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Parcel madness. Why isn’t DHL delivering?

Ask any Berliner and they’ll have scores of anecdotes about undelivered parcels, missing notification slips and searching the neighbourhood for their mail. Behind all this chaos is the Deutsche Post DHL Group, with high profits and dubious practices.

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Photo by Martin Hinze

Expecting a parcel in Berlin can feel a bit like a lottery. Ask any Berliner and they’ll have scores of anecdotes about undelivered parcels, missing notification slips and searching the neighbourhood for their mail. Behind all this chaos is the Deutsche Post DHL Group, a thriving market leader with record profits and dubious human resources policies.

I warned friends and family: don’t send me parcels! This is Berlin, we don’t get them!”

“I remember exactly because it was about one year ago, a few weeks before Christmas,” says Anne*, a French Berliner who lives on Prenzlauer Berg’s Schönhauser Allee. “My sister had sent a parcel with some goodies: a box of my favourite French pralines, walnuts from our childhood garden and a few books for my daughter.” A week after the parcel was sent, the online tracking announced its “successful delivery”, but Anne had received neither her sister’s gifts nor a notification slip in her mailbox. The post office and delivery man said they couldn’t help without a DHL receipt, and it was only with the assistance of the French post, that Anne finally located her parcel at a shop miles away from her house, in a different zip code area. “The guy there refused to look for my parcel because I didn’t have a notification,” Anne remembers. She never got her pralines after that. Having lived in Bucharest and Moscow in the 1990s, she says she’s never experienced such chaotic, unreliable mail delivery before. Following more bad experiences with missing notifications and parcels being returned to sender, she says she’s stopped ordering online. “I warned friends and family: don’t send me parcels! This is Berlin, we don’t get them!”

And Anne is not the only one. Notes asking for neighbours’ help in the hunt for missing packages are a common sight in Berlin apartment buildings. Sarah, a born Berliner in her mid-twenties, is still trying to figure out how the DHL lottery works: “I got a notification saying I could pick up my delivery at the post office. But when I went, they said they didn’t have it! I went home thinking I might have been scammed.” A week later she was picking up something else from a Späti a few blocks away and they gave her the missing parcel. “So there it was after all, but it was pure coincidence I got it! What a mess!”

Responsible for all this chaos is the Deutsche Post DHL Group, the national market leader delivering 45.3 percent of all parcels in Germany. And the volume of orders is growing: last year, they were distributing 4.3 million parcels per day, which is a 72 percent increase compared to 10 years ago. The state owns 20.7 percent of the internationally operating corporation, and it is listed in the DAX stock index as one of the 30 biggest, most profitable German companies.

Last year DHL reached €3.74 billion in profits – a solid 7.2 percent increase compared to 2016. Company CEO Frank Appel made headlines for earning €10 million a year, 30 times more than Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, the number of complaints against the company is going up: in 2017 Bundesnetzagentur, the state agency monitoring postal services, received a total of 6100 customer complaints. This May, there were already 4100, a third of them concerning the parcel deliveries. These numbers clearly don’t show the full extent of the issue (when was the last time you rang up the Bundesnetzagentur?), but mark a negative trend. So, what on earth is going on behind the scenes?

If you have 200 parcels to deliver, it leaves you with under two minutes per delivery, a hardly realistic time-frame.”

