Snail mail stumbles - Job uncertainty as Government moves to shut down several post offices
Tyrone Thompson, Staff Reporter
With more than 90 per cent of the post offices around the island operating at a loss, the Government is pushing a $30-million transformation of the service that will result in several post offices being closed and a undetermined number of postal workers facing an uncertain future.
"The transformation is going to revamp the entire operation. There are some post offices now that we will have to close because they simply don't have the market anymore," declared Minister of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining Phillip Paulwell at the recent opening of Internet kiosks at the Liguanea Post Office.
"There are others that don't have the look or feel of this one, which we think is a good model for moving forward," added Paulwell, as he acknowledged that with the introduction of new technology the usage levels of the postal service have been eroded over the past decade.
While unwilling to state which post offices would have their doors shuttered, Paulwell argued that the scheduled transformation of the postal service would breathe new life into the struggling entity.
"You're going to see the service improve, we intend to have mobile units, post shops, we're going to have even quicker delivery of mail, with same-day service across the country, so it is going to improve the service, although we might not have the same physical presence as before," said Paulwell without any mention of the job cuts.
But O'Neil Grant, president of the Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA), which represents postal workers, told The Sunday Gleaner that his union has yet to be informed by the Government of any jobs that would be lost in the postal services.
"We have not been officially informed of any imminent job cuts in the Postal Corporation, and if there are job cuts it would be a major breach of labour relations, as the Government is required to advise the unions first if it is even contemplating staff cuts or redundancies in the public service," declared Grant.
The JCSA boss also poured cold water on the Government's transformation programme, arguing that it was long overdue.
"This transformation of the post office has been something on the agenda since 2000, so it's 14 years late and we have been asking them for a long time to get the thing going, because we have seen a steady decline in the postal services over the years," Grant told The Sunday Gleaner.
The previous Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration had announced amendments to the Post Office Act as far back 2009.
At that time, JoAnne Archibald, the then principal director, information and telecommunications in the Office of the Prime Minister, claimed the transformation would have designed a "new framework for the postal sector".
According to Archibald, the amendments would also "formally take into account other providers of postal and related services". However, five years later those amendments are yet to be debated in Parliament.
Grant argued that the delay in enacting the legislative changes to the operations of the Post Office Act is costing the postal service millions of dollars in lost revenue.
"We have come to the place now that courier services have taken the space of the postal service in package delivery, and from where we sit I don't think the Government is recognising the revenue that it is losing because of the lack of necessary transformation," stressed Grant.
"Private entities that are doing mail and courier services should be paying a licence fee to the Post and Telecoms Department, and from my understanding those fees are not being collected."
According to Grant, the malaise surrounding the long-awaited transformation has also had a deleterious effect on the staff of the postal offices.
"Our members have communicated to us and it is something we are very concerned about, not only the transformation but how they are treated in terms of their compensation and their working conditions."
Evidence of the poor working conditions was plainly evident at some of the post offices visited by our news team recently.
At the General Post Office in downtown Kingston, staff members drew our attention to the poor state of the columns which support the building.
"You can see how the columns outside burst up, the ones inside are worse, we just hope say nothing drastic happen because I don't know if this place would hold up," said one worker who asked not to be named. "We talk till we tired and nothing is fixed."
At the Cross Roads Post Office the complaints of neglect were the same.
"Right yah now, chi-chi (termites) a nyam down the building here," said one employee as he fiddled with his cellular phone. "Ask anybody who work here they will tell you is long time nothing don't do to this building."
The watermarked ceilings and paint-stripped walls were evidence of the claim.
However, former Postmaster General Dr Blossom O'Meally Nelson told The Sunday Gleaner that the cost of improving the physical infrastructure of the post offices across the island was a major problem with which her administration grappled.
"That is why we tried to maximise the earning potential offices that are located on sizeable properties," argued Nelson.
"For example, the Chancery Street Post Office which is in that big building, we can probably relocate from there to a mall and use that building for some other income-generating purpose, so we need some infrastructure reform as well, because repairs are going to cost a lot of money."
In the face of dwindling usage due to improvements in technology, O'Meally Nelson said the Postal Corporation needs to take advantage of its islandwide network to improve its deflated revenues.
"The vision we had for the post office was the commercialisation and use of that postal network to deliver financial services across the country, and I think that is still valid," said Nelson.
"We could have separate commercial counters for money transfer and bill payment, a part of the post office set up for Internet access and even receiving mail through the Internet and putting it in envelopes and delivering it to people. There is a lot that can be done but as it is the postal service is costly."
While irked by the failure of the Government to bring forward the amendments to the Post Office Act, opposition spokesperson on ICT and digital technology, Dr Andrew Wheatley, believes the postal service is too big to fail.
"It is sad that taxpayers have to keep subsidising the postal service, and I hope the minister will table the amendments to be debated and passed so that the Postal Corporation can have more autonomy," said Wheatley.
"But when you look at the raft of services available in post offices in other countries, you realise that our post offices can't just be a place for sending registered letters and selling stamps, we must modernise."