‘Sorry We Missed You’ shows urgent need for safety nets for gig economy workers

Ken Loach is a director renowned for films that speak to the zeitgeist of the injustices in society. In 1966 it was homelessness, with the BBC television play ‘Cathy Come Home’, and in 2016, with ‘I, Daniel Blake’, it was the cruelty of the welfare system. 

In 2019, ‘Sorry We Missed You’ depicts the struggle of a working-class Northern family navigating the financial instability, lack of worker’s rights and difficult conditions of gig economy work. 

These are questions we’ve been exploring at Doteveryone as we research the impact that technology is having on the work we do and how we do it.  We’ve been listening to the experiences of gig economy workers, and are now developing policy solutions and prototypes to help overcome some of the barriers gig workers currently face – many of which are heartbreakingly apparent in the film.

Ricky (Kris Hitchen) Copyright: Sixteen Films

Ricky (Kris Hitchen), is a delivery driver for a courier firm called Parcels Delivered Fast. He joins believing he’s finally going to become his own boss as a freelance driver. The promise of flexibility and being the master of your own destiny is much of the appeal to zero-hours contracts and gig work. As his new manager, Maloney (Ross Brewster) or “Nasty Bastard Number One” explains in his onboarding: 

You don’t work for us, you work with us. You don’t drive for us, you perform services.”There’s no employment contracts, there’s no performance targets, you meet delivery standards. There’s no wages, but fees…no clocking-on, you become available.

Butflexibility can be a blessing and a curse”, as we found speaking with Uber drivers in Stoke-on-Trent, as part of the research into realising better work in the gig economy:

Many drivers worked around their family schedules, doing their bit in the school-run, spending quality time with partners and creating time to visit parents abroad. But this flexibility also led to insecurity and unpredictability, with some telling us how they struggled to settle into a routine. Others feared that drivers who have the time to take more shifts are driving down prices and shifting the norms around how many hours platforms expect drivers to work. – Jacob Ohrvik-Stott

Doteveryone’s research highlights the financial instability that often comes with gig economy work and in particular how it’s the workers bearing the brunt of market competition. The securities traditionally offered by employers such as equipment costs have become unbundled from the platforms and pushed onto workers. Upon joining PDF, Ricky finds that before he can even start earning money, he has to buy his own van and so his wife Abby (first-time actor Debbie Honeywood) must sell her car so Ricky can afford the deposit to buy one, even though she relies on it as a care worker, to get her between appointments. The alternative would be renting one for £65 a day. When he does start earning he is on a zero-hours contract and working 14-hour days with no job security or benefits. 

“They should treat us like people not robots” TaskRabbit worker, Bristol 

Management by algorithm creates black-and-white situations where workers’ actions lead to reward or punishment, with little opportunity for workers to contextualise their decisions. Rather than being able to work as and when suits him and his family, Ricky’s scanner “decides who lives and dies” – says Maloney. The two-minute beep of the scanner reminds Ricky when to speed up to meet delivery targets and Nasty Bastard is ready to fine anyone should they under-perform. Ricky carries a plastic bottle with him so he can relieve himself without losing time. 

Left: Ricky (Kris Hitchen). Right: Maloney (Ross Brewster). Copyright: Sixteen Films

And it’s the paucity of time, as well as money, that is strikingly apparent in the film. From workers we spoke to across various platforms, there’s a pressure to be “always-on” to ensure they can piece together enough hours to make ends meet by the end of the week. This is eating up their time, energy and headspace to make future financial and career plans. 

Money takes up a disproportionate amount of the whole family’s attention; when Ricky pours graffiti-cans from rebellious son Seb’s (Rhys Stone) backpack onto the dining table the first thing he asks is how much they cost, Abby panics at the cost of the fine they’ll get from Seb skipping school, and Seb doesn’t see a future at university for the amount of debt he’ll be left in, with no better job prospects at the end. 

And the relentless hours both Ricky and Abby feel like they have no option but to work comes at a major cost to family life. The only quality time the family spends together is for an Indian takeaway, bought with the tip money their young daughter, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) earns after accompanying Ricky for one of his shifts – at the end of which she thanks him for the “great day” and asks if they can do it again some time. But even this rare happy moment where we see the family actually having a laugh and joke together is interrupted by a call from one of Abby’s clients needing her help.  

The Turner Family. Copyright: Sixteen Films

The securities traditionally offered by employers including insurance, sick-pay and annual leave become unbundled from the platforms in the gig economy and pushed onto workers. So when the impact work is having on his family becomes all too much, Ricky asks Maloney for a week off. He’s told he can, of course, if he finds a replacement driver. But these are not so easy to come by, especially at late notice. 

So much for being his own boss and the master of his own destiny. 

All Number One cares about is keeping the machine happy because “customers don’t care if you fall asleep at the wheel”.  All the customers care about are price and speed. 

And ahead of the film release a shattered delivery driver has come out saying how it is a reality; there are drivers ‘falling asleep at the wheel’ in order to keep the customers happy. But what if customers weren’t happy with that? What can we do about it? And what policy should the Government develop to improve things. 

I like to listen to a film review podcast, Little White Lies. In the latest episode, Associate Editor, Hannah Woodhead says that ‘Sorry We Missed You’ is the kind of film politicians will watch and recognise the importance of the issue but then nothing will change. She says: 

It’s all very well to make these films and to say: “I’m raising awareness”, but I think “What are you going to do with that awareness, we need to actually change things.”

And actually changing things is what our work in this area aims to do. Based on our research into the current challenges gig economy workers are facing we’re currently developing a series of prototypes to help address them. This includes calling for gig economy workers to have parity of pay with other workers, including extra costs incurred – like the fines Ricky racks up for being unable to find a replacement driver or the upfront cost of buying his van. We’re also working on how to improve transparency over pay and costs, so workers are aware before they enter work, and customers are more aware when then use gigs.

The full report with the findings from our research and recommendations which would provide safety nets for gig workers to overcome the barriers they face will be published in early 2020.