The Shortcomings of Dutch Postal Services: Profit Margins at the Expense of Workers and Consumers

Maya Auer and Dimitri Rhodes investigate why people are dissatisfied with postal delivery services in the Netherlands

Photo Credit: Bianca Toeps/Twitter

When Rick van Lier worked as a delivery driver for PostNL he had a very busy delivery route. At the beginning of his day, he had to pack his van with around 230 packages. Currently, some drivers for PostNL must deliver up to 220 packages a day, that’s 30-40 packages an hour, and approximately two minutes per stop. “The culture in logistics and transport consists of love, hate and pride for the profession. It is normal to work 50 to 60 hours a week,” he tells 9to5.

Van Lier is not alone, the Covid-19 pandemic has completely changed the way society interacts with the retail sector, resulting in an unprecedented boom in online sales. Moreover, this has come at a time when total volume and turnover for the parcel transport industry is seeing a steady yearly growth.

Parallel to this trend is the increasing competitiveness of the postal market. Where 10 years ago PostNL dominated the domestic market, nowadays the importance of cross-border post is ready to surpass that of national post, and international competitors such as UPS and DHL are slowly eroding PostNL’s dominance.

Delivery workers across The Netherlands can feel this growth. “We are now taking away double the number of packages than when I started,” DHL employee Brente Broonsvoort told 9to5. For driver Broonsvoort, weekly hours and daily parcel volume are increasing, as is the intensity of the work.

Another phenomenon is also on the rise in the postal sector: consumer dissatisfaction with parcel delivery services. An annual study by the Dutch Consumers Association into the nature of consumer complaints addressed towards the major postal companies concluded that in 2020, the number of complaints rose by 44% across all postal companies operating in The Netherlands compared to the year before. A follow-up study with over 12.000 panel members showed that around 30% of participants recorded significant issues with their deliveries in the past 6 months.

Online, evidence of customer dissatisfaction is inexhaustible. On websites like Quora, posts lamenting poor quality of service from delivery companies give insight into what seems to have become a global problem. Some users suspect that when delivery drivers mark something as “tried to deliver”, actually, “they lie.”

Picture credit: screenshot from Quora

Van Lier would disagree. “Sometimes, towards the end of a shift, I found packages in my car that had to be delivered to a neighbourhood I’d already been to. On busy days I marked this as ‘tried to deliver but no one was home’. If you go to a home and people are actually not there you have to leave a note.”

Similarly, Broonsvoort says that sometimes, she gets back to the depot after a shift and finds a package that was added to the delivery list during her ride. “That’s when I’ll mark it as ‘not home’ although I haven’t even been there. I think it would be weird if a deliverer would mark that on purpose.”

Postal delivery services in the Netherlands

To get to the root of what might appear as a drop in quality of service, an outline of the economic context of Dutch postal services is crucial. As of 2011, 4 companies were present in the Dutch postal industry:

The Dutch national postal service was privatised in 1998 and rebranded to TPG (TNT Post Groep) until 2006. In 2011, TNT Post became PostNL and was attributed the Universal Service Obligation (USO) by the Dutch government, ensuring that it provides a minimum level of service at an affordable price to all areas of the country. Sandd, the second largest company on the market, acquired both Selekt and Netwerk VSP in 2011 and 2017, respectively. And in 2019, PostNL acquired Sandd.

The Netherlands’ Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) recommended against this last acquisition due to fears of a resulting market monopoly. Smaller postal companies are in an ongoing court process about the merger. Still, Sandd was integrated into PostNL and today, the domestic Dutch market is dominated by PostNL. As of 1st February 2020, PostNL is the only postal transport company with a nationwide network, with around 90% of all postal deliverers working there.

The Golden Ticket to Social Security

The privatization of the postal sector has had massive implications for the workforce. Anselma Zwaagstra, a CNV union official representing postal workers explains to 9to5 that in the parcel delivery sector, only 25% to 30% of PostNL’s employees sign a Collective Labour Agreement (CAO), which ensures job security and social benefits such as paid sick days. Unions negotiate collective agreements with postal delivery services, but unfortunately, “it is hard for the government to keep track of everyone signing a collective agreement.”

Why is this the case? Because they are not directly employed with PostNL. The company offers contracts to smaller enterprises who, in turn, subcontract the work to individual freelancers. Zwaagstra says the reason so many people opt to work with subcontractors is because of zero-hour contracts, which make the job more flexible. However, “they work very hard, and they aren’t paid enough.”

In 2016, the Employment Relationships Deregulation Act (DBA) was implemented to bring more clarity into client-contractor regulations. The Act states that employers are only required to pay payroll taxes for their employees, not for freelancers and self-employed workers. Therefore, clients and contractors need to establish that their agreement is not a form of employment. If a freelancer accepts a job, and it turns out to be an employment, they find themselves under something called false self-employment, or disguised employment. In this situation, a freelancer’s client becomes their employer, but does not pay the client’s payroll taxes. In simple terms: Subcontractors can find themselves in situations of false employment in which they work for their contractor without being able to make use of tax benefits. As Gerdien Oldenhuis from the faculty of law of the University of Groningen told 9to5: “This act absolutely failed.”