DHL’s Berlin press office plays the problems down. Spokesperson Anke Blenn points out that while online shopping is becoming more and more popular, many people aren’t home to accept their parcels. “But 80 percent of all DHL deliveries in the city are successfully delivered within a 250m radius of the recipient’s address,” she says. “This requires extremely complex planning every single day!” Talking to on-the-ground employees, however, one gets a different picture: each of them has to deliver between 150 and 250 parcels per day under extreme time pressure. The labour contract negotiated for the sector by union Ver.di limits a work day to 7 hours and 36 minutes, a total of 38 hours per week. “This means that after loading your van in the morning, you have around five and a half, maybe six hours for the deliveries. If you have 200 parcels to deliver, it leaves you with under two minutes per delivery, a hardly realistic timeframe,” says Torsten*, who’s in his early thirties and has been delivering DHL parcels for over four years. His employer is the Berlin branch of DHL Delivery, a subsidiary of the group, which locally employs around 1300 drivers and handles the bulk of the city’s parcel traffic. “If I don’t manage to deliver everything, I just take it back to the depot. I have a permanent contract, so I do as much as I can and finish on time,” says Torsten. But he knows that many of his colleagues work 10 hours a day, either because they are new and it takes them longer, or because they are after a permanent position – or simply because they need the extra cash from paid overtime. He thinks that the constant time pressure explains the missing notifications: “It’s really not that hard to leave a note, but if the mailboxes are inside the building and you can’t get in, you have to write the addresses on the envelopes and send them in the mail, which takes extra time out of your day.” On top of that, the packages are bulky and heavy: “Dog food bags are sold in 12.5kg bags, cat litter comes in 10kg packets. We now also deliver Ikea furniture and I have recently had to transport a dishwasher.”

Torsten says he has thought about quitting many times. “The conditions are not exactly motivating to go the extra mile.” While the average Deutsche Post wage lies at €17.50 per hour, DHL Delivery pays between a skimpy €11 in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia and a lush €18 in Baden-Württemberg. In Berlin, their current hourly rate is €12.78, which adds up to €2070 gross a month.

Still, Torsten and his colleagues hired by DHL Delivery can deem themselves lucky: the many delivery men and women working for the corporation’s independent subcontractors have it worse. Dušan* works for a small company in DHL’s service and only gets €1350 monthly. “They don’t even pay overtime” adds the 34-year-old Slovak who’s done the job for almost two years and assesses his workload as “between 8 and 10 hours daily, sometimes 12”. For DHL, outsourcing the delivery jobs to third companies that hire for lower wages makes business more profitable. These subcontractors often draw up sketchy contracts that don’t include extra hours. “My contract didn’t specify any hourly wage, just a lump monthly amount,” Dušan confirms. They also recruit according to their own (flexible) standards: asked about job availability, one company answered: “We take who we can get, there is always more than enough work.”

Dušan spoke very little German when he applied. “They didn’t even ask for a driver’s licence,” he says, still incredulous. He has about 20 colleagues but says most only stay for a couple of months. “I remember this one African guy, I don’t know where exactly he was from, but he was completely clueless. He would drop off parcels at the wrong end of the neighbourhood and not leave notifications. This went on for a bit, but they had to fire him eventually,” says Dušan who suspects racism was part of why that employee never performed as expected. “They would only call him ‘der Schwarze’, as if he didn’t have a name.” He recalls more instances of recruitment going wrong. “We once had a couple of Bulgarians who would do drugs at work and steal parcels!”

“The competition is fierce, we need to be more flexible when it comes to recruiting,” explains spokesperson Blenn, refusing to disclose numbers of employees contracted by DHL directly or through its Delivery branch or subcontracting companies. What’s for sure, they seem pretty desperate: official job postings can be found on eBay, printed on many of the yellow vans, and there are frequent “speed dating” recruitment events happening at a driving training centre in north Charlottenburg. The requirements are simple: at least 21 years of age, good German, physical fitness and a clear criminal record. They even offer to “help you”, if you don’t have a driver’s licence. According to Torsten, expectations have gone from low to laughable: “At this point, if you have two arms and two legs, they’ll take you!”

