The decision ends a four-year battle by the CWU to win worker status for subpostmasters, which would have given them the right to at least the minimum wage, holiday pay and employer pension contributions.
The case proved controversial, with some retailers stating it was the only way to achieve fair treatment, and others claiming it could undermine the “entrepreneurial” nature of running a post office.
Judge Sarah Goodman handed down her judgement on the case on 14 March, siding with the PO, which claimed as subpostmasters can use assistants to fulfil their responsibilities, they cannot be classed as workers.
The CWU had argued many subpostmasters cannot afford to have assistants, but Goodman said the PO had an “acute concern only to take on postmasters with realistic business plans for nonpost office retail in the premises so that they are able to make a reasonable profit, including staff costs, when providing post office branch services”.
A PO spokesperson told Better Retailing the judgement “recognises that Post Office understands the challenges [subpostmasters] face in common with many other people running high street businesses”.
The PO said it had “embarked on a wideranging programme” with postmasters in recent years to “drive footfall and profitability for their businesses”.
However, Mark Baker, CWU subpostmaster branch secretary, described the judge’s comments as an “astonishing” admission that standalone post office services are not profitable for stores, with an expectation that their wider retail businesses will “subsidise” the cost of operating a post office.
He said: “There’s a lot [of subpostmasters] out there that are blissfully unaware that there’s no prospect of them profiting from having a post office onboard, they are there to take over the government’s job of providing the necessary subsidy to keep PO going.”
The PO rejected this, stating: “The majority of PO branches are intended to be part of the overall business operated from a postmaster’s premises. Branch profits will complement the non-branch profits, and vice versa.”
“The judgement also revealed claims that the PO attempted to ‘strong arm’ Baker into switching his branches to a new format under the Network Transformation (NT) programme.
Internal PO emails revealed in the tribunal suggest PO attempted to break opposition to NT from CWU members by giving preferential terms to Baker.
One email read: “If Mark converts any further CWU, opposition falls away.”
There was no evidence within the decision to suggest Baker was aware his terms were being altered in order to sway other members, and Baker maintained his opposition to NT even after converting his branches.
Asked about its tactics, the PO described Baker as “influential”, but said there were “several other examples” of the PO agreeing to the same changes given to Baker, such as modified branch opening hours.
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