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Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Former Dutch national postal service PostNL exchanged many fixed contract-postmen for flex-workers, but currently seems to suffer from the unwanted side-effects.

PostNL, the inheritor of the Dutch national postal service with 75,000 workers and 42,000 (part-time) postmen, has gone through a large reorganization during the last one-and-a-half years.

In May 2011, the brand PostNL emerged when the Dutch TNT Post group had split up in TNT Express for international express courier services, and PostNL for the delivery of normal mail and non-express parcels.

Since its establishment, the company had to fight with reduced quantities of normal mail, due to the soaring usage of email for almost all information, invoices and transactions that did not need to be signed and printed. On top of that, there had been the strict and detailed demands from the Dutch government on the company’s postal service level, forcing the company to deliver post at least six days per week, also in rural areas.

Although PostNL’s parcel service had been booming, because of the soaring internet sales in The Netherlands, this by itself was not enough to keep the whole company afloat.

In order to keep the company profitable under the deteriorated circumstances for normal mail, the board of directors decided to discharge thousands of the official postmen with fixed contracts and to replace them with flexworkers that worked on a payment-by-the-piece basis.They did so to cut the excess fixed expenses per letter.

This decision caused massive unrest among the fixed contract workers, who suddenly saw their secured future deteriorate. They quite rightly feared the ‘false’ competition of non-qualified, parttime workers (often youngsters), who would receive much lower payments for the same amount of work. Especially for the older, often highly compensated workers their discharge meant often a dismal course to longterm unemployment.

More surprising, however, was the astonishment and disappointment among politicians; it is astounding that the same people who stimulated privatising of former state-companies in the nineties, didn’t want to understand that these now-commercial companies actually wanted to make a profit. Politics established a set of unrealistic demands on the service level of the postal services, while it already had become clear that there were fewer letters to deliver. PostNL drew the right conclusion from their point-of-view and tried to minimize the costs of labor. Eventually, PostNL executed its reorganization plans and everything seemingly turned back to business-as-usual.

However, today PostNL has been confronted with the nasty side-effects of their underpaid(?), flexible workforce. The company has been warned for an intended boycot by the Federation for Gold and Silver, which represents jewellers, watchmakers and gold- and silver smiths.

During the last half year, the federation had noticed a soaring number of missing packages with jewels, gold and silver and other valuables, among the shipments which had been sent through PostNL. According to a federation spokesman, it didn’t matter much whether these valuables had been send through registered or normal mail; the amount of theft had been alarming.

In earlier contacts between the federation and PostNL, both parties couldn’t find a thorough solution for this problem yet. As a consequence, the federation wanted to instate the boycot.

The problem of the federation is clear: although gold and silver bars can be replaced quite easily, it is a different story with vintage watches and jewellery, which often have a high emotional value. Especially antique, artisanal jewels, old jewellery from famous brands like Cartier, Bulgari and Tiffany’s or rare, vintage watches are almost priceless and impossible to replace.

Here are the pertinent snips of this story, from De Telegraaf (  

Parcels with valuable contents are not safe with PostNL. It doesn’t matter whether shipments are sent through registered mail or with an insurance included. The situation is so alarming that the Federation Gold and Silver advises its members, consisting of jewellers, watchmakers and gold- and silversmiths, not to do business anymore with the largest postal service in The Netherlands.

“Embezzlement and theft of gold, silver, gems and jewels, often with a large emotional value. That’s how it goes at PostNL during the last half year. Consultation with PostNL didn’t bring any results yet, unfortunately. We want to protect our lines of business against this unsafe situation, that has brought many problems and costs them a lot of money”, according to federation director Beeuwke Keizer.

“PostNL isn’t equiped for the job, these days. Very unprofessional and saddening. It is not usual, but we advised our 1250 entrepreneurs within our lines of business to send their shipments with other parcel services. We hope that PostNL now gets its act together”.

The reaction of PostNL on business news radiostation BNR ( was flabbergastingly revealing and an absolute must-listen for everybody who understands Dutch.

Werner van Bastelaar, the spokesman of the company did neither categorically deny the existence of the problem nor did he try to find a solution for it. Instead Van Bastelaar tried to debunk the story by stating that ‘he contacted the Federation Gold and Silver this morning and this federation didn’t understand where the story in the Telegraaf came from’.

He also advised the members of the federation to make use of PostNL’s secured ‘Micropakket’ (microparcel) service: ‘this highly secured service is much better suited for the shipment of valuables. When companies make use of less secured shipment services, they run the risk that packages are lost’.

After this revelation, there was an interesting debate between the BNR radiohost and Van Bastelaar. The radiohost stated that the Federation had also spoken with the public radiostation Radio1, in order to make clear that De Telegraaf was not the only source of this story.  Van Bastelaar continued with his marketing story on the Micropakket service ‘which is already widely used by jewellers and should be advised to all parties sending valuable shipments’, but he didn’t want to reveal at all how expensive this service was. Instead he repeated that sending one's valuables through unsecured, registered mail is at people’s own risk.

I was shocked when I heard this conversation. How can a company be so totally clueless about its service and reliability when this service and reliability are its main reasons of existence?  And how can a company accept that its workers embezzle irreplaceable belongings of its customers?

In a way I can even understand PostNL:  In the battle for the margins, the company had to accept that underpayment of its workers meant less qualified and, as a matter of fact, (even) less honest workers. For the company, this is typically ‘collateral damage’.

However, on a personnel number of 75,000 workers, 1% of dishonest workers means a shocking 750 dishonest workers, when you do the math. And 750 people can steal for millions of euro’s in jewels, gold and silver.

I’m curious if this is also ‘collateral damage’ for Dutch politics. Most politicians react extremely short-winded to the news of the day and don’t want to accept that they are often part of the problem. This is also true in case of PostNL.

It is the handicap of most politicians: they want to do the right thing, but often forget to take the nasty side-effects of their decisions into account.

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