Why Is France’s State-Owned Postal Service Exploiting Couriers in England?

La Poste is using the absence of any strong transnational framework guaranteeing workers’ pay and conditions to exploit England’s precarious labor market. The Left needs to fight to empower states to discipline capitalists, domestically and internationally.

Stuart Delivery Limited workers during the pandemic lockdown in 2020. (Alain Pitton / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Across the globe, nationally controlled and privately run postal services have had to adjust to a world where we send fewer letters to one another. In many cases, the numbers are stark. From 2012 to 2021, letter revenue declined by over 40 percent for the United States Postal Service. In the UK, Royal Mail saw the volume of addressed letters decline by 20 percent over the 2020–21 financial year alone. Across the channel, France’s La Poste has had to grapple with an average annual 10.5 percent decline in mail volume from 2017 to 2021.

This new world poses some existential questions for these operators. If the main function of your business is the distribution and delivery of mail, and there’s simply less of it, you’re in a bit of a tricky situation. The explosion of parcel delivery, driven in part by Amazon but also the broader increase in online shopping, has saved many postal services across the globe. Total worldwide postal industry revenue actually grew by €20.5 billion in 2020 with increased parcel revenue accounting for the bulk of this expansion, up €19.3 billion as part of the ongoing structural shift from mail to parcels.

Despite this boom, intranational competition remains fierce and parcel operators are pursuing revenue diversification as a key way of ensuring their survival. The exact method of diversification varies across contexts. Poste Italiane, for instance, now gets over half its revenue through BancoPosta’s financial services. Postal operators in Finland, Japan, and France all provide some kind of care for the elderly. Deutsche Post and La Poste have huge international logistics operations through their subsidiaries, DHL and DPDgroup, as well as banking divisions that engage in an array of financial services.

Postal firms have not, however, confined themselves to intervening in their own domestic markets. La Poste has turned its attention to the UK, where it continues to be involved in the exploitation of couriers.

The UK’s Longest Gig Economy Strike

In 2015, GeoPost/DPDgroup, an international subsidiary of La Poste, gave €22 million in funding to new start-up Stuart. GeoPost/DPDgroup would go on to take full control of Stuart in 2017 but in the interim years set up a number of companies in France, Spain, and the UK. Records show that the UK’s Stuart subsidiary, Stuart Delivery Limited, was incorporated on September 23, 2015.

Stuart Delivery Limited provides textbook gig economy work — “independent contractors” delivering food (and other goods) to customers, with orders mediated via a platform. Since incorporation, the UK subsidiary has grown significantly. The most recently available data shows that revenue more than doubled in 2020 alone. Stuart compensated their CEO Damien Bon generously for his services, handing the magnate a 964 percent pay rise — an almost 2 million pound pay increase.

Meanwhile, couriers contracted through Stuart Delivery received a unilateral 24 percent cut to their base rate, down from £4.50 to £3.40. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents couriers at Stuart Delivery, claims this represents a loss of around £700 a month. The company refutes this, claiming that new “multipliers,” that is, increases to the rate that couriers can charge for their service based on demand, will more than offset any lost earnings.

In response to these attacks on their wages, IWGB and its members launched a strike on December 6, 2021. The industrial action, still ongoing, is the longest in UK gig economy history and has spread to numerous cities across the North of England.

While public pressure has intensified and MPs have thrown their weight behind the couriers’ cause, Stuart is still refusing to engage with the IWGB. Their CEO is reported to have told MPs that he believes the couriers’ tactics are wrong. The company remains steadfast in its refusal to reverse the cuts to couriers’ pay. On the other hand, couriers’ strategic (not blanket) withdrawal of their labor, with different approaches in different cities, means that they are prepared to fight this out for the long haul.

A Quintessentially Neoliberal Tale

Take a step back from the specific details of this fight and you are left with what is ultimately a very familiar story: a multinational company that uses borders and different regulatory regimes to exploit workers and make a quick buck. In this case, the chain starts with La Poste, which is 100 percent owned by the French state, goes through GeoPost/DPDgroup, and ends up at Stuart Delivery Limited.

While employment through La Poste in France is mostly unionized, Stuart couriers in the UK are classified as “independent contractors” and have no access to basic employment rights — sick pay, holiday pay, minimum wage, and other benefits. In their 2020 corporate social responsibility report, La Poste claim that their “working method is based on intense social dialogue, including negotiation, information and consultation, to ensure that everyone is involved . . . at all levels of the organization.” Evidently these practices do not extend to all of the workers whose labor enriches the company.

Ensuring this division of labor across borders, to the benefit of capital, has long been one of the aims of neoliberal politicians and theorists. In a 1939 paper, Friedrich Hayek posited that citizens of different countries would be unwilling to tolerate economic pain for the benefit of international workers.

“Is it likely that the French peasant will be willing to pay more for his fertilizer to help the British chemical industry?” he asked. As Quinn Slobodian writes in his book Globalists, the neoliberal dream was always about building “a world where the global economy was safely protected from the demands of redistributive equality and social justice.” Moving beyond the confines of nation states, which had at their disposal limited but effective mechanisms for disciplining capitalists, allowed businesses to carry out exploitation without being held accountable.

And yet, in 2017, France became the first country in the world to legislate for extraterritorial environmental, labor, and human rights abuses. A seemingly internationalist rebuke to the demands of capital. France’s Duty of Vigilance law mandates that large French firms (such as La Poste) develop and implement a vigilance plan for abuses along their supply chain. Failure to do so allows victims to pursue civil litigation in the courts.

But the law is not often a worker’s friend, especially in modern Britain. Despite repeated defeats at employment tribunals, where judgements have stated Stuart Delivery couriers are in fact workers, and not self-employed, the company continues to pursue a business model based on bogus self-employment. This, of course, is perfectly legal and is essentially encouraged by the UK’s laissez-faire approach to labor market regulation.

This Conservative government generally has no idea about the conditions of the bogusly self-employed, nor does it have any intention to remedy injustices such as those seen at Stuart through regulation. The much-hyped Employment Bill, aimed at supposedly tackling some of these problems, has at this stage been delayed for years.

Because Stuart is not technically doing anything illegal, La Poste can continue to plead its innocence. With the UK’s regulatory environment (or lack thereof) as a shield, parent companies remain “safely protected from the demands of redistributive equality.”

So, what is to be done? French postal workers at CGT FAPT (one of the unions involved in collective bargaining with La Poste) have stated their support for the strike, telling the Gig Economy Project that La Poste’s model of “Uberizing” conditions remains a threat to workers across all of the company’s subsidiaries. Sud-PTT reps (a union known for its combative and internationalist stance) have also stated their support, telling Jacobin “any strike is worth supporting but a strike in the postal sector, and more specifically in Stuart, is of special interest for us.”

The IWGB and allied unions in the UK are currently working to pressure La Poste through international channels, such as UNI Global Union, which aims to “build power” across borders in the postal sector. Alex Marshall, current president of the IWGB union, told Jacobin that “when the companies you are up against are multinational corporations, it is only right that they are met by the massive scale of solidarity we have seen from workers and unions across the world.”

What this movement of resistance shows is that tackling corporate malfeasance cannot stop at the borders of the nation-state. It is not, as Hayek proposed, that French workers (or those elsewhere) do not care about their international counterparts. Rather, they often lack effective channels to air these grievances. Creating these remains a key challenge for the Left.