Ken Loach Takes on Gig Economy in New Film: Workers "Absolutely Exploited to Their Bones"

Courtesy of why not productions; Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

The 83-year-old social realist director's 'Sorry We Missed You' portrays a worker toiling away at an Amazon Flex-like company as his family life slowly disintegrates around him.

Having tackled homelessness, drug addiction, failing social services and other woes plaguing the working class, it was only a matter of time before social realist British writer-director team Paul Laverty and Ken Loach took on the gig economy.

The frequent creative partners (who together created the Cannes Palme D'Or winners I, Daniel Blake and The Wind That Shakes the Barley as well as My Name Is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, among other titles) depict the underside of independent contract work without traditional work benefits or workplace protections in their latest film, Sorry We Missed You. The film, 83-year-old Loach's 42nd including TV and documentary feature work, follows a father, Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), who, lacking steady employment since the Great Recession, takes a courier job with a package-delivery company à la Amazon Flex, Dolly, GoPuff or Instacart. While an interviewer lures him into the job with promises that he will be "master of his own destiny," Ricky soon goes into debt with the company to purchase a van and works long shifts without bathroom breaks during six-day weeks. In the meantime, his care worker wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) faces similar work conditions as their rebellious son Seb (Rhys Stone) falls further into trouble with local authorities.

For Loach, a self-described socialist who is an on-and-off member of Britain's Labour Party, gig work represents "a new level of exploitation" formed from the erosion of union jobs. To make Sorry We Missed You, Loach and Laverty interviewed gig company couriers and care workers who, initially reluctant to talk, ultimately opened up about the pressures of the job — one driver worked with a broken leg, they learned, while another was fined 150 pounds for taking a day off to go to the hospital. "Big human cost, isn’t it?" Loach says.

Amid California's rollout of a gig economy law that cracks down on the misclassification of part-time workers as independent contractors, Loach spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about gig work's false empowerment, "the rise of the working poor" and his ideal anti-gig policies.

How did you first end up coming on board as director of Sorry, We Missed You?

One ongoing conversation we’ve had as long as I've known Paul [Laverty], really, is about how work is changing from secure work with a union contract — an eight-hour day, a guaranteed wage, holiday pay and pay if you're sick and all those things that people were accustomed to — to casual labor where you can be put out of a job overnight. Now, we're finding a new level of exploitation in the gig economy. When we did a film before this, which was about people who were on Social Security and funding from the state when they were sick, a lot of the people who were receiving charity food were working. The rise of working poor has been a big element in our society. So then we thought, how should we tell this story? Paul made the observation that when you’re at work, you often put a smile on your face, you keep going, people don't know your personal circumstances. But when you get home and you’ve got kids and you’re exhausted, that’s when your patience wears out. It's the family that really experiences the pressure, in a way.

The film portrays the self-empowerment rhetoric of gig-economy jobs, and how they especially appeal to people who feel their lives are out of their control. Did any specific companies or experiences inspire that depiction?

Well, I think a lot of the literature and the language of "be a master of your own destiny," "a warrior of the road" and all [inspired it] — they're promoting this idea. A lot of our popular culture now promotes it: We have a television program called The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den and it’s all about a panel of people telling other people how to get profit out of others' labor. It’s the idea of the entrepreneur, it's the idea that you're your own boss while the reality is the opposite. It's an idea that [companies] have managed to embed in peoples' minds even though it's the opposite of the truth.

So no particular Uber or Amazon parallels that you wanted to make in the film?

The delivery drivers' industry, the vans whizzing around delivering the things people order online, [was the inspiration]. There are different companies, some big ones, some small ones, but they all follow the same basic principle: [The head of] one of them, Jeff Bezos, is the wealthiest man on the planet, isn't he? And yet the people who are making the money for him are people like Ricky, who are absolutely exploited to their bones. The same is true for the care workers, who are again in another version of the gig economy, what we call the zero-hours contract.

In one monologue in the film, a gig-economy manager says he has to be "nasty bastard number one" in order to keep everyone employed. Is that manager a villain, in your view, or just another cog in a flawed capitalist system?

He’s a cog in the system. I think the point we wanted to make [is] it isn't about just bad people doing bad things; this is the investable consequence of a free-market economy at this level. That may not have been the case in the old days where you had a family firm and there was a paternalist caring for the workforce. Those days have gone now and harsh competition means that the work will go to those that compete on value, quality and cost. To keep their costs down, [companies] have to find new ways of exploiting people and this is a very efficient way, because the employer has no obligations to the workers. And once one competitor does it, the others have to follow suit, otherwise their labor's more expensive. It’s a consequence of the free market, it seems to me.

The film also portrays the ways in which gig-economy companies pass off the traditional costs of doing business on their employees with fines, upfront costs and lack of paid time off. Why doesn’t or can’t Ricky, in your view, leave a job that is clearly exploitative?

The problem for Ricky is he’s borrowed 14,000 to 15,000 pounds or more for a van and he’s in debt to that amount. Obviously, the van is depreciating in value, so he won't get what he's paid for it, and the only way to pay it back is to keep working. That’s what a lot of the drivers said: "We are prisoners now." Those who had bought a van were in debt to pay back the money and they could only pay it back by driving it. Younger guys with no family commitments, they can often make it work for themselves because they tend not to get sick because they’re young and they drive fast, they'll take risks, they'll run all day. There's a preference for them, from the companies, to employ them, and we met some like that. But we met a lot of family people who were just absolutely caught. There were one or two older ones whose families had grown up and again didn’t have quite the same pressure. It affects people in different ways, really. A lot of them are trapped.

On a larger level, are there any gig-economy regulations, either implemented or still in progress, that strike you as a promising solution?

No, not really. The one thing that would have been good [is that] we had an election last year and the Labour Party's plan with the man who would have been the Chancellor of the Exchequer [the finance minister], John McDonnell, was that everybody would have trade-union rights — holiday pay, sick pay, job security from day one — and to put an end to bogus self-employment. That would have been terrific. But the campaign against them was so vicious and virulent they didn’t get elected. That would really have changed the balance of power. What's happened is power has swung absolutely on the side of the employer and away from working-class people. We would have swung it back.

Do you have specific social issues that you want to visit in your next few films?

Oh, there's lots. I don't know if I'll make another one. I will run out eventually, so I don’t know, to be honest. It’d be nice to think [I'd make more films], but there are other times where you think, "I shan't get round the course again." There's lots of stories to tell, love.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.