The Norwegian postal service (Posten Norge), which continues to cut service despite posting strong financial results recently, is now poised to cut more staffing as well. Right in the middle of the annual Christmas rush, several hundred postal workers were told they may lose their jobs next year.
“We actually have an agreement that this kind of message should not come in December,” Helge Mathisen, who represents postal workers in Bergen through the LO labour federation Postkom, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday.
Posten officials nonetheless delivered the brutal news to hundreds of workers at several post terminals around the country. Posten is evaluating whether to speed up plans to consolidate routing and other terminal services at its main facility in Lørenskog, northeast of Oslo. That would centralize letter routing and eliminate at least 300 jobs at Posten’s terminals in Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanger, Molde and Stokke.
“Folks were surprised that this can happen so fast,” Mathisen told NRK. “They’re talking about doing this during the course of 2019.”
It’s the latest effort by Posten, which blames a sharp decline in the numbers of letters sent through the postal service, to cut operating costs. The decline in its letter business is blamed in turn on digitalization, which has been promoted for years by the Norwegian government. Norway is already one of the most digitalized countries in the world, but officials continue to all but force Norwegians over to email and online services, instead of sending correspondence on paper through the mail.
Poor service frustrates customers
The postal decline, however, can arguably be tied as well to an even sharper decline in service offered by Posten. The postal service used to pride itself on overnight delivery, for example, which helped justify postal rates that are much higher than in most other countries. Now, even though rates are higher than ever and more than double those in the US, for example, it can take at least two to three days to send a letter across town in Oslo. There also are plenty of examples of even worse service, including one recent case when a letter sent from Grua (about an hour’s drive north of Oslo) to Oslo took no less than 11 days to reach its recipient. It took another card more than three weeks to get from Oslo to California despite the airmail stamps on it.
Mailboxes in Oslo, meanwhile, suddenly stopped posting pick-up times, which used to be around 4-5pm every weekday and earlier on Saturdays. Now there’s no pick-up on Saturdays at all, with signs on Posten’s characteristic red mailboxes announcing that it only occurs in connection with delivery in the area. Since it’s impossible to know when that may be, anyone dropping a card or letter in a mailbox risks it not even being picked up for another day, much less delivered the day after that.
Posten already has stopped delivering mail on Saturdays and now wants to cut back to delivery only every other day during the week. Not only does that make it necessary to put birthday cards in the mail well in advance, the proposed cuts have infuriated and further threatened the newspaper business in Norway. Many newspapers still deliver to subscribers through the mail, but Posten’s drastic cuts in delivery will make the news so old that subscribers could understandably cancel their subscriptions.
“We fear that the cuts in postal delivery will mean the death of many of the country’s local newspapers,” Rune Hetland, leader of small local newspapers’ trade association LLA (Landslaget for localaviser), told news bureau NTB late last month. National papers that also use the postal system for delivery outside urban areas, including Klassekampen and Nationen, have launched a campaign called Avisa skal frem (“The newspaper shall be delivered,” borrowed from Posten’s own former centuries-old slogan that the mail also shall be delivered.) Posten currently delivers around 173,000 papers in areas that otherwise lack delivery service. More than 80 newspaper editors have signed a petition demanding ongoing postal delivery.
Paying more for less
“Posten is not what it used to be,” wrote veteran editor Harald Stanghelle in newspaper Aftenposten earlier this autumn. “Posten wants to get rid of its obligation to deliver post even just five days a week.” Stanghelle accused Posten of only being concerned about its earnings, bottom line and efficiency: “There’s not much room anymore for responsibility to society.”
Stanghelle noted that Posten has based much of its proposal for further cuts in service on a report from a Danish consulting firm, “far removed from everyday life in local Norwegian communities.” Posten is also aiming to win an exemption from EU requirements that mail be delivered five days a week. It eliminated the difference between A- and B-post from January 1st this year, with the slower B-post becoming the norm with no reduction in postal rates. Consumers have ended up having to pay more for worse service.
Postal service in Norway has become so poor that it’s also sparked complaints from hospitals and veteranerians because medical test results can be delayed and animals have died. “Test results have come too late to save a sick animal,” Professor Stein Istre Thoresen at NMBU school of veterinary medicine told newspaper Dagsavisen.
Posten points again to the decline in letters being sent, from a peak of more than 1.6 billion in the late 1990s to around 600 million last year. Posten expects the number to fall just of 200 miillion by 2025.
Posten’s increasingly poor service and high postal rates, however, can make the decline a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some have argued that Posten has shot itself in the foot by making the postal service expensive and unreliable. That in turn can make even the most loyal senders of hand-written letters and cards skeptical and more likely to simply send an electronic greeting instead. It easy for some loyal customers to feel that Posten just doesn’t want their business anymore.
NTB reported in August, however, that Posten logged a huge increase in second-quarter profits, because of better results in logistics and additional funding from the state to offset unprofitable postal services in outlying areas. Posten logged pre-tax earnings of NOK 213 million in the second quarter, compared to NOK 38 million in the same quarter last year.
Cuts coming ‘faster and tougher’ than expected
Now Posten wants to cut costs further, at the expense of more jobs. It’s likely politicians, even those in outlying areas, will allow them to get away with it given the political push towards digitalization. A survey conducted earlier this year found that more than 60 percent local politicians understand Posten’s arguments that it’s necessary to cut delivery to just two or three days a week. “The political willingness to fund more and better postal service is small,” lamented the workers’ union Posstkom’s leader Odd Christian Øverland to news service ANB.
“Even though there’s no formal decision yet (on merging the postal terminals and eliminating 300 jobs), it looks like Posten wants to do this quickly,” Mathisen of Postkoom in Bergen told NRK. “The downturn is coming faster and tougher than we expected.”
Posten’s powers-that-be continue to blame digitalization, and defend the lastest round of looming job cuts. “This is not a desired development in Posten, but it’s the digitalization of society that has put us in this situation today,” claimed Posten Norge spokesman John Eckhoff. “We have to look at measures that will yield economic effects already in 2019.”