Review of Sorry We Missed You

The Observer - 06 Oct 2019

Sorry We Missed You is so remarkable. Even though I’ve 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 who’ve never come across these abuses – who don’t realise what is going on in this cruel, exposed underbelly of the labour market – I can’t imagine how they’re 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, he’s just made this up.” We’ve 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 boy’s bedside. One woman was on the operating table while her husband stood outside with Hermes on the phone, telling him he’d “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, you’re trapped. It’s 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.

This life of flexibility is fine, if that’s 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 couldn’t 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 she’d 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 don’t have happy families in this country, where parents can love their children and nurture them, then we’ll have real problems.

What I’m anxious to get across is that the situations in the film aren’t just made up by Ken Loach’s 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.