Film director Ken Loach builds a strong case against the human cost of the gig-economy in his latest movie Sorry we missed you. It is also a thoroughly political film, about things we regard as ordinary, not seeing what is just in front of our eyes. It shows the essential vulnerability of human experience. The political nature of care ethics is paramount.
In the film we follow unemployed construction worker Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), who lost his job in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008, and so the chance of buying his dream family home with a mortgage. He now rents a house (‘money thrown away’) with his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) and their two children, teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) and eleven year old daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor). His friends advise him to accept a zero-hours contract as a delivery driver, ending gobbled up by the service economy on the empty promise of becoming a free independent individual.
Master of your own destiny
Firm Manager Maloney (Ross Brewster) spells out the rules of the new reality in Ricky’s life, called gig-economy, in a familiar double speak. “Let’s get a few things straight to start off: You don’t get hired here, you come on board. We like to call it on-boarding. You don’t work for us, you work with us. You don’t drive for us, you perform services. There is not a contract, there is no performance targets, you meet delivery standards. There is no wages, there are fees. No clockin’ on, you become available. You sign up with us, you become an ornate driver-franchisee. Master of your own destiny, Ricky, separating the losers from the warriors. Like everything around here, it is your choice.”
As Ricky has already internalised these free market beliefs from childhood, for sure he has never been on the dole: “No no no I have my pride, I’d rather starve first”. So he really is the ideal hardworking, responsible guy, ‘a trooper’ as Maloney calls him, perfectly suited for the job. He does not take matters lightly. He’s determined to make this ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ into a success. He just has to convince Abby, who also works on a zero-hours contract as a contract nurse and in-home carer, to sell her car. Ricky needs money to afford the deposit to buy his own van. To rent the van on a daily basis from the delivery company would be too costly. So Ricky pushes ahead, never mind if they are already up to their ears in debt, or if buying the van means Abby will have to travel to her clients by bus, making longer and more unpaid traveling hours.
Economy of promise
Care-ethicist Brunella Casalini (2019) states: “Another consequence of the neoliberal vision of the individual is that he or she operates in an ‘economy of promise,’ in which the future seems to be the only temporal dimension that receives full attention. This means that one is called on to invest in oneself, or to invest in those one cares for, in view of some possible reward or achievement not attainable now but which can be expected in the future. This expectation of future rewards generates a ‘cruel optimism’: as Lauren Berlant explains, ‘optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving’ (Berlant 2011).”
The end just has to justify the means; in Ricky’s mind the shiny new van becomes the symbol of all that will get them out of their situation of debts and loans in the future. A few heavy months in the delivery service will set them free. Never mind the additional amount of money Ricky has to lend to be able to pay for the van.
Paying attention to the gender aspect here, the male view is hegemonic. Abby’s work might be just as important as Ricky’s, ‘boys’ pride and toys’ are prioritized over her reality. As the film goes on, Ricky speaks up the loudest, yet in the background it is Abby who in between visits is holding the family ties together, constantly on the phone instructing the children what to do and reconciling interests. The film shows what is important, yet at the same time emphasizes that which is repressed from public representation.
The rules of the delivery company put most of the risks and liabilities with the contractor himself. If a contractor cannot drive on any particular day for whatever reason, he has to secure a replacement driver or he will get fined. A whole system of fines and ‘sanctions’ (a term borrowed from the official jargon dealing with unemployed workers) is put in place to control the behaviour of the franchisees.
Also an expensive tracer, a control device Maloney lovingly calls ‘the gun’, collects every bit of information on Ricky’s whereabouts to be able to trace the location of the parcels. It comes with a deposit to be paid in advance by the delivery worker. Building up huge debts right from the start, the viewer can already sense the downside of the promising ‘entrepreneurial self’ will mean big trouble for Ricky.
‘Get this cardboard off the concrete’
To keep the customer happy, means keeping the control device happy, and this is the only thing that matters in the delivery universe. “This device determines who lives and who dies”, claims Maloney. A speedy and timely delivery of what is called precises is of the utmost importance. Customers pay for these special parcels to be delivered within an exact time slot of one hour, and these ‘sacred’ timeslots have to be strictly observed by the contractors. No timely delivery, no pay. No time for sanitary stops, you can always pee in a bottle as you go along. No time to waste, to look for an approved parking space. A parking fine will of course be the driver’s responsibility. And parcels have to be delivered, ‘no ifs, no buts’, there can be no returns, even if the customer is not at home.
