Friday, January 14, 2011

Vreeman rapport on the Dutch Postal Market

For some reason that entirely mystifies me, the State Secretary for Economic Affairs, dr. Henk Bleker (CDA), asked a Labour politician to examine the problems in the postal market. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the answer was that the market needed more regulation.

Dr. Ruud Vreeman is a former chairman of the Labour party, former Labour MP (when he was the only Labour MP to vote against the privatisation of the health insurance system) and former mayor of several cities, including Tilburg. Even his dissertation was about the work of labour unions ("Vakbondswerk en de kwaliteit van de arbeid", "Labour unions and the quality of labour"), so it is not surprising at all that his analysis of the postal market very much supports their position in their conflict with the postal companies.

None of this introductory informations should be taken - of course - as some kind of ad hominem attack on the rapport in question. After all, there is plenty wrong with it without the need to resort to cheap retorical tricks.

A little history: The Dutch government was relatively early in privatising the state postal and telecom company PTT, making it a private enterprise as of 1 January 1989, and floating 30% and 25% of the shares in 1994 and 1995, respectively. This allowed the newly renamed KPN to acquire the Australian express company TNT in 1996, and to split itself in two in 1998. The telecom company is still called KPN, while the postal company became known as TPG, and since 2005 as TNT. (Cf. the company's own history page.) As a result, the Dutch postal market, despite its relatively modest size (5,3 bn pieces of adressed mail in 2008), has an enormous incumbent. (The 2009 Annual Report shows a revenue of € 10,4 bn for a net profit of € 248 million. Market leader DHL/Deutsche Post had € 46,2 in revenue and € 693 in net profit.)

But none of this financial fire power helped TNT to hold on to the Dutch postal market altogether, once it was opened up step-by-step in 2000, 2006 and 2009. (Directive 2008/6 requires full liberalisation as of 1 January this year.) While it is expected that TNT will continue to be the Altmark-style universal service provider for the indefinite future (cf. art. 22 of the Directive), it has already lost 10-20% of the addressed mail market, 20-25% of the Direct Mail market and 40-45% of the market for magazine deliveries.

None of this would appear to be a bad thing, but leave it to the Dutch political system to find the rain cloud next to the silver lining.

The problem is with the mail carriers. Not unexpectedly the new entrants in the mail market have attempted to keep their costs as low as possible. Given that labour represents at least 60% of the costs of mail delivery, that means avoiding as many taxes and social welfare levies as possible. Under Dutch law, the simplest way to do that is to offer the mail carriers a contract of assignment (Title 7 of Book 7 Civil Code) rather than a labour contract (Title 10 of Book 7). That way, all mail carriers become self-employed, uninsured against unemployment, health problems, etc. Cue screams from the labour unions in 3, 2, 1...

Their successful rent-seeking caused the government to demand that all postal companies should offer labour contracts to at least 80% of their mail carriers by 1 October 2012, the details to be worked out by Collective Bargaining Agreement. To encourage everyone to play nice, the Postal Services Act of 2008 and the relevant secondary law said that if no CBA were to be agreed, the postal companies would be requried to give labour contracts to all of the mail carriers. As it happens, a CBA was agreed, and it included a trajectory, fixing the percentages to be achieved at various dates. Tragically, the postal companies failed miserably to achieve even the first of these percentages, because only 3,2% of the people they offered a labour contract to, accepted. As it happens, the mail carriers rather liked the flexibility of a contract of assignment. (Which means, for example, that they're allowed to work for several companies at the same time, that they don't have to deliver the mail themselves, etc.) Because this was somehow the postal companies' fault, the labour unions withdrew from the CBA, meaning that technically the mandatory 100% employment contracts rule is in effect as of 1 January 2011.

Unfortunately, actually enforcing this rule would put all of TNT's competitors out of business. Hence the need for dr. Vreeman's rapport. He now suggests a wonderfully complex and almost certainly illegal cartel system, whereby companies that don't employ a high enough percentage of their mail carriers subsidise those of their competitors who do. All of which is apparently necessary in order to make the postal market "a regular sector where ordinary Dutch conditions of employment and employment relationships are dominant, and where there is a level playing field on the market." (p. 9)
Just a quick question: Apparently, the current situation isn't a level playing field. So who is currently holding the short end of the stick? The multi-billion postal giant TNT or its competitors who pay their mail carriers less?

The key word is actually on page 12, where Vreeman describes the goal of these reforms again: "The government can also contribute to a development towards a decent postal market in other ways." Decent... ("fatsoenlijk") Sadly, the "other ways" he suggests involve likely violations of public tendering law and something called "ex ante competition regulation" ("ex ante mededingingstoezicht"). A quick search indicates that what is meant is the kind of supervision the Opta, the Dutch regulator for post and telecom, already exercises in the telecom market, where companies with a dominant position (i.e. KPN) are given extra orders to play nice (cf. art. 6a.6 Telecommunicatiewet). I highly doubt, though, that dr. Vreeman intends to make TNT share its mailboxes, so what exactly he has in mind is unclear to me. Whatever it is, though, it is unlikely to be a good idea. (O, look, here's a motion from three Labour MPs from 2009 talking about the same thing. It was adopted without vote, so I'm not sure whether the VVD supported it. I can tell from the report of the debate that the SP, Groenlinks, the PVV and the CDA did.)

In the end, all of this is based on a faulty premise. A job as a mail carrier is currently a wonderfully flexible way for a student, a housewife or a senior citizen to make an extra buck. They can do it free of detailed instructions from any boss, for however many bosses they like, have someone else do it if they have a prior engagement, etc. (cf. p. 7 of the Vreeman rapport.) No wonder only 1 in 30 of them elected to have an employment contract when one was offered. Given that all of this is the free choice of everyone involved, why mess with it? What is the public interest? There are certainly no externalities that I can see. Instead, my feelings about this matter are best summed up by these lines from Reservoir Dogs. When Mr. Pink explains that he does not believe in tipping, Mr. White replies:

Waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country. It's the one job basically any woman can get, and make a living on.

How nice it would be if there were at least one such job in the Netherlands as well...

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