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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 05:36 GMT 06:36 UK
Bullying claims trouble Royal Mail
By Malcolm Prior
BBC News Online, Oxford

CWU picket
The row over bullying could see hundreds of workers walk out
Threatening phone calls, intimidating figures waiting outside school and women brought to tears at work.

Those are just some of the allegations that could bring another mass walk-out to a troubled Royal Mail centre.

The Oxford centre has already suffered a 17-day strike over bullying claims which left millions of items of post undelivered throughout April.

One month on, and talks to avert another crippling strike are taking place following revelations that confidential witness statements fell into the hands of those at the centre of the allegations.

Royal Mail bosses have said they "very much regret" the error and are carrying out an internal inquiry.

We are confident in the integrity of the investigation team and will not hesitate to take action if the complaints are upheld
Royal Mail manager Michael Stockdale
But workers say more needs to be done to tackle a climate of intimidation that has built up at the Cowley centre over the last two years.

One group of workers is alleged to have verbally abused and attacked colleagues and sexually harassed female workers.

There have also been claims that those who made the allegations received threats at their own homes and even saw the accused outside their children's schools.

Some of the centre's 450 workers have resigned and others were said to be close to doing so.

Bob Cullen, the local representative of the Communication Workers Union, has worked at the centre for the past 18 years.

Sorting office
The last strike saw millions of letters go undelivered
He told BBC News Online: "This is concentrated on a handful of individuals over a long period against a whole shift."

Michael Stockdale, the Royal Mail's general manager for the Thames Valley, said the allegations were being taken "extremely seriously".

But he declined to comment on whether he felt the scale of the problem had been exaggerated, saying: "These specific allegations are still being investigated by an independent team from outside the Oxford area and it would be wholly wrong of us to prejudge any outcome."

Union members are now to meet on Sunday to consider whether to hold a ballot on strike action over how the inquiries are being carried out.

'Personal danger'

They are unhappy that, while an independent inquiry is planned, the bullying claims are still being probed by Royal Mail managers.

Action has yet to be taken against any member of staff while those inquiries continue.

Mr Stockdale, who said talks with the union were so far "positive", said: "We are confident in the integrity of the investigation team and will not hesitate to take action if the complaints are upheld.

"Bullying and harassment of staff simply is not acceptable in any circumstances and is an extremely serious issue, but that does not mean we should forfeit the investigative process simply for a quick - but possibly flawed - solution."

The two sides also agree on the need to resolve the problems at the centre as quickly as possible amid growing public discontent with the city's postal service.

Mr Cullen said: "We are aware that the public is facing extreme difficulty getting their mail.

Woman in distress
A number of women workers are said to have been harassed
"We do not take the view of striking lightly.

"But we will not have people coming to work in conditions where they feel in personal danger and we will not have people's homes visited and children's schools visited."

For the thousands of residents and businesses which suffered during the last strike, another walk-out could be the last straw.

A spokeswoman for watchdog group Postwatch called for every effort to be made to avoid further strike action.

She said: "Basically, the Royal Mail and the unions should be working together to restore confidence in the postal service. Something has to be done."

Postal strike ends after 17 days
15 Apr 04  |  Oxfordshire
Post strike hits benefit cheques
15 Apr 04  |  Oxfordshire
Striking staff want bully removed
14 Apr 04  |  Oxfordshire
Wildcat post strike in third week
13 Apr 04  |  Oxfordshire
Unofficial postal strike spreads
07 Apr 04  |  Oxfordshire
Union in bid to end postal strike
05 Apr 04  |  Oxfordshire

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