Yesterday, I noted that the U.S. Postal Service is facing default and may have to contemplate cutting back on services (closing more than 3,000 underutilized post offices, paring back delivery to five days a week, and so on). It’s worth noting that many countries in Europe have gone even further in this regard, partially or fully privatizing their postal services. For an upbeat look at this experiment, here’s a Businessweek rundown. For a more critical take, James Meek had a longer and unexpectedly fascinating piece in the London Review of Books on the Dutch experience with privatization:
Somewhere in the Netherlands, a postwoman is in trouble. When I visited her, bad health, snow and ice and a degree of chaos in her personal life had left her months behind on her deliveries. She rents a privatised ex-council flat with her partner and so many crates of mail had built up that it was getting hard to move around. Twice a week one of the private mail companies she was working for, Selektmail, dropped off three or four crates of letters, magazines and catalogues. She was sorting and delivering the fresh crates but the winter backlog was tough to clear. I counted 62 full mail crates stacked up in the hallway.
The postwoman had a similar problem with the other private mail company she works for, Sandd, a few years back. “When I began at Sandd in 2006, I delivered about 14 boxes of mail every time,” she said. “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.” The postwoman is paid a pittance to deliver corporate mail. She hadn’t done her job well, yet so few people complained about missed deliveries that she hadn’t been found out.
Across the world, postal services are being altered like this: optimised to deliver the maximum amount of unwanted mail at the minimum cost to businesses. In the internet age, private citizens are sending less mail than they used to, but that’s only part of the story of postal decline. The price of driving down the cost of bulk mailing for a handful of big organisations is being paid for by the replacement of decently paid postmen with casual labour and the erosion of daily deliveries.