So Ricky starts his first working day, dealing with all these obstacles in the life of a delivery man to the best of his abilities, and he succeeds in getting the job done. He is promised, that as his performance and so his results improve, a ‘better’ route with ‘better’ earnings will be granted him, meaning a more difficult route with more precises.
One day another driver is unable to work because a mirror of his van has broken off, so he can’t drive it and he is unable to secure a replacement driver. The worker loudly contests the fine he is given and is sent away on the spot. His route is assigned to Ricky, as the workers are pitted one against the other. “You either shut up and do as you’re told, or there will be plenty more where you came from.”
Answering to a black box
Ricky has to put up with the humiliation of constantly being monitored and having to answer for every minute to a technical device, as the market insists on comparison, evaluation and quantification. Brunella Casalini (2019) remarks “Neoliberalism operates not through guaranteeing security but through deliberately fostering insecurity to produce individuals who must demonstrate risk-taking ability”.
Speed and access to goods determine the revenues for the delivery market. Human presence can only impede the growth of profits and therefore ultimately humans have to be eliminated from the process for the sake of capital gain. Or they have to be made to comply with the system by disciplining them through measures of control. “Neoliberal governance has made of caring for the self a pervasive order of individualized biopolitical morality” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017: 9).
This ‘achievement’ from Late Modernity, called ‘the entrepreneurial self’ forces the workers into a fierce competition against one another, preventing them from getting organised to impose better working conditions with employers, as once was the role of the unions. Institutions that once secured the rights of workers become increasingly shattered in this new reality. This race to the bottom leaves mainly low or unskilled workers at the mercy of market tides, leading to precarity in every aspect of their lives, be it family life, health, income, housing situation. Consequently, income inequality has widely increased. A new precarious class emerges. Paraphrasing Rosi Braidotti: “The search for low-wage labour creates people as a surplus, to be trafficked, their bodies being treated as mere labouring commodities”.
Ken Loach also depicts this in the grim reality of Abby’s working day. She sees her clients becoming more and more neglected as care work is financially stripped bare, leaving her no time to respond to their needs except in her own time, because of an underpaid, stifling workload. A disabled client tells Abby he doesn’t want to get out of bed “just to sit on a chair and stare at the four walls all day long”.
To the bottom
Even if both Ricky and Abby are working, yet together they still don’t earn enough to make ends meet, to pay for the rent and loans. So they work even more and longer hours, leaving the latchkey children pretty much to fend for themselves. Their son Seb reacts to these affectively barren and toxic circumstances by skipping school, loathing the example of his grappling father and creatively protesting to societal circumstances by spraying graffity on city walls at night. Daughter Liza Jane starts ‘parenting’ her own parents, troubled by the serious problems the family faces and feeling personally responsible for solving them.
Finally, when beyond Ricky’s control, different events come together and things spiral out of hand, the carefully balanced house of cards collapses.
Ken Loach vividly portrays the fierce competition and the utter powerlessness of the atomized workers in the gig-economy, where the ones who for whatever reason cannot comply with the system demands, will simply be spit out. Whether for being disabled or being too old, any reason that impedes financial gain seems to do.
Ridden with shame and guilt, many individuals struggle on a daily base to make something of their life in this reality with little chance of ever escaping their circumstances, as this system changes political matters into personal issues. Precarity is always present.
As Brunella Casalini (2019) phrases it: “Precarity is considered here a condition, involving not only work but more generally the condition of living with insecurity, uncertainty and possible exploitation as well as social suffering that affects most of the population. Precarity may also be considered as ‘a regime, a hegemonic mode of being governed and governing ourselves’ (Butler 2012: viii). It is not only an economic condition, but ‘it is structural in many senses and permeates the affective environment too’ (Berlant 2011: 192).”
