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Author: Mel Gorrie

The story of a female postal worker

Updated Thursday, 23rd June 2022

Nowadays women can do any job they want. Women have fought for years to be able to work, vote, and have our own opinions. So, what’s it like to be working within a workplace, Royal Mail, that is still male dominant, with women postal workers comprising just under 20% of the workforce?

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Setting the scene

I am an active trade unionist in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) based in Glasgow. I asked one of my friends, also a CWU worker, who has asked to remain anonymous, about being a female postal worker. By 2022 she had been in this role for 6 years and she willingly spoke to me in mid-2021 about her ‘job journey’. My friend is an ‘on the beat’ postal worker which means she delivers door to door as opposed to working in the distribution or sorting offices.

Prior to this, she had been a manager in a high-powered, stressful position, so when she heard about the opportunity to become a postal worker (she hoped that this would have a better work-life balance that included sociable hours of work) she jumped at the chance. It wouldn’t be that straight forward though, it never is.

Struggling for a job with Royal Mail

This wannabe postwoman had an additional hurdle to get over - dyslexia. In seeking employment with Royal Mail, she would have to face online tests which would prove to be a major challenge such as matching up postcodes and tracking numbers while being timed. It took her three attempts to get the job – only one got to the interview stage and she was told she was overqualified so the way around this was to accept the role as a Christmas temp which was a huge gamble as there were no guarantees the job would become permanent past the festive period despite assurances from her friend that Royal Mail keeps on all the workers it defines as ‘hard-working’.

While my friend speaks positively about working for Royal Mail, she acknowledges that there was no assistance to help her with the online tests in regard to her dyslexia. She felt it was a very challenging process. Her dyslexia was not identified until she was in university, by which point she had developed her own coping strategies.

Finally, she is at the door to Royal Mail! Training is very minimal for ‘Christmas casuals’; you are bombarded with information, health and safety and how to ‘prep a frame’. You are then left to your own devices.

“We come in each day and break down our mail. It comes to us in boxes and we tie these down into bundles and bags to assist with our own delivery.”

Casual workers/temps are treated differently within the workforce, they are trained less than permanent workers as well. Postal workers are normally very welcoming and help each other out. However, she did notice that core staff don’t tend to learn people’s names until they know they are being made permanent. This is due to the high volume of turnover with casual staff.

My friend changed from a job that had a generally good gender balance to a very male dominant workplace. She compared the current workplace to walking into a pub. “People don’t realise how bizarre our working practices are in comparison to the real world. The banter in the morning, the music blaring, the swearing. I used to run bars and nightclubs and it was similar to that except it was 6 am on a weekday. It is a very male-dominated environment and you can feel that in the atmosphere. It is changing due to privatisation and scrutiny that we are now under”.

Postal workers are very well known for their comradery within the sector, so I wondered if these changes were for the better. My friend believes they are not! Previously the postal service was first and foremost about public service and this has been stripped away, not least as a result of the privatisation of the Royal Mail and the Post Office, now distinctive entities. A post office and postal workers were once at the heart of many communities, not least in rural areas; some people would see only their postal workers on a day-to-day basis. Now, with the changes, time is a major factor. The element of being able to complete a certain number of deliveries in the ideal time given has become essential. Every postal worker carries a handheld device which tracks their movements, if they stop for over a minute the yellow dot gets bigger to notify a manager, the inter-personal element of the job has gone. Naively, I believed this was for the safety of the staff, however, it is purely about efficiency, for revising the routes if they end up being too large or too small.

“There is an agreement with the union that this device cannot be used for disciplinary purposes, however, it has been known for managers to question patterns that have emerged, even though they shouldn’t”.

So, did my friend ever regret changing from a gender-balanced, professional environment to a male dominant, one where harsh and sexist language is often day-to-day, experience? Further, how were women workers supported and their needs met by the management of Royal Mail?

Never, I love it. There are challenges as a woman as a postie such as toilets. Businesses must let us use their facilities but obviously, during covid, there weren’t businesses open or there might not even be a business nearby. We are out for 6 hours, it is hard enough in day-to-day circumstances but it is even worse when you are on your period, going through menopause, heavy or unexpected flow. Managers will say if you have to break off and go to the toilet then go. Practicality could mean you are in a residential area, if you don’t have a van especially, this could be a mile walk each way while carrying your delivery.”

“Realistically, it has been known for women to wear extra padding, toilet paper just to get through a day, they go into the back of a van, into bottles, due to desperation.”

“During Covid, there were the extra issues of businesses not allowing non-staff onsite, public toilets were closed too. I believe people are going hours without drinking to try and minimise the need.”

Photo of CWU members campaigning CWU members publicising the Union’s campaign against period poverty

Therefore, how could this huge issue affecting thousands of postal workers be best addressed?

Every frame (frames are the stack for each postal delivery area, the packages are put into ‘frames’) should have a logbook of dangers such as dangerous dogs and toilet facilities. The reality is this is not always the case. If the time pressure was removed and every route had specified toilets, this would help. The reality of what some women have to endure especially when it is their time of the month can be quite humiliating, a problem mirrored with the CWU members within the engineering sector. Without toilets being specified, members try not to drink too much water so they don’t need to find a toilet but in turn this dehydrates them. More information on the CWU and their campaigns to address these issues can be found in the resources. Even the toilet facilities that were available changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns. Businesses, in general, were not open which meant the CWU health and safety team were at the forefront of ensuring we could keep our members safe while maintaining their essential service. (Further information can be found d here).

Conclusion: looking ahead

Nobody knew we would have a worldwide pandemic which would change things so much for us all. I have proactively campaigned for the CWU around period poverty and had wins within the telecoms sector. I am still assisting my postal colleagues to push for this to be mirrored within the postal sector too. I was amazed, astounded and shocked at some of the information my friend gave me about her daily life as a postal worker, the good and the bad.

CWU members campaigning against period poverty CWU members campaigning against period poverty


I believe, as much as the CWU are aware of the issues and has some agreements in place, there is not enough being done as a whole. Our female engineering members and postal colleagues face shocking decisions every day. Do they cut back on how much water they drink? Do they go in a bucket in the back of their van or behind a bush? Do they change their sanitary provision after the recommended time and take the risks that brings?

What is frightening is that these issues remain to be addressed in the twenty-first century! There is no answer I can suggest that would be suitable for everyone but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution. Maybe if Royal Mail focused a bit less on the productivity in relation to how many parcels will be delivered in a time frame, this would make it more accessible to take the time to visit a toilet and allow more people with disabilities to join them (in particular people who may take longer to walk or to read, for example.)

So next time you see your local post person, say hello! Maybe offer them use of your bathroom if you feel comfortable doing so!


Resources:

More information about hydration and issues that can occur when you don’t hydrate/urinate enough can be found at:


 

 

 

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