- by B Curphey
- The Guardian
- Issue #1983
With demand up thirty per cent from last year, Australia Post has been experiencing long delays in Victoria and New South Wales due to extended lockdowns in Melbourne, Sydney and regional areas in both states. A photo taken at the beginning of October from inside the Sunshine distribution centre in Melbourne showed mountains of undelivered mail and parcels – and it is only expected to get worse as Christmas approaches.
Adding to the crisis, e-commerce deliveries were halted entirely in Melbourne for the second time this year from 29th September – 6th October due to positive COVID-19 cases at mail centres throughout Melbourne. At the time of writing, 200 Australia Post staff are in isolation.
It wasn’t all that long ago that people could be heard complaining about how Australia Post was overpriced, owing to a lack of demand in the “digital age”. Over the past two years demand has skyrocketed as Australians faced extended lockdowns and more and more people are shopping online. Yet, postage prices remain high. The pandemic has shown that it was never about the lack of patronage but about the profit motive.
Access to affordable and reliable delivery services has become a matter of public health. With sky high shipping costs, shopping online has become the privilege of the rich, while the working class are forced to risk their health to access businesses in person to buy essential goods. One supermarket chain is charging $15 on a minimum spend of $50 to have groceries delivered to your doorstep. $15 is an extra expense that struggling families may not be able to budget for and $75 exceeds some people’s weekly grocery bill.
Australia Post is, understandably, at the centre of this fiasco. One issue is that, while Australia Post ought to be run as a public service, it is increasingly run as a private business with more regard to profit than the people it serves. Although it is established by the government under the Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989, Australia Post describes itself as “a completely self-funded business with both commercial and community service obligations.”
The pandemic has shown that mail delivery has always been and continues to be an essential public service for those who are unable to access essential goods in person. Public services should not be designed to make money. When it fails to turn a profit in a given year, Australia Post does not “lose” money. The reality is, it costs money to provide a vital service to the Australian people.
But Australia Post, while emblematic of the industry, is not the only corporation affected. Couriers and delivery services more broadly are bearing the brunt of the increased demand, with the pandemic adding another layer of danger to what is already the most dangerous industry in Australia (see Guardian #1972 “200 Truck drivers killed since Road Safety Tribunal abolished”).
While small gains have been made, the industry is at crisis point. Earlier this year, the Fair Work Commission found that gig workers such as deliveroo drivers may be employees and not contractors, granting them access to workplace rights enjoyed by all employees (see Guardian #1964 “Fair Work Commission Rules Gig Workers are Employees”), but conditions in the transport industry remain far from ideal.
Much like gig workers, couriers and postal delivery drivers are often contractors who lack the job security and protections of employees. They experience constant danger of exposure to the virus, pressure to perform dangerous work, and low wages for unstable jobs.
The Transport Workers Union (TWU) is considering a national day of action to force employers to address these issues, citing “alarming rates of death, injury and chronic health conditions, wage theft and pressures to work dangerously.” If the action goes ahead, it would disrupt courier services such as Toll, FedEx and StarTrack, causing further delays. TWU national secretary, Michael Kaine, stated:
“For months now, the workers sweating it out in trucks and distribution centres to meet extreme demand have been battling behind the scenes to protect their jobs against an insurgence of outsourcing to lower paid workers.”
Throughout the pandemic, workers have been expected to maintain the same if not higher levels of productivity while seeing no increase in their pay and worsening conditions. Transport Workers are suffering from high rates of burnout and workplace injury due to extreme demand from their employers. While new workers are being onboarded throughout the industry, this has so far not been enough to ease the workload on existing workers. All of this while companies like Australia Post continue to profit.
Last year, Australia Post reported record revenue of $7.5 billion, up seven per cent from the previous year, with an 80 per cent increase in e-commerce in just the first eight weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also made over 350 per cent of predicted profits, ending the year with a profit margin of $53.6 million. Toll reported revenue growth of 19.2 per cent and FedEx is recording net revenue of $5.86 billion for the 2021 fiscal year. These are yet more examples of businesses profiting from the pandemic. Increased demand for delivery services is only one piece of the puzzle: dangerous working conditions, constant exposure of workers to the virus, and massively increased workloads leading to worker burnout also have a role to play.
StarTrack and Australia Post have claimed that the current conditions are an anomaly and are a temporary necessity to keep things moving in the lead-up to Christmas. An efficient mail delivery service cannot come at the expense of the pay and conditions of postal workers. Spending on Australia Post and courier companies must be reprioritised to hire more workers, improve conditions to make them pandemic compliant, and to pay all postal workers a decent wage.
The CPA stands in solidarity with transport workers in their struggle for better pay, secure work and safer conditions. Delivery and courier corporations should not be allowed to profit from the exploitation of transport industry workers. As an essential public service, the federal government ought to provide Australia Post with adequate resources to meet the increased demand, rather than placing the burden on existing workers. Decent, living wages, secure jobs, and safe and sustainable working conditions are the costs of doing business.