Caution. Misery (and Enlightenment) Ahead.

Having been born in the north of England, I enjoy watching movies and TV shows from there, even though I need subtitles sometimes. As a child watching Ken Loach’s film Kes for school, I thought that I could easily have been that kid standing in a cold muddy soccer pitch on an estate not far from our commission house. (I have been told our previous house was demolished because it was in a block of slums) So Loach’s latest film sounded interesting and given that it depicted life in the precarious and “gig” economy, I recently joined the hundreds in the audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival to watch “Sorry We Missed You”.

I really enjoyed the film but found the story very upsetting. It’s taken me almost a week to starting writing this article and the trailer still makes me cry, so I am split on whether to recommend you see the film.

Loach’s films are usually wonderful at showing English lives in distress. “Sorry We Missed You” is no different. A quick synopsis is that unskilled work opportunities have dried up for Rick and he signs on to work as a courier. His wife is on a zero hours contract as a carer visiting elderly and inform at home, helping with their care. Rick has a mid-teens son who sees little point in attending school and there is a younger daughter in her early teens who is very attuned to the family dynamics.

The opening scene of the film is Rick signing on with a courier company. (The trailer includes much of this scene’s dialogue) He is keen to take on the opportunity, but the work contract is unclear. The work is referred to as Rick buying a franchise, being his own boss, self-employed and others. As such, Rick is unaware of the total costs and commitments involved. Regardless of the history of the film’s director, you know right from the start that this opportunity will turn to shit.

That journey to shit is the plot of the film. It is bleak, and tearful, especially when the daughter talks to her Mum and Dad at the kitchen table one night, trying to regain what the family has lost.

It is this loss and the incapacity to keep up with how work is changing that is the core of the film. The world of work has changed, and it has also changed the social and familial structures, support and expectations within a single generation. The expectations that I grew up with in the 60s and 70s no longer exist. It is almost impossible to have a job that lasts longer than a three-year contract, so how do you get a home loan when the bank operates on outdated financial structures? How can you plan for your family’s future if you could lose your job at a moment’s notice? Today there are no breadwinners on whom a family economic structure can rely…. but our social institutions still expect one.

I don’t ever want to watch this film again. But I know that the film shows a situation that is rapidly becoming the norm. That norm is being denied, usually, by those who have the financial ability to not be exposed to it – the politicians, the wealthy and the policy makers. It may be possible to take “Sorry We Missed You” as a gig economy case study but viewers may struggle to ignore the family’s pain.

That case study would advise:

  • Fully understand the total economic costs and benefits of the work arrangement before agreeing to it.
  • Talk to your family about the potential disruption that this work may have.
  • Have a clear idea of what is the minimum income your family needs to survive, be comfortable and/or thrive.
  • Understand the safety and health risks of the work
  • Plan for when things go wrong at work, not just be dazzled by the opportunity.

Precarious work, precarious lives

One of the reasons the film upset me so much is that many of us are already in a work situation similar to the Turner family. I am a self-employed consultant working from client to client and selling blog subscriptions. My wife is taking on shifts in a cake shop after having worked in rail construction as a Quality Assurance Manager. My two grown up sons study and work in hospitality. None of these occupations are secure. None of these provide the solid financial base that my parents (only just) established. None of these offer the economic structures that our political, social and financial institutions expect. But we carry on trying to avoid disaster and hoping for the best.

One of the biggest threats to this precarious society is our safety and health at work. Rick Turner is robbed and bashed at work. Insurance covers the loss of most of the parcels but not two passports for which Rick needs to pay 250GBP each, nor the electronic device through which Rick’s deliveries, schedule and income is determined. He is required to pay 1000GBP for its replacement. He attends the hospital’s emergency department for treatment but is still required to deliver the remaining parcels and to attend work the next day or find a replacement driver. If there is no replacement available, Rick is penalised 100GBP. All of this when trying to pay off the cost of the van that he purchased at the start of the movie. This movie shows that precarious work offers no allowance for when things go wrong and few rewards for when things go right. There are no leave entitlements, there is little if any flexibility, there is no humanity. (Perhaps that is why New Zealand banned this type of zero hours contract)

I told you it was upsetting and bleak.

There is one scene of family laughter and enjoyment, but even that generates a financial work-related cost later on. This family has the capacity to laugh and love but it is rarely, or overtly, on display.

I don’t think I can recommend this film as my distress outweighed my pleasure. But what I do urge is for readers to know the story and to understand the harm and pain that precarious employment is creating, and not just for us now, but for our children. We often hear people express concern that our children won’t be able to afford a deposit for a home. But private home ownership has always been a luxury, one that some feel is now an entitlement. Our children will never have the lifestyle that we enjoyed. They are unlikely to have the same degree of hope and optimism we had (even though we grew up with the possibility of nuclear war) because the institutions on which our society is based are unlikely to change.

Our society has a socioeconomic fragility now, unlike it has ever had before, and even though we may feel economically comfortable today, there is no guarantee that the comfort will be there tomorrow. Ken Loach showed the horror of that fragility in “Sorry We Missed You”.

Kevin Jones

Categories business, economics, Film, flexibility, gig economy, OHS, risk, safety, stress, transport, Uncategorized, workplace

2 thoughts on “Caution. Misery (and Enlightenment) Ahead.”

  1. Great article Kevin (spelling though….) – I share similar concerns for the next generation – the gig economy is here and I have spent a career in project work so know what it is like to a degree – my son is doing his first 20 week work experience block as part of his studies – the organisation already tracks his weekly contribution by his timesheet billable hours – 12 in his first week – there are no fixed desks – you have a locker and are allocated a hot desk every morning when you arrive, the partners measure daily success by how many desks are empty – ie staff are working in client offices and therefore fully billable for the day (accounting and audit firm).
    For me the only advice that I have ever had that still rings true – is there are two types of people – those that need a secure job or those that work continuously at being a secure person.

    1. Good morning, Wow! Here I am tearing up at my desk. Feeling shit and very blessed at the same time. Great Article Kev. I enjoy how you find alignment with work health and safety in places that at first are not so obvious. Thank you for sharing.

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