Although they wear the same DHL jackets and share similar experiences at work, DHL Delivery and subcontractor employees don’t usually come in contact with each other. At the depot Torsten works at, they are separated by a fence. “That way, when a parcel goes missing, it’s easier to determine on which side the theft happened. We just call them “die da drüben” (those over there). He knows that some of the subcontractors’ per parcel payment schemes lead to deals with shops and neighbours. “They ‘sell’ entire streets to one shop or private person, drop everything there, then share the bonus with them. It’s a way to make a couple hundred euros on the side and I think some of them make more than us at DHL Delivery.” From what he’s heard, this is especially popular in parts of Friedrichshain. But he blames it on the company. “I know how much profit the company has been making over the past few years and it all goes to the shareholders. They don’t invest enough in the delivery business and it makes us look bad.”

Dušan talks a lot about the aggression he experiences when he wears his DHL jacket. “On the one hand people trust you more when you wear it, but I also have people coming up to me with complaints all the time as if I were responsible for customer service. But if it’s not my tour, I have no idea where their parcels are.” Upon his hiring, Dušan was put on a tour in Kreuzberg to replace a driver who had been beaten up on the job. “It’s tough. People shout at you and you shout back, I almost got into a fight once, when these mafia guys gave me shit for parking too close to their Mercedes on Oppelner Straße near Schlesisches Tor.” He says he also has to look out for thieves: “If you don’t lock the front of the car, they get in while you’re busy in the back and steal parcels. That’s been happening to a lot of colleagues.”

Still, Torsten’s and Dušan’s stories are by far not the worst going around. Last month, Andrea Kocsis, member of Ver.di’s managing board and the supervisory board at DHL, told ARD’s Morgenmagazin about employees being recruited from countries like Moldova and Romania who are not registered here and who get crammed into tiny quarters for the duration of their employment. She mentions that inspections of subcontractors have repeatedly uncovered undocumented labour, illegal wages and third-country licensed cars illegally used for commercial delivery in Germany. “That’s how things work in this country,” she said. “Big service providers like DHL should be made liable for these illegal labour conditions.”

Meanwhile the profit-hungry company is playing the austerity card: in order to reach its target of €5 billion in profit by 2020 – as promised to shareholders – the group announced in October it will need to cut its spending on staff. How this will affect the working conditions of already overworked and underpaid employees is unclear. What’s clear though, is that in 2019 all staff of DHL Delivery will be integrated into the workforce of the parent Deutsche Post DHL Group, according to the group’s restructuring plans announced last spring. But then again, former Delivery employees will continue to receive their lower wages – their pay won’t be bumped up to match the average Deutsche Post wage of €17.50 per hour. The change also means that the workers’ representation will be weakened and the DHL Delivery workers’ council scrapped.

“I think they are running themselves into the ground,” Thorsten says. “Nobody I know sees their future in this company. For many, it’s a temporary gig and they don’t care about complaints or worry about being fired. I have started to actively look for a different job, one that offers me a perspective. It’s too bad…” he adds, confessing that there are aspects of the job he really likes. “As soon as I leave the depot, I’m my own boss. And I like interacting with the people. If you are on the same tour for a while, you end up knowing pretty much every person in every building; what they are up to, who they are having affairs with – it’s quite fun!” He says that colleagues delivering on fixed tours tend to be more motivated, even during the Christmas madness: “If you know the customers, you don’t want to let them down. Some of them give us little gifts to say thank you for the good job.” An insider who wishes to remain anonymous confirms that the level of DHL Delivery staff on sick leave is constantly above 10 percent, peaking around Christmas time. Faced with the flood of parcels during last year’s holiday season, Dušan suffered burnout: “I could barely get up from my couch,” he says. [By the time of print, he had quit his job due to the poor working conditions.] Other employees find pragmatic solutions: since nobody really checks, dropping off parcels at a partner shop can be an easy option to get rid of an overload of packages. Around Christmas especially, Spätis and shops often struggle to manage the influx.

For those who are expecting parcels for Christmas, Anka Blenn, Dušan and Torsten have one recommendation: forget about home delivery, register online and have everything dropped off to a nearby Paketshop. This way, at least you get to choose where you want to pick it up. Or you can keep playing the parcel lottery!

*Names changed.