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ken loach Veteran filmmaker takes on the gig economy

Loach's new film Sorry We Missed you tackles Britain's 'gig economy', the crisis of care work and the everyday struggle of family life.

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Sorry We Missed You

The films of Ken Loach have always told the stories of working-class Britain - stories which otherwise might not be told, which are often uncomfortable to watch, and which are powerful without fail, from I, Daniel Blake (2016), focussing on the English benefits system under austerity, all the way back to Kes (1969), centred on childhood poverty in Barnsley.

Loach's newest film, Sorry We Missed You, released last month, is no exception. This time he's tackling the 'gig economy' in Britain, as well as the crisis of care work and the everyday struggle of family life for those dependent on either (or both) forms of work.

The film features a family in which the mother (Debbie Honeywood) is a home carer reliant on buses to make her rounds and the father (Kris Hitchen) is a delivery driver working for a depot under bogus 'self-employed' conditions common to the gig economy.

During a screening at the Showroom in Sheffield, I sit down with Loach to talk about the process of telling these vital stories.

The filmmaker credits much of the extensive research for Sorry We Missed You to writer Paul Laverty, saying of the screenplay that Laverty "took the initiative and heard lots of stories" about zero-hours contracts and how difficult they can make it for people to plan their lives.

"Researching the [delivery] drivers was much more difficult because a lot of them didn't want to talk, because they feared that they would... well, the management is obviously hostile. The management is hostile to unions.

"So Paul went to the car parks where they were waiting to get loaded up [...] He went out with quite a few drivers, just to see what their day was like."

Of the real-life stories woven into the film's narrative, Loach notes that the writers "didn't take the most extreme examples by any means".

"There are cases where people have died through missing hospital appointments. They were afraid to lose their money and get into debt."

We move onto the root cause of the care work issues portrayed in the film, which he describes as "a consequence of privatisation".

"Whether they're disabled people or older people - for whatever reason they need help in their homes - then the person who does it has got to have proper time to do it. The job is difficult and very personal. You can't do it in ten minutes if it takes half an hour, or half an hour if it takes an hour.

"The contract goes to the cheapest, regardless of care. The private company isn't getting enough money to do it properly, also they have to make a profit, therefore they cut the hours that the workers can give to the people they're looking after. So you get both bad care and cheap labour. That cannot be good."

Loach also touches on a different kind of care work portrayed in the film - the work of raising a family and maintaining relationships under difficult conditions. "If you're at work, you put on a brave face. You do your job, you're cheerful or you're presentable. When you get home, you don't have to do that. You're exhausted, you've no patience with the kids, you're starving, it's late at night, you're up in the morning at six o'clock or whenever the alarm goes. You're knackered.

"That's when the stress shows, because nobody's got any time for anything or anyone apart from work. That's when you fall out with the kids, the kids fall out with you, everybody feels cheated."

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Ken Loach on the set of Sorry We Missed You

On the topic of zero-hours contracts, Loach is particularly animated. "I think simply to be at an employer's beck and call, where they can demand that you work whatever hours they say and you have no control over it, that's not acceptable. It has to be equal [...] To live in that state of uncertainty, unless you've already got an income, is very difficult."

At this point the conversation inevitably turns to how many cinemas employ zero-hours contracts and the ethical considerations of choosing where to screen films.

"There are two or three cinemas we've had [on the current launch tour] that might not employ zero-hours contracts [...] They say here [at the Showroom Cinema] they pay above the minimum wage, but they do have zero-hours contracts. Flexibility is fine, provided it works both ways, but it doesn't. The employer rings up and says you're working or you're not working. The employee doesn't say, 'Well, I will work,' if the employer says you don't work.

In the lead-up to our interview, Loach and I heard several reports of the Showroom not providing expected hours to regular staff employed on zero-hours contracts. The Showroom told Now Then that all its staff get holiday pay, sick pay and enhanced parental leave, that it does not cancel agreed shifts and that its zero-hours employees are regularly given the opportunity to move onto guaranteed hours contracts.

I ask Loach whether the recent strike action among gig economy workers gives him any hope for the future of employment in the UK.

"People do always fight back. It takes courage, because these are huge multinational corporations and they can crush you like that. So it takes a lot of guts [...] to get organised as well and to join a trade union.

"Because [people on zero-hours contracts] are on such low money that if a trade union can't represent you, then some people feel it's not worth joining. Of course it is worth joining, because in the end, if enough people join then they will have to recognise the trade union."

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Sorry We Missed You

A lifelong Labour supporter, Loach offers some thoughts about the imminent General Election. "It's a critical election [...] And that's why the press, and the BBC, is doing everything it can to undermine Corbyn. Every insult, every smear. I think there's a fear amongst the right-wing press that he and John McDonnell will really change the balance of power in the country. They have to, to protect the climate as much as anything else.

"Because you have to plan the means of production to save the planet. You can't plan what you don't own. You can't plan the big companies - BP or Shell or Virgin.

"You can't blame people for ordering online. You've got to change the system. It's a dysfunctional system if everything is delivered by a van."

I ask him about something he's said before, about these stories being examples not of capitalism failing, but of it succeeding. "Well, the essence of capitalism is competition between private companies. But the consequence of the free market is that private companies compete on value, the quality of what they do, but they also compete on price.

"There's a constant pressure to find new ways of exploiting workers, so that it's cheaper. Obviously if one company says, 'We're not going to call you an employee, we're going to call you someone who's 'delivering a service', we have no responsibility', that will be cheaper because there's no holiday pay, there's no sick pay.

"A downward pressure on wages, cheaper wages, more exploitation of workers, is the way capitalism works. It's not an aberration."

Next article in issue 141

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