Have you ordered online this week? Lessons learned from Hermes Parcelnet’s approach implementing its Code of Conduct

Anna Triponel | 26 October 2018

There’s a nine out of ten chance that you have sent or received a parcel in the last 6 months, according to the latest statistics. Close to 4 billion packages were delivered in the UK alone last year. The logistics sector is booming, and will only continue to do so.

A number of us have heard the poignant human stories coming out of this sector. Two years ago, Frank Field’s report Wild West Workplace and The Guardian documented a range of these stories, ranging from low pay and stressful work, to female couriers returning to work a few days after giving birth and rounds being permanently withdrawn where couriers took time off to attend to dying family members. More recently, we heard about a courier who died when he missed important medical appointments to avoid being charged a fee for missing a round.

In 2016, Hermes Parcelnet – the UK’s second largest carrier of parcels – responded with an apology from then Chief Executive Officer Carole Walker, the adoption of a Code of Conduct and the development of a Social Compliance Model to underpin the embedding of its Code. As part of this, the company created a Panel to hear courier complaints and I was appointed Business and Human Rights Ombudsperson. This means that I provide recommendations to the Panel on remedy for human rights-related complaints, and suggestions to the audit committee for strengthening the company’s policies and processes, based on the learnings from the complaints received.

The company has just released its first human rights report, Hermes Parcelnet: Embedding Respect and Dignity throughout our Operations, which describes the company’s lessons learned in implementing its social compliance model, two years on. The company has used the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework to help guide the information provided, and focuses in particular on its salient human rights issues, identified as the right to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work, rights to non-discrimination, right to a family life, the right to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

I encourage you to read the report as it provides a wealth of information of interest for the logistics sector as well as beyond. The company describes where it has had successes but also where challenges remain and pinpoints opportunities for improvement.

As part of my work with Hermes Parcelnet, I’ve had the privilege of hearing from a number of couriers – both through the complaints system as well as as part of site visits and shadowing of rounds. I have also spoken to others working for the company in depots and sub depots, both employed and self-employed. The following captures my key reflections from this work to date.

The creation of a Code of Conduct is powerful – it sets a line in the sand of what the company would consider acceptable behaviour, and what it would not consider acceptable. For instance, field managers that manage couriers have remarked that the commitments contained in the Code have provided them with some guidance on what it means to be a ‘quality manager.’ Couriers know they can expect to be treated with respect and dignity, and can complain where this treatment does not take place.

At the same time, we know that a Code only has genuine value if it is embedded into and throughout a business. This is typically done through a range of measures, such as conveying a strong tone from the top, providing tailored and targeted training, creating relevant governance structures and providing adequate resources. In this case, the company’s creation and rolling out of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to embed the policy was noteworthy as this was the first time the company provided managers with guidance on how to react when couriers came to them with personal difficulties (e.g., an illness, death, accident) that prevented them from delivering their parcels and packages.

Extending beyond remedy, the creation of a grievance mechanism plays a particularly important role in shining a spotlight into working practices to, in turn, feed into revisions to company processes. Hermes Parcelnet’s grievance mechanism has enabled couriers to regain their rounds, receive goodwill payments or strengthen dialogue with their managers. A key feature has been the way in this mechanism has shone a spotlight into working practices in places where the company previously had limited or no visibility. The feedback loop of what the complaints are telling the business, through Panel reports and Ombudsperson discussions with senior management, is a particularly important feature that – when coupled with actions taken in response by the company – can help prevent future complaints from arising.

At the same time, there are significant limitations to what a Code and a grievance mechanism can achieve in a fast-paced, competitively priced and low margin sector such as logistics. Free (or low-cost) and same-day (or rapid) delivery places pressure on the whole business – extending beyond the couriers to those managing the couriers, those managing depots and sub depots and the managers overseeing the whole spider web of deliveries. The pressures are high, especially when logistics companies move toward peak time where the volume of delivery doubles and in the case of Hermes can go to over 1 million parcels being processed on any one given night.

In this context, it will be critical to review the company’s business targets to assess which ones may inadvertently convey the message that Hermes believes that speed and low cost of delivery should always come first, even where this may be at the expense of compliance with the Code. Indeed, time and cost pressures can be at fundamental odds with respect for a Code of Conduct. Tone from the top plays an important role in this regard as well.

Further, a grievance mechanism works best when complemented by ongoing consultations and conversations with those working for the company. In the case of Hermes, this applies for all workers – beyond couriers and extending to other self-employed individuals as well as employees. People need to feel that there are ways of voicing reflections, concerns and feedback on an ongoing basis, before an issue escalates to the level of a ‘grievance.’

These are two areas that Hermes has recognised it would like to work on as part of its Board approved 2018 – 2019 Human Rights Strategy. Indeed, progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. I would welcome hearing from other logistics companies how they have grappled with this too, and I wonder whether there is an opportunity for logistics companies, as well as retailers that rely on these companies, to work together to shape a sustainable logistics sector premised on decent working conditions for all.

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