‘Sorry We Missed You’ is a true reflection of austerity Britain and zero-hours contracts

This problem faced by Britain’s army of Rickys and Abbys is fixable. It is. All you need to do is stop companies from attempting to get round employment law

James Moore
Saturday 02 November 2019 11:14 GMT
Sorry We Missed You, Cannes 2019 clip

If I was made king of the world for a day, I’d commandeer a cinema and force every prospective MP to sit and watch Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You.

I’ve been writing about the gig economy for years now and I’ve read a steady stream of press releases and reports from Parliamentary Select Committees and government-commissioned panels concerning those who work in this current unstable and unfair environment, like “Ricky”, the film’s protagonist.

I’ve also talked to some of his real-life analogues. Having done that, it’s hard to imagine a much better reflection of this brutally exploitative form of employment than the 100 minutes Loach has committed to screen.

Ricky is told that he has the chance to run his own business, earning “fees” rather than wages, and “working with” rather than for a delivery company.

Of course, he rapidly comes to understand that the reality is somewhat different. He has no rights, and is a slave to the all-powerful zero-hours contract that the delivery company issues him with. His “business partner” ruthlessly exploits him, while depriving him of any of the limited rights and protections an ordinary British worker enjoys.

His wife, a carer, is scarcely any better off.

It’s superbly acted, all too believable, and often very hard to watch.

Here’s the real kicker: the film, something of a companion piece to the director’s I, Daniel Blake, which looked at the benefits system, ought to be unnecessary.

This problem faced by Britain’s army of Rickys is fixable. It is. All you need to do is stop companies from attempting to get round employment law. You mandate that gig workers should have the right to opt into an arrangement that is basically the same as employment, bringing with it the minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay. Those whom we are told “value the flexibility” supposedly offered by gig contracts needn’t have to do so. I’m betting they’d be in the minority.

If you ensure that all companies that swim in these waters offer the same basic minimums, and back it up with a robust enforcement regime, you prevent them from competing with each other by squeezing their workers ever tighter until they suffocate. That’s what they’re doing right now.

Variations on this theme have been suggested by some of those reviews and reports I mentioned, although the Theresa May-commissioned Taylor Review was notably limp and it didn’t go nearly far enough.

Yet nothing much has changed, largely thanks to government’s obsession with Brexit, which has prevented anything from being done. And it is the fault of government, not parliament, whatever that charlatan Boris Johnson would have you believe.

As a result the courts, and trade unions, have been left to pick up the slack. This they have been doing. The problem with the former is that the process is like wading through soup.

Gig firms have proven better at losing cases than Premiership strugglers Watford or Norwich have at losing football games (so far). But, of course, there are appeals and delaying tactics – you know the drill.

That said, the GMB achieved a groundbreaking deal with delivery company Hermes that will offer its people protections like the minimum wage, holiday pay, rest breaks and union recognition if they opt for something called “self-employed plus”.

I spoke to one of its drivers through the course of writing a piece for the TUC’s Congress publication covering working conditions and its campaign for a four-day week.

The deal got him his first day off in more than a decade. “Huge,” is how he described it to me, while providing an insight of what life his life was like before it was signed.

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I remembered the conversation while watching Loach’s gut-punch of a film.

It’s one MPs should see because we can and should do better for real-life Rickys and Abbys. Maybe the net result is that we pay a bit more to get stuff delivered (or prices rise a bit). Well, so be it. It would be a price worth paying.

Of course Loach mines Ricky’s fictional situation, which features a succession of disasters, for drama. But here’s the thing: there’s nothing in the film quite as bad as the situation that faced Don Lane, a DPD courier who died from complications related to his diabetes, having missed appointments with specialists. It was because he felt under pressure to cover his round and faced daily penalties (like Ricky) if he didn’t. Legislators take note.

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