries in the UK, with the majority being carried out by a combination of Hermes, Yodel, Amazon, and others. For senders and recipients, this often leads to greater speed and convenience. But a lack of accountability and coverage of dubious worker treatment raises questions over whether we should trust these new couriers, and whether this shift is a good thing, or a disaster.

 

How reliable are independent delivery services?

 Every year, MoneySavingExpert compiles a list of “the WORST parcel delivery firms,” this capitalisation accurately channeling the frustrations of failed delivery. This year, Yodel topped the list, with leading competitor Hermes close behind. These two firms are collectively responsible for nearly one fifth of the nation’s deliveries, yet they consistently disappoint their customers.

As reported in the Observer, one Hermes courier failed to deliver a £300-plus packed suitcase, instead posting a bottle of lavender oil through a recipient’s letterbox. Untold numbers of people have received ‘we missed you’ cards through their doors when they were unquestionably at home, waiting by the door. Some parcels end up left with neighbours that don’t exist, and are signed for with signatures which are unknown to the recipient.

Sensing the demand from their customers for reliable service, some security companies have begun branching out into courier delivery. As CMS Keyholding make clear in their article on when to use a secure courier, keyholding companies already have keys to their clients’ houses. This means they can safely and securely deliver valuables or personal documents on time, regardless of whether the recipient is home. The popular independent courier firms are not nearly as convenient, trustworthy or secure.

If their services are not even effective, it’s even more troubling that investigations have shown their practices to be problematic at best.

 

Are independent couriers problematic?

 A 2016 episode of the BBC’s ‘Inside Out’ brought national attention to the working conditions of Amazon couriers for the first time. Amazon Logistics, one of the biggest non-Royal Mail delivery services in the country, hires drivers on contracts from other organisations.

The Beeb sent an undercover reporter to AHC Services, the company which contracts drivers for Amazon Logistics. The reporter discovered that drivers are often tasked with delivering 200 parcels a day, and given a mere three minutes for each dropoff. On top of this, two days of unpaid training are required for new starters, and working non-stop for seven days straight is not uncommon. Worse still, when the reporter took the AHC van to a mechanic, it was deemed “dangerous to drive” after an examination.

It’s not just Amazon Logistics who have been accused of mistreating workers. Many Royal Mail alternatives can be classed as part of the ‘gig economy’. DPD, for example, hires drivers on a freelance basis, claiming they are self-employed, and this practice is widespread among courier firms.

An investigation into the gig phenomenon pointed out how unfair this setup was for drivers. They have to pay for their own fuel and load their own vans, but they don’t get paid until they make their first delivery. They also lack basic employee rights, such as paid holiday and sick leave.

The delivery industry has taken a turn in this direction in a race to cut costs, both for customer and corporation. People want delivery charges to be low, and Amazon and their like do not want to pay the difference. Far from Postman Pat (who, let’s not forget, is a “very happy man”), modern-day couriers are often overworked and underprotected—very unlikely to pause their delivery schedule and help locals with their problems.

The race to the bottom in the courier industry comes as consumers become increasingly demanding. Deliveries are now expected to come almost immediately if possible; one-hour delivery from Amazon is now a reality in many areas. We can lobby corporations to improve working conditions all we like, but in the end it might come down to our choice. Are we willing to wait a little longer for our deliveries to come from a driver with a life more like Pat’s, or do we need the knock, ring, letters through our door immediately?

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