Nov 5th 2019

Ken Loach’s new film on the gig economy tells exactly the same story as our research

by Robert MacDonald

 

Robert MacDonald is Professor of Education and Social Justice, University of Huddersfield

 

Ricky, from Sorry We Missed You. Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films

 

Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”.

 

But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism? After all, UK government ministers have applauded the gig economy and the freedom and flexibility of being an “everyday entrepreneur”.

A new study by myself and employment expert Andreas Giazitzoglu investigates what we know about the gig economy, in order to get a clearer picture of what is really going on in the contemporary world of work in the UK.

Narrowly conceived, the gig economy means workers (as independent contractors) doing discrete, short-term tasks – or “gigs” – for companies via digital platforms such as Deliveroo, Amazon or Uber. As one study describes them, these are “labour contracts that are as temporary as is possible for them to be”.

We argue that it is better to see the gig economy as part of a wider shift towards insecure forms of work. Long-term unemployment is no longer a serious social policy problem, but standard, full time, long-term employment is also much less common.

Our study in illustrated form, by Dr Cheryl Reynolds, University of Huddersfield. Dr Cheryl Reynolds, Author provided

More and more people are churning from “one shit job to another shit job”, as Ricky puts it in Loach’s film, punctuated with periods of unemployment. And as Loach observed (in a Q&A session following a preview), Sorry We Missed You is a sequel to the 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, which explores the degradations of the UK’s benefit system.

These are two sides of the same coin, as research on “the low-pay, no-pay cycle” has shown. Many of these jobs are on zero-hours contracts, which although illegal across much of the EU, have boomed in the UK.


Read more: We showed I, Daniel Blake to people living with the benefits system: here's how they reacted


There were fewer than 200,000 of these contracts in 2007. Ten years later, in 2017, there were over 1.8m.

Employers insist that workers want this “flexibility”. But two-thirds would prefer a fixed-hours contract.

Degraded work conditions

The government celebrates high levels of employment but two-thirds of employment growth since the 2008 financial crash has been in self-employment or other forms of “atypical work”. Much of this self-employment appears to be bogus. Just like in Sorry We Missed You, employers designate workers as “independent contractors” to cut wage costs and employment rights

Investigative journalism has exposed the degraded work conditions of “self-employed” delivery drivers like Ricky: intense pressure to meet delivery schedules, breaking speed limits, snatching meals on the run, urinating into plastic bottles rather than stopping, barely making the national minimum wage.

Even a government inquiry found that “some companies are using self-employed workforces as cheap labour”, damaging workers’ well-being in order to “increase profits”.

If not bogus, then much self-employment is likely to be “forced”, perceived as the only alternative to being unemployed. This was typical of the “young entrepreneurs” I interviewed in the 1980s.

Held up as role models for Margaret Thatcher’s “enterprise culture”, their ambitions were, in fact, much more prosaic. Rather than go on the dole, they used the (recently re-launched) Enterprise Allowance Scheme to set up “micro-businesses” – knitting jumpers, repairing bicycles, freelance photography – keeping going by undercutting other businesses and by gross self-exploitation. Very few succeeded over the long term.

Most plodded along until, exhausted, demoralised and in debt, they closed down their businesses. Low pay is also typical of more recent forced self-employment and has been a key factor in the UK’s shift towards low paid work.

Across the research, we found ten things that were common to workers’ experiences of this new, insecure labour market:

  1. Modest aspirations (people were not looking to get rich quick but wanted regular work and to be able to pay the bills)
  2. Lack of choice
  3. Disempowerment (employers now have “disciplinary discretion” to withhold offers of work to people on zero-hours contracts)
  4. Insecurity of work
  5. Insecurity of income
  6. Low pay
  7. Debt
  8. Exploitation
  9. Self-exploitation
  10. Anxiety

One of the duties of critical social science is to question fashionable ideas. We should be particularly alert when comfortably placed, middle-aged politicians exhort younger people to “take up opportunities” that they themselves would never dream of going near.

Would government ministers be quite so “excited” about the gig economy if they had to surrender their fixed salaries, paid holidays and pension schemes in favour of working a daily schedule so gruelling that toilet stops are impossible and the minimum wage cannot be earned?

All of us – the public who rely on the services of the gig economy just as much as the politicians who proclaim its virtues – need to wake up to the reality that, in this instance, “flexibility” is just another word for exploitation.

Robert MacDonald, Professor of Education and Social Justice, University of Huddersfield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.