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Victims of Capitalism’s Success

Ken Loach's newest film, Sorry We Missed You, is a devastating indictment of our economy and its infinite capacity to generate misery for average people.

Bleak, dignified, patient, angry — Sorry We Missed You is one of Ken Loach’s finest contributions to working-class fiction. Turning his lens on the gig economy, the film portrays a Newcastle family battered into crisis by the inexorable logic of the market, struggling with zero-hours contracts. Thanks to a meticulously researched script and the authentic performances of non-actors, Sorry We Missed You is a devastating indictment of our economy.

The film opens with a bit of black humor as Ricky (Kris Hitchen) interviews for a zero-hours contract driver position at a fictional company called Parcels Delivered Fast. Watching Ricky sell his labor to the callous manager, Maloney (Ross Brewster), we are introduced to the gig economy’s most mystifying promise: you get to be your own boss. This enticing offer comes with impossible expectations designed to “sort the fucking losers from the warriors.”

A former construction worker, Ricky rattles off a seemingly endless list of skills that he has honed through a lifetime of craft. We learn later in the film that he was laid off during the 2008 financial crisis, losing his home and becoming a renter. At the root of his isolation is pride: “I’ve never been on the dole. I’d rather starve first.” For Loach, Ricky is a particular example of a more universal experience: the loss of secure, skilled work. We follow his fourteen-hour routes, six days a week, as determination erodes into exhaustion under the invasive discipline of big data.

Ricky’s wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), also has a route and a zero-hours contract. She’s an in-home caregiver who goes from house to house visiting dozens of disabled and elderly people every day to provide meals, baths, and, most important, intimacy. Grief for her late mother deepens Abbie’s commitment to her work: “I’ve got one rule: treat them like your mum. Look after them.” She works unpaid overtime to fulfill this commitment after selling her car so that Ricky can afford to buy a van. With both parents hustling from gig to gig, they are increasingly deprived of time with their children.

Like many gig workers, Ricky has no designated bathroom breaks. In the film’s final chapter, he has to urinate in a bottle behind his van. If this wasn’t humiliating enough, he’s suddenly beaten, robbed, and doused with his own piss. While waiting for x-ray results in a crowded NHS hospital, his boss demands a replacement driver and lists the charges for stolen items and a destroyed scanner, totaling £1,500 (in addition to the money he already owes for missing shifts). With snowballing debt, Ricky has no choice but to go back to work. The film’s simmering tensions boil over as his family desperately struggles and fails to block his van. Trapped and alone, bloody and fatigued, we contemplate Ricky’s destiny as the final close-up slowly fades to black.

In a scene where Abbie vents about her relentless schedule, Loach punctuates the story with her patient’s loaded response: “What happened to the eight-hour day?” The question locates the narrative within a history of increasingly casual work at the expense of secure union jobs.

This UK’s growing gig economy is dominated by zero-hours contracts, which offer no guaranteed hours of work. Since the financial crisis of 2008, they have risen to cover more than 1 million workers. For in-home carers like Abbie, more than 60 percent work under under zero-hours contracts.

One of the closest real-life parallels to Ricky’s company is also one of the largest gig employers: Amazon. Their package delivery program, Amazon Flex, advertises on their website the opportunity to “be your own boss.” These drivers have been involved in hundreds of crashes over the last five years, and they testify to reporters that “we are treated like animals.”

The fact that gig work allows for flexible schedules is promoted as a win-win deal for both the worker and the employer. For a minority, this is true, but Sorry We Missed You exposes the fact that, for most workers, it’s a one-sided and exploitative relationship. The “choice” of when to work is nonexistent when you can be punished for taking time off or face the constant threat of being fired. Employers gain maximum flexibility without having to provide a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, overtime, family and medical leave, disability insurance, collective bargaining rights, or any compensation for injuries or expenses accrued during a day’s work.

Reflecting on this, screenwriter Paul Laverty asks: “Is it any surprise that Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world? Does Jeff Bezos ever piss in a bottle because a meeting goes too long in his headquarters?”

As a Marxist filmmaker, Loach is never content to simply dramatize an individual’s hardship. He always presents us with arguments about how social forces define the lives and relationships of his characters. Convincingly pulling this off in a complex and coherent work of art can be a balancing act and often draws criticism from conservatives (including MPs). There’s always the risk of didacticism, turning characters into mouthpieces, undermining realism as a result. But Loach’s films are only given the pejorative label “political filmmaking” because they cut against the ruling ideology.

The most instructive example of this in Sorry We Missed You occurs when Ricky’s boss explains how he runs the business. “Do you want to know why I’m number one? Because I keep this happy.” Maloney holds up the parcel scanner. “This box competes with other boxes. That decides the contract. This box decides who lives and who dies.” Loach includes this dialogue to suggest that the Turners are not victims of capitalism’s failure — they’re victims of capitalism’s success.

The precious parcel scanner (menacingly nicknamed a “gun”) becomes the surrogate for general capital. In capitalism, competition takes place not merely between classes — it also takes place within classes. Workers compete with one another for a living while capitalists compete with one another for profits. The drive for profits is the drive to cut prices, cut wages, bust unions, make work precarious, and weaken the working class. Sorry We Missed You brings to life the abstract logic of the market and concludes that what we need to do in response is to cut back the power of capital.

Recently, there’s been hope that demands to reclassify gig workers will be met. In a much-needed and historic victory for the California Federation of Labor, Democratic lawmakers passed AB 5, a bill that correctly classifies many of these workers as employees. For the first time, millions of California workers will receive labor rights. Amazon workers in Minneapolis are going on strike. And in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has called for a ban on zero-hours contracts in the Labour Party manifesto.

In his opening interview, Ricky concludes his extensive verbal résumé with a subtle nod to The Communist Manifesto: “I’ve done it all. I’ve even dug graves.” That role must return. Viewers of Sorry We Missed You should be outraged, and then channel that outrage into organizing. If our resolve is anything close to Loach’s, we can win a world for the many, not the few.