The collapsing postal services

Who needs post offices open until 20:00 when mail arrives three weeks to three months after it was sent?

By
April 19, 2015 22:26
Mail box

An empty mail box is seen at the front door of a foreclosed house. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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It is no secret that the government-owned Israel Postal Company is in the process of collapsing.

As far as the customers are concerned the situation manifests itself in the numerous post office branches and agencies that have shut down over the past year; the endless queues and slow service at functioning post office branches; mail delivery only twice or three times a week; mail sent from Israel taking two to five weeks to arrive, as well as airmail from the US and Europe taking a month to three months to arrive; and notices sent by the post office to inform us of the arrival of a large item of mail, a parcel or a registered letter, which we are supposed to go ourselves to collect, being placed in our post box around 10 days after the notice was sent out. I have personal experience with each of the phenomena described above.

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However, I reached the end of my tether when I received a notice on April 15, that carried the date of April 5, to pick up a registered package sent from Tel Aviv on March 23, and the address provided for where the package was to be collected was the Shatner Postal Center in Givat Shaul in Jerusalem, rather than my local post office branch on Tchernichovsky Street. Had the notice arrived on April 19 rather than 15, my package would have already been sent back to the sender – that is what the regulations say.

Givat Shaul is a 15-minute drive from where I live, the only available parking around the Shatner Center is paid underground parking, and there is no direct public transportation to there from my neighborhood. After I had received my package (containing salves I couldn’t get at my local pharmacy) I decided to pay a visit to the person in charge of mail distribution in Jerusalem at the Shatner Center, to ask why I had been sent to pick up my package at the Shatner Center.

The hapless official looked at me sadly and apologized, saying that since he was short of staff due to recent cuts he was using the help of untrained personnel to fill out the notices, and that consequently numerous mistakes were being made. “At least you have a car,” he added. He then pointed out dozens (maybe more) of sacks full of mail from Israel and abroad that had piled up around his office, waiting to be sorted and delivered.

“I have about a third less postmen to sort and deliver mail than in the past, each one of [the ones I have] has a delivery area a third larger than he had several months ago, and instead of delivering mail five days a week, mail is now being delivered two to three times a week. All this is not up to me, but to the official government policy. It is all part of the so called ‘recovery plan,’ which is really a privatization plan.”

The reality is, of course, much more complicated and frustrating than that. Postal services all around the world are undergoing major changes, largely due to the digital revolution.

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People hardly send personal letters any more, as e-mail and the social media have turned into alternatives; many commercial bills, receipts, reports and notices are also sent these days by means of e-mail, the Internet and smart-phones; online shopping has become common (Amazon and the like), involving a major increase in packages being sent internationally.

In addition, some postal services have been privatized, both internationally and locally – but only those that are lucrative, and they are usually expensive.

In Israel this has meant that there has reportedly been a 40 percent fall in the activity of the Israel Postal Company in recent years, though it isn’t clear how this 40% has been calculated – in income terms? In manpower terms? In per capita terms? As a result of this fall, as well as chronic operational inefficiency the Israel Postal Company has gone into the red, though it is very difficult for a layman to make head or tail of the company’s financial reports. In 2013, for example, the company had a deficit of NIS 376 million in its working capital, and a cash flow of NIS 17.5m., down from NIS 116m. in 2011.

On October 16, 2012, communications minister Moshe Kahlon and finance minister Yuval Steinitz appointed a committee to examine the charges and services of the Israel Postal Company and the Postal Bank. The committee, chaired by Dr. Ziv Reich, submitted its 352-page report on April 8, 2014, to communications minister Gilad Erdan and finance minister Yair Lapid.

The report was much broader in scope than the official terms of reference of the committee would suggest. Its main proposals were that around 1,200 of the Postal Company’s 6,200 employees (just under 20%) should be laid off, that mail delivery should be sliced in half, that the price of services provided should be raised, that greater competition should be enabled, that the services offered the public should be improved, and in general that the company should adapt itself to the needs and realities of the current day and age.

Dr. Reich ended his cover letter to the report with the following curious statement, containing a mixture of metaphors: “Should the proposals of the committee be adopted, I beg that the bath water shall be channeled to its appropriate destination, and that the baby shall be left intact.”

The proposals were adopted by the government, in agreement with the Histadrut, the management of the Postal Company and its Labor Committee, almost in full, shortly before Lapid was fired from the Finance Ministry and new elections were called.

I do not know whether the current state of affairs, in which only the first two recommendations mentioned above were actually put into effect, are the result of the limbo situation created by the elections, but at the moment it looks like the water Reich mentioned has flown into the Dead Sea sinkholes, and there is no sign of the baby anywhere.

Even though it has been recently announced that several post office branches will start working until 20:00 three days a week, and that automatic machines for recovering parcels will be installed outside post office branches so that people can collect their parcels at their convenience, that is really all la’ag larash (a mockery).

Who needs post offices open until 20:00 when mail arrives three weeks to three months after it was sent? Who needs automatic machines to retrieve parcels if the parcels take forever to arrive (I am still waiting for some medication sent to me from the UK by airmail at the end of January, as well as several books that I need for my research and which are unavailable at the Hebrew University library, that I ordered from Amazon and AbeBooks in the course of February).

Besides, such a machine was installed several years ago near the Keren Kayemet post office branch in Rehavia (which was the branch to which all residents of Nayot were referred before the Tchernichovsky branch was opened), and more often than not it was out of order, while the top shelves in the machine were so high that I frequently required a stick to try to retrieve my parcel before the machine’s door shut. What great fun that was.

Will anything change after the new government is formed? Alternatively, perhaps the foreign consulates in Jerusalem will start running their own postal services, as they did during Ottoman times, before the British conquered Palestine in 1917.

The writer is a retired Knesset employee.

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