Postal service

Last post for Spain’s mail carriers?

The Correos postal service is facing a tough battle for survival as letter deliveries fall

Juan Tamayo has been working as a mail carrier for 33 years.
Juan Tamayo has been working as a mail carrier for 33 years.Vicens Giménez

The rubber sole of his deck shoes is beginning to wear out on the inside of his left heel and the blue leather has been pushed out of shape by the pressure his toes make with each step. When this happens – and mailman Juan Tamayo looks after his work shoes – he knows that about two years have gone by and he’s covered around 3,600 kilometers walking the streets of Barcelona’s 18th district with his yellow cart.

Juan’s grandfather was a mail carrier in a village in Almería province, and his father continued the tradition in Barcelona’s Santa Coloma neighborhood. Juan started out sorting letters each Christmas and at age 21, he began making deliveries. But Juan will be the last in his line to take up the profession: he doesn’t want his son, who is unemployed, to follow in his footsteps. “The future is uncertain and you can’t make a living from this alone,” he explains while pushing his yellow cart down the street. The future is about drones, electric carts, and a never-ending pile of parcels: that, or extinction.

Every year a number of publications carry out studies examining the jobs most at risk of extinction, and mail carriers – along with newspaper reporters, travel agents and farmers – are always among those first on the list.

According to Fortune magazine, the US postal system is on the verge of bankruptcy. But it’s a global problem: Canada is to end home deliveries from 2019, while last year the United Kingdom decided to privatize the Royal Mail, which has been state-owned for the last 500 years.

In Spain, Correos still makes money, but the outlook is not good: its staff has been cut by 25 percent to 50,000 employees, while the number of items sent by post has fallen from 5.1 billion to 3.1 billion since 2008, matched by a sharp fall in earnings over the same period. In seven years, the company, once a symbol of the state’s efficiency, has shed 16,383 jobs. And things are not going to improve for those who remain: the average age of workers is 50 and the average salary is around €1,000.

But sources at Correos say the 300-year-old company has no choice. Fewer and fewer people are now sending letters, while more and more bills and official communications arrive by email. Spaniards don’t even send Christmas cards any more, says Juan as he organizes a mountain of bank statements piled on his desk at the sorting office before setting out on his morning route. Letter delivery still makes up 90 percent of Correos’s business, even though it has shrunk by around 40 percent in recent years, and will continue to decline. What’s more, it needs the state to pay €180 million a year on its behalf to guarantee the continued universal availability of postal services. Parcels and online shopping – Spain still has one of the lowest e-commerce rates in the EU – are Correos’s hope for survival.

“Correos has to expand its presence in the parcel delivery service sector to make up for the drop in letters,” says Correos chief Javier Cuesta on the same day he opened the new City Paq service that allows people to pick up parcels at Barcelona metro stations. “The more parcels we have, the better the opportunity to unify services and to guarantee our future. If we don’t do this, it will be a disaster.”

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Around 300 million parcels are delivered each year in Spain, and the sector is dominated by Seur. Each of Correos’s 27,000 mail carriers delivers an average of six parcels a day, which is barely five percent of its total workload, meaning it is a small player in an ever-growing sector of which it has barely a 10-percent share. The goal in the coming years is for each carrier to deliver 25 parcels a day, equivalent to half a million parcels, says Cuesta. He insists that mailmen and women will remain a familiar sight on Spanish streets. “They will deliver fewer letters and more parcels,” adding that within two decades they will be using electric delivery carts. “They will also have electronic tools that will allow them to offer more services: certifying building work, monitoring whether a pavement is damaged, taking photos of cars and homes on behalf of insurance companies. And there will be far fewer letters,” he says.

Over the last four years Correos has worked hard to restructure and adapt to changing times, but the company is the least diversified of Europe’s postal services in terms not just of parcel delivery, but also financial services and logistics. It is also the European service that remains most heavily dependent on letters.

“Correos has a future, but it has less margin to maneuver than in 1990,” says Regino Martín, the head of the postal division of the CCOO labor union. “We have 7,000 rural offices, and we have to guarantee universal service [the law that ensures it is able to deliver to every single household in the country, regardless of how remote it is]. If we’re also going to have to make a profit, we’ll have to compete in the marketplace.”

In the meantime, Juan will continue to arrive at work at 7am to sort the parcels and bills he will deliver each morning. The mood in the sorting office is relaxed, and everybody has known each other for many years; some workers are even related, and most still remember the days when mail carriers carried around sacks weighing 40 kilos.

These days, Juan carries a handheld personal digital assistant and a trolley. He says that he and his colleagues will have to adapt to changing times, and that the postman will continue to be a familiar sight. His colleague Javier is less sure: “I think we are dinosaurs. Look at the average age of a postal worker: why aren’t more people being hired?” he asks as he sets out on his daily route at 10am.

Juan knows everybody in the neighborhood he delivers to. He is seen by many as part of the community, and people tell him if somebody is unwell, if they have split up, or are about to move. Which is why in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, postal services are hiring out their networks of mail carriers to private companies to collect a range of information on properties, for example. Growing numbers of governments around the world are thinking about how to put these huge networks to new commercial uses, such as delivering medicines to the elderly or sick.

Spain’s biggest human network

Employees. Correos is Spain's biggest state-owned company, with 52,514 workers, 27,000 of whom are mail carriers; 6,670 of them work in rural areas. This year, some 2,000 positions were not renewed.

Fewer items. In 2014, around 3.1 billion letters and parcels were sent and received in Spain, 200,000 down on 2013. The figure has fallen by around 25 percent since 2008.

More parcels. Correos and Correos Express have increased their share of the parcels market, but it still stands at around 10 percent.