Freelancers that are not in an established form of employment are required to pay taxes that, for instance, cover their state pension, Oldenhuis continues. However, they are not obliged to pay social security contributions. In order to be insured in cases of work accidents, freelancers have to decide on their own whether they want to pay these expensive contributions privately. Not every employee knows about this regulation. “Basically, an employment contract is the golden ticket to social security, because in that case the employer has to pay the social security contributions”, she concludes.

Unfortunately ameliorating working conditions for postal workers doesn’t seem to be a clean-cut issue. The government has little influence on private companies like PostNL. Maadey Meuleman, an FNV union official, tells 9to5 that “it is easier for PostNL to scale up during busy times like Christmas through external workers and subcontractors.”

A deregulated mess

Not all delivery drivers have it all bad, though. Brente Bronsvoort started to work for DHL in the small Dutch village of Mareklo three years ago. Overall, she is satisfied with her salary and the flexible working times that she gets to combine with her internship. “I do believe that it is sometimes a bit different in cities than in villages,” she says. Nevertheless, over the past few years, she has noticed a big difference in the workload. “Before the busy times I could easily get some time out, but now that it’s so busy I have to work really hard to stay on schedule.” She also notes that vehicle and equipment maintenance is being increasingly ignored, creating problems for workers. “There are a lot of people riding on the vans, and sometimes something breaks, […] it takes a very long time. I think they [employers] could pay more attention to that.”

Joris Stejin* decided to become a mailman in Tilburg when feeling overworked after completing his degree. He wanted a job where he could be outside and work on his own. Joris had a recommended time frame in which he had to deliver the mail and was allowed to take breaks during his shifts. He was paid for the number of hours it took him to deliver the mail. However, the stress started when one day he was called because he was always slower than the other workers. “Big companies need to make sure to earn money, if they can motivate you just to work a little bit harder for the same amount of money, they will do it.” After some time, his job became a drag to him. Old-established employees of PostNL kept saying the quality of the work was decreasing. “The worker’s interests came second.”

This feeling is partly reflected in Barend Bruisma’s experience working for DHL Express in Groningen. He delivered packages on e-bikes and cars. His managers were nice, they cared about their drivers and sometimes, when deliverers finished early, they were told to help other, busier drivers. Be that as it may, sometimes Barend Briusma experienced workloads that were too big. “You build up this tension, you don’t want to come back with packages.”

Photo credit: BERND WUESTNECK/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

One of the many subcontractors that PostNL works with is AZEXPRESS Transport Services. Emin Babajiv, its owner, tells 9to5 that all his employees sign a CAO in which it is stated that drivers have to be paid an hourly rate. His company is registered on Paychecked, an organization that checks working conditions in delivery companies. Nonetheless, according to Babajiv, some companies set up two separate administrations, which makes it easier to hide false self-employment. Moreover, “if Paychecked gets suspicious about a subcontractor, they cannot obtain any information about it from clients like PostNL, because of privacy regulations.”

All these testimonies converge along certain themes: the workload for delivery drivers and mailmen is increasing, the workplace culture is changing, importance of profit margins is increasing, and the social security of workers is fragile, messy and deregulated.

But wait, there’s more!

Privatisation isn’t the only factor behind the changes in the Dutch postal industry. Similar stories to the ones 9to5 has gathered have been written about United States Postal Service workers (the USPS is still publicly owned). Of course, these changes follow a capitalist logic, however many other factors must be considered to understand this shift. Societal, technological, economic, and environmental contexts have also played a big role in what the industry looks like today.

Technological and environmental changes have created quasi-impassable structural obstacles to how a postal service functions, with the internet slowly eroding the need for a postal service altogether, and more stringent environmental regulation limiting the extent of postal volume, especially for commercial post.

 Societal and economic shifts have also played an important role. With the rise of the gig economy, people are more willing to accept self-employment or freelance type contracts that give workers less protection but allow for much more flexibility. Furthermore, national and international parcel transport has exploded recently due to the pandemic, highlighting society’s willingness to accept online purchases as the conventional medium of consumption, as opposed to physical shops.

Suffice to say, privatization has exacerbated all of these shifts. Liberalization has allowed postal services worldwide to follow a trend of uberisation of workforce contracts and consolidation of competition leading to monopolistic behaviours.

9to5 has collected testimonies from workers and consumers alike alleging that efforts to increase profit margins have resulted in a significant drop in quality of service at the expense of the consumer. This includes practices ranging in severity from ignoring the maintenance of workplace equipment like delivery vehicles, to providing little oversight into the nature of the contracts that subcontracting delivery companies sign with their workforce. Steadily increasing work quotas are imposed on delivery drivers, transforming the workplace culture into a constant pursuit of optimisation, at the cost of their esteem.

“Deliverers don’t really feel engaged [anymore].”   – Joris Steijn*

In the course of this investigation, Dimitri Rhodes and Maya Auer reached out to PostNL for a comment, but the company did not reply.

* All names marked with followed by an asterisk were changed for confidentiality reasons

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