The directors new film Sorry We Missed You couldnt be more timely. We ask MPs and business leaders what they make of his uncompromising vision

Its three years since Ken Loach released I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme dOr at Cannes for its searing depiction of austerity-era Britain, with food banks a dismal fact of life and a benefits system that crushes rather than supports its supposed beneficiaries.

Now Loach has turned his attention to another dehumanising trap of our neoliberal age: the world of zero-hours contracts. Sorry We Missed You, again set in Newcastle, tells the story of Ricky and Abbie, a fortysomething couple with two kids whose problems are less to do with finding work than stopping it from eating up their lives. Abbie, played by first-time actor Debbie Honeywood, is a home carer who covers the cost of her own travel between appointments and whose crammed schedule makes it impossible for her to bestow proper care on her vulnerable clients.

Her husband, Ricky (Kris Hitchen), is a jobbing builder who has had enough of working for other people. Eager to earn extra money to get his family out of debt and into a house of their own, he applies for a driving job at a parcel-delivery company where he is told that you dont work for us, you work with us

What this means in practice is that Ricky has to provide his own vehicle, take responsibility for an expensive scanner that tracks and dictates his every move and face steep penalties if he takes time off work without arranging a replacement driver. Employment benefits such as sick and holiday pay dont factor here. Youre a master of your own destiny, is how the hard-faced branch manager puts it.

Watch a trailer for Sorry We Missed You.

With this film, which also premiered to great acclaim at Cannes, the 83-year-old Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty are nothing if not timely. An expertly judged and profoundly humane movie, noted the Hollywood Reporter. Youd have to be made of stone not to be moved to your core by it.

In recent years, stories from the sharp edge of the gig economy have been filtering into the news with increasing regularity. In January 2018, Don Lane, a diabetic DPD courier from Dorset, died of the condition after missing medical appointments because he felt under pressure to keep working, facing 150 daily penalties if he failed to find cover for his shifts. (Lane had previously collapsed twice during his rounds, once while he was actually driving.)

Drawing upon such stories, Loach and Laverty drill to the very heart of our contemporary work culture and ask piercing questions of the economic and political systems that support it. But what do the people working at the top of these systems make of the film? We asked politicians and thinktank heads from across the political spectrum to watch Sorry We Missed You, before its release next month, and share their responses.

Sorry We Missed You opens on 1 November

Frank

Loach portrays the cruel, exposed underbelly of the labour market
Frank Field

Frank Field has been the MP for Birkenhead since 1979 and is a specialist on poverty and welfare issues. Last year, he resigned from the Labour party, saying it had become a force for antisemitism; he now sits as an independent

Sorry We Missed You is so remarkable. Even though Ive been exposed to the horrors it depicts, most recently through a series of reports I co-wrote with Andrew Forsey on the gig economy, I found the film deeply shocking and moving. For the many people whove never come across these abuses who dont realise what is going on in this cruel, exposed underbelly of the labour market I cant imagine how theyre going to react. Ken Loach is the great champion of taking us out of our shells and forcing us to ask, of the conveniences we enjoy: Who is actually paying for this?

Andrew and I have written five reports over the past three years on Hermes, Uber, DPD, Deliveroo and home care which back up what is portrayed in the film, so no one can say: Well, hes just made this up. Weve heard stories of drivers who carry urine bottles and sick buckets because they dare not take time off. Two parents were threatened with loss of work while sitting at their dying little boys bedside. One woman was on the operating table while her husband stood outside with Hermes on the phone, telling him hed better find cover for her.

These sort of examples I think Dickens would have found hard to believe. But this is what is happening at the bottom end of the labour market.

The gig economy is presented as a kind of freedom for workers and the people we spoke to were attracted by the idea of being able to dip in and out of work. But when [as a courier] you get that little black box, the scanner that issues directions and tracks your movements, youre trapped. Its very hard to escape because of the way the work is organised the difficulties of hitting targets and the penalties you incur if you fail to hit them.

Debbie
Debbie Honeywood as home carer Abbie in Sorry We Missed You. Photograph: Entertainment One

This life of flexibility is fine, if thats what you actually want, but for millions of people, there is no other choice. They are being forced into self-employment as there is no other option. And then, as our reports and the film show, that regime gets you by the throat. It is a form of such exploitation that it would be very difficult for the supreme court to differentiate between this and other forms of modern slavery.

The mother in the film works as a home carer. When I broke my arm and couldnt fully dress myself, I had a care worker and I talked to her about her job. As in the film, she would have appointments cancelled when she was nowhere near home and shed end up sitting around on park benches waiting for the next appointment; then she had to cover all the costs of travelling between appointments.

