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Ken Loach’s new film Sorry We Missed You is an excoriating portrayal of the gig economy and an altogether uncomfortable watch, but also a call to reassess how we value each other as humans.
The film begins with Ricky, a father of two, accepting a job as a delivery driver, lured by promises of freedom and self–employment, which ultimately make him more enslaved to the system than ever before. “You’re the master of your own destiny,” the manager tells him as he signs on the dotted line to become a franchise–owner. “You don’t work for us, you work with us.”
He quickly becomes trapped in a spiral of hidden costs and growing pressures. If the value of a new car depreciates the moment you drive it off the garage forecourt, the value Ricky’s new van affords him as an individual declines equally rapidly. He funds the van deposit from the sale of the car his wife Abbie relies on for her job as a home care worker, leaving her stranded at bus stops for much of the rest of the film. As with the competition between drivers in the depot for the most valuable delivery routes, there is no prospect of a better life that doesn’t leave someone else worse off.
When the couple’s teenage son Seb is on the brink of expulsion from school, Ricky’s encouragement that he has serious choices to make about his future rings hollow against the lack of self–determination in his own life. As becomes apparent in an emotional scene involving their young daughter Liza–Jane, the keys to Ricky’s van hold more power than he himself does.
Like Loach’s earlier work I, Daniel Blake, this film is recognisably grounded in the reality of life in twenty–first century Britain; an estimated 1.8m people are employed – or, like Ricky, ostensibly self–employed – on zero–hours contracts or similar arrangements that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours of employment.
What I, Daniel Blake did for awareness of food banks, Sorry We Missed You will do for the fallacy that work pays and that zero–hours contracts offer freedom rather than oppression. A House of Commons Work and Pensions select committee report into self–employment and the gig economy in 2017 found that while self–employment is not inherently negative, practices like those of Ricky’s delivery depot “allowed companies to evade responsibility for their workers’ wellbeing” and as such posed challenges for the welfare system. The call for legislation to tackle the injustice in the system was echoed by the chair of the committee, independent MP Frank Field, earlier this year.
Last summer, as part of the GRA:CE project, I interviewed a church leader in an inner–city parish, who spoke about the challenges of leading a congregation among which zero–hours contracts and precarious work were the norm. I had arranged to meet one of the churchwardens that afternoon, but he had unexpectedly been called into work and therefore couldn’t meet me after all. We had planned the meeting weeks in advice, but this meant nothing.
“For most of our folk, their time is not owned by them. It’s the mentality of the places they work for and the lesser paid posts. You have to go when they ask you. Many of them are poorly paid or on zero–hours contracts where they can’t turn shifts down but aren’t given much notice. They don’t have a life apart from waiting for a call to go into work.”
For the church community, this meant increasing flexibility in the Sunday morning rota and not holding too tightly to their expectations of each other:
“It’s not that people are inherently unreliable. It’s that their lives do not allow them to be relied upon, which is really difficult because you want to plan for someone to bring the bread for communion on Sundays but they might not be there that week.”
If you substitute communion bread for pasta for dinner, or presence at an after–school parents’ meeting, this might just as well be about Ken Loach’s characters, who are also not inherently unreliable but subject to an economic system which doesn’t allow them to be relied upon by their loved ones. The depot manager underlines to Ricky how little “all the faces” he interacts with care about him. He sees dozens of individuals on a daily basis yet is seen himself by almost no one – often only as a pixelated face on the screen of a door buzzer, if at all. The electronic monitoring system that the driver relies upon for his deliveries tracks his every move yet completely misses him as a person. When roles are reversed and one of Abbie’s clients tenderly brushes her hair, it is a rare moment of humanity and dignity that Ricky never gets to enjoy.
The French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas suggested that it is the human face which “orders and ordains us” into ethical responsibility for each other. The extraction of this encounter from the delivery process – and, for Abbie, a punishing schedule which minimises the time she spends face–to–face with each of those she cares for – is symbolic of a diminished ethical duty within our economy and service industry.
The film’s title comes from the cards left behind in lieu of parcels that cannot be delivered, each of which represents yet another financial cost for Ricky. It is also a not–so–subtle metaphor for the way society can blink and miss those who, like Ricky and Abbie, are just about getting by and fulfilling a small but functional role in the daily lives of others.
Also largely missing from the film are the customers whose reliance on next–day delivery fuels Ricky’s van and contributes to his misery. In true Ken Loach fashion, Sorry We Missed You is a clarion call for us all to consider the consequences of the gig economy. The convenience of overnight orders has a ripple effect of inconvenience – to put it mildly – for countless unknown others.
Here’s the kicker: in the time it has taken me to write this piece, I have buzzed the door of our office building for three different delivery drivers in vans not dissimilar to Ricky’s, each of whom I imagine has an Abbie, a Seb and perhaps a Liza–Jane at home relying on them. Convenience is a contemporary addiction from which none of us is immune.
At one point in the film, Abbie rubs menthol lotion under her nostrils on the way to a particular client’s home in order to inoculate herself against the smell. It might be tempting to do likewise to protect ourselves from recognising the effects of the gig economy on those who work in it, but having watched Sorry We Missed You, we are left without that luxury.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.