‘Life out of whack’
Ricky and Abby struggle to hold on to some kind of family life, even if only in a ritualized form. There is no time to cook or eat meals together. The children are instructed by phone to put the pizza in the oven, in the morning they eat a bowl of cereals on the way out. An evening together with a take-away Indian meal is a one-off festive occasion, as is the day Ricky spends with his daughter on a delivery route. Unfortunately, although he owns his van, the company does not allow him to take anyone with him on routes ‘because it looks bad for the franchise’.
Ultimately, tensions run so high, that family life falls apart. Ricky wonders what is happening to them; ‘life seems totally out of whack’. Precarity describes a structure of daily life where there is a “loss of faith in a fantasy world to which generations have become accustomed” (Berlant, 2012: 166). The ordinary suddenly becomes ephemeral. All this time the reality of ‘bare life’ has simply been overlooked.
Care ethicist Sandra Laugier (2018) points out in her paper Cavell on Feminism and the Ethics of Care: “The goal of ethics of care is the acknowledgment of a whole part of life that is systematically ignored in political discourse and moral philosophy. Care is just what makes ordinary form of life possible.
This becomes more important in situations of disaster and total vulnerability and risk—in contexts of ordinary life in which humans’ needs, interests, and fragilities are completely exposed and threatened […] the value of human life—or the reality of bare life, as Agamben calls it—appears in a new light.”
In her article Livability: Notes on the Work of Judith Butler, Kathryn McNeilly (2016) comments: “Engaging with precariousness as an ineradicable condition of life requires the protection of life in and of itself. It directs attention to the conditions which maintain life, which either enhance or reduce its precariousness in a particular location at a particular time. Judith Butler stresses that ‘there is no life without the conditions of life that sustain life’. […] As Butler states, ‘when we ask what makes a life livable, we are asking about certain normative conditions that must be fulfilled for life to become life’.”
The steep life
The structural overlooking of the importance of the ordinary ultimately leads to a new class of people, for whom Dutch care-ethicist Frans Vosman (2018) coined the term ‘survivors as a cultural class’.
In the West people have only just begun to experience the chilly winds of global neoliberalism, but as I was leaving the cinema I realized that here as well as on the other side of the planet there are millions of people living a life of ‘make-do’ in which they can do little more than living the steep life one step at a time, day by day.
It is the ordinary, sometimes inescapably given steepness of life, that ethics of care should look at, Frans Vosman suggests. Beyond the Romantic notion of ‘resilience’ or humanistic ideals of ‘seeking a meaningful life and self-fullfilment’. Beyond ideals altogether, as they are hollow in the context of a life of mere surviving.
“People are aware of what the unspoken rules are,” says Ken Loach in The Guardian. Otherwise, “the airwaves would be full of outrage at poverty, homelessness, the grotesque inequality, the stupidity of privatisation, the collapse of the NHS ((1)). But they’re not—because of that pressure.”
Where so many in our society today exist at the limits of recognizability, it is as if Ken Loach by his film title means to apologise to all whose life is ‘out of whack’, in saying “Sorry we missed you” as their ordinary realities are overlooked. This film is a good place to start seeing.
((1)) National Health Service in the UK.
Agamben, Giorgio (2000) Means without End—Notes on Politics. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Berlant, Lauren (2011) Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, Durham.
Berlant, Lauren; Butler, Judith (2012) ‘Precarity Talk: A Virtual Roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejić, Isabell Lorey, Jasbir Puar and Ana Vujanović’, TDR: The Drama Review 56(4): 163–177.
Braidotti, Rosi; Hlavajova, Maria (2018) Posthuman Glossary. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York (146).
Butler, Judith (2004) Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. Verso, London.
Butler, Judith (2004) Undoing Gender. Routledge, New York. (39).
Butler, Judith (2009) Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Verso, London (19).
Casalini, Brunella (2018) Care of the Self and Subjectivity in Precarious Neoliberal Societies, ethicsofcare.org
Chakrabortty, Aditya (2019) ‘Ken Loach: “The airwaves should be full of outrage”’, in The Guardian, 10 Oct. 2019.
Laugier, Sandra (2018) Conversations 6, ‘Cavell on Feminism and Ethics of Care’, Academia.edu
McNeilly, Kathryn (2016) Livability: Notes on the Work of Judith Butler, criticallegalthinking.com
Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria (2017) Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Vosman, Frans (2018) Surviving as a form of life, summary by Sabrina Keinemans, ethicsofcare.org