The parents in the film are like ships in the night. They feed their children via the microwave and struggle to find time to go to the school when something goes wrong. If you want to devise the worst possible way of nurturing children, the gig economy has come up with a model. And if we dont have happy families in this country, where parents can love their children and nurture them, then well have real problems.

What Im anxious to get across is that the situations in the film arent just made up by Ken Loachs imagination. Behind this family slowly being destroyed by a wicked system, there are hundreds of examples of people who are similarly treated. This film is a very powerful shout for them.

Anna

The film didnt have the passion and bite I expected
Anna Soubry

Anna Soubry was elected Conservative MP for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire in 2010. Strongly anti-Brexit, she resigned from the Tories in February to join the newly formed pro-EU party Change UK

I have enjoyed Ken Loach films in the past Kes I thought was stunning but this film was far from his best. It didnt have the bite and passion that I expected and I thought it would have worked better as a documentary. With serious topics like this, either you cover it extremely well through drama, with a strong, balanced narrative, or you do it on a factual basis.

I went to a tough comprehensive in Worksop, a Nottinghamshire mining town, so from an early age I have been aware that people with few or even low skills will struggle to get well-paid work. I also strongly believe every employer has a duty to treat anyone directly or indirectly in their employ with fairness, decency and respect, including paying them a fair living wage.

I know there are problems with the gig economy. Were in an age where people are buying more online than in shops and thats fine people have the right to buy online, and it suits a lot of us, but it means the things we buy have to be delivered. In my opinion, the prices people are paying for delivery are too low. So if we are to do the right thing by delivery drivers, then frankly we will all have to pay more for that service. Thats why I dont use Uber I take black cabs and minicabs, because I know that black-cab drivers have to pay all the associated taxes and insurance, and so its worth paying extra.

The same goes for care workers, like Abbie in the film. I have no doubt theyre being underpaid. To pay them more, national government needs to give our councils more money, which is why you need a strong economy and you dont get a strong economy by crashing out of the European Union without a deal or, indeed, leaving the EU in the first place.

There are definitely some people and I found this when I took evidence as a member of a select committee who, due to their lifestyle and circumstances, choose to work in the gig economy because it suits them. In the film, the dad leaves his job in the construction industry to go down the self-employed route, but I didnt think it was really clear why he chose that. If he had lost his job at a time of high unemployment, he may well have had little choice and would have been more vulnerable to being exploited. Of course it can be physically challenging, but if you work in the construction industry, you tend to have a skill and you tend to be well paid. Thats one area where I felt the credibility of the film was undermined.

Ive had an example in my own constituency of migrant workers being extremely badly treated by a national employer. Based on the evidence I received from constituents, I went straight to the police and reported it and they raided the employer within two weeks. So I do have huge concerns about people being exploited at work, but the laws exist to protect them. You pick up the phone and you make a proper complaint.

David

In this culture, the poor are sold a lie that they somehow have choice
David Lammy

David Lammy grew up in Tottenham, north London, and has been Labour MP for the constituency since 2000

The term gig economy conveys Shoreditch-based twentysomething hipsters combining life as a playwright with working for Deliveroo. Ken Loachs polemic exposes that term as a euphemism for a much less glamorous reality. This gig economy is in fact based on zero-hours contracts and the callousness of a modern society that reduces everything to consumer choice. The opening scenes of the film show Ricky having a conversation with the delivery company manager as if he has agency over his decision to enter into this contract. In fact, his path is determined by the absence of a welfare state and a rolling back of hard-won labour rights. Instead of freedom, in this individualised culture, the poorest are sold a lie that they somehow have choice.

Sorry We Missed You is also about the decimation of family life. Both parents are living a zero-hours existence. Abbie works in social care, which is fundamental to an ageing population, helping and supporting vulnerable, disabled, elderly people, but is very poorly paid. Abbie is one of the most lovable characters, and you see her totally stripped of all her dignity in attempting to care for these individuals, because shes running from one place to the next with only a short amount of time for each person and no thanks or reward for her work.

The film chimed with stories Ive heard from my own constituents. I will never forget the woman who came to my surgery having developed a very serious kidney infection and renal failure as a result of doing a job for a well-known supermarket where she was not allowed to go to the toilet while standing at her till. Similarly, Ricky has to pee into a bottle while hes driving because he doesnt have time for a toilet stop. I have met countless constituents in my surgery who are close to falling asleep because they have come from a relentless shift in which they have not slept for days so Ricky almost veering off the road due to lack of sleep felt very real.

And Ive been into homes where theres a cloud of depression hanging over the parents; theres very little food in the fridge, theyre in heavy debt and the children are trying to keep their parents spirits up. In this film, too, you could feel the stress levels rising. It was palpable.

I also thought of my childhood, when my mother was doing two or three jobs to support us. The idea goes back to Cathy Come Home and latchkey kids having to bring themselves up because their parents are working when they come home from school, and when the parents come home theyre knackered, and I remember that in my own family life. Sorry We Missed You brings across how the right to a family life has been eroded in modern Britain.

Claire

This should be seen by anyone thinking about social and elderly care
Claire Fox

Claire Fox is founder and director of the Institute of Ideas thinktank and a regular panellist on the BBC Radio 4s Moral Maze. She is also a Brexit party MEP for North West England

The film shows the flipside to the notion that the gig economy offers flexibility. You think you have control, and then you realise you really are working for someone, but without them having any responsibility for you.

But I think it also shows why the gig economy is attractive for so many people. It would be wrong to romanticise the 40-hour week working for an employer, in contrast to the terrible gig economy, where everyones exploited, because the reality is that people have the aspiration to control their own destinies. I appreciate that the film is all about showing you that you dont really, but I think that its important to note the aspiration.

I thought the care workers story was brilliant and spot-on accurate. Ive got a mother in a care home, and friends who are care workers, so I know what its like. The film exemplified the brutality of a wonderful, empathetic carer being denied the right to do her job properly because her schedule prohibits it. I also thought that the characters that she cared for were very well drawn in terms of the challenges and the humiliation of getting old and being dependent. This is a film that should be watched by anyone whos thinking seriously about social and elderly care.

But I also know people who drive and deliver packages who dont have such a bleak experience as Ricky does. Im not trying to suggest that the difficulties he encounters arent real, but I dont want to completely denounce all aspects of the gig economy, because it does suit certain people to work in this way.

The familys story is brilliant, with the bright kids trying to negotiate their way around their parents. This film was very good at presenting an average family. The dad says hed never go on the dole, hes too proud for that, and hell work his guts out for his family and I know many people who are exactly the same. In that sense, it was insightful, because it shows that even in a family where both parents are working, life can be very tough.

Where I think you need to be careful is not to end up having an overly rosy picture about the nine to five. We can and should have a gig economy where workers have rights. So rather than dialling it back to the past, we should try to improve the current situation. Because things change. Theres nothing wrong with delivering parcels and in some ways the technology is amazing. You can be cynical about tracking and big data, but what an amazing achievement that you can have a parcel delivered from anywhere around the world very quickly. Of course there is a human cost of that, but there must be ways of organising it that would be less brutal and more humane, where workers rights are recognised. Lets look at improving the working conditions of the people who are doing the delivering, rather than just saying the whole thing is wrong.

Mark

Of course drama is used to highlight the extremes, but Loach sure as hell highlighted them here
Mark Littlewood

Mark Littlewood is the director general of thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs. He was head of media for the Liberal Democrats from 2004 to 2007 and later an adviser to David Cameron

I found this film less true to life than some of Ken Loachs work. Its not inconceivable that a family in Newcastle would find themselves in such a terrible position, but it did seem to me that the film was too down on the gig economy to be wholly plausible.

It was therefore difficult to grasp what sort of alternative would have been preferable for the family. Had social care been fully nationalised, and all delivery firms been offering permanent contract work, would they have been better off? All of the insurance risk, and the responsibility for replacing staff who are sick, would now be borne by the company, presumably having a downward pressure on wages.

The film was clever at showing the precariousness potentially associated with the dramatic changes that are happening in the labour market. But a relatively high proportion of workers in the gig economy would say that a great advantage of it is that, if your son gets in trouble at school or you fall ill, the flexibility you have is in fact considerably greater than if you are a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, working-for-the-same-company-for-40-years sort of employee.

The parcel-delivery firm in the film seems, to my understanding of it, pretty close to being on the wrong side of the law and if so, there should be legal sanction against it. Im not saying its fantastical, but I think Loach highlighted the precariousness of the gig economy without actually highlighting the flexibility of it. Of course drama is used to highlight the extremes, but he sure as hell highlighted the extremes here.

So if you want to see the gloomiest, bleakest, worst possible run of luck that a family in Newcastle could have, working in flexible gig jobs, this film shows it. And I think it provides a legitimate point of concern about how normal families adapt to a much less certain, less secure working environment.

But I was scratching my head thinking about the counterfactual: would these people have been better off in the pre-gig economy world? I dont really think they would have been, but for their horrific run of bad luck. I wonder whether Loachs film might have been a little stronger if the characters involved hadnt had all of the very worst things imaginable thrown at them.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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