Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You: when care and the gig economy collide

Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You is a contemporary family drama that excels through its evocation of working life in neoliberal capitalism. Loach’s previous film, I, Daniel Blake (IDB), has earned symbolic status as an account of the punitive conditionality within what remains of our austerity-ravaged UK social security system.  Like IDB, Sorry We Missed You (SWMY) is set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and tells the story of a white, working class, nuclear family in the city.

The spheres of family and work overlap and intersect in multiple ways, and SWMY prompts questions of hierarchies that prioritise paid work – especially work done by men – over other forms.  The damaging effects of a ‘work-first’ policy mantra, political economy and media narrative, combined with the stubbornly slow-to-shift gender expectations of men as primary breadwinners, are evident in SWMY.  The effects include the ongoing devaluation of care work in its paid and unpaid forms.  Although IDB offers a more overt condemnation of austerity, SWMY’s less obvious criticisms of the state retain the previous film’s urgency and anger.

Ricky and the gig economy

The film follows forty-something Ricky as he embarks on a job as a delivery driver ‘with’ a private parcel delivery firm, and features numerous scenes set around his wife Abby’s (of a similar age) employment as a domiciliary care worker.  Ricky is an ‘independent contractor’ who gets work and is paid only when he performs particular gigs (in his case parcel deliveries).  His work is shaped by digital technology that can enable consumers and ‘employers’ to track workers’ locations.  The film has rightly been praised for its insights into this so-called ‘gig economy’.  Yet although the conditions and consequences of Abby and Ricky’s paid work share numerous similarities, the response to the film has primarily focused on the gig economy of Ricky’s masculinised, non-care work.

Ricky’s job exemplifies the inhumanity of surveillance capitalism and forms a veritable checklist of the grave empirical realities of profit- and target-driven employment that is relentless, cold-hearted and inimical to worker wellbeing.  The risks and liabilities of the work are shouldered by Ricky as he becomes a consumer in his own workplace.  He is a lone worker in literal and metaphorical terms: the support of employers and the state has been shorn away.  Left to fend for himself – “master of your own destiny” as Maloney the depot supervisor puts it – Ricky is the archetypal individualised subject of our supposedly meritocratic society.  His recourse to occupational welfare appears non-existent: if he misses work through injury or ill health he gets a fine rather than sick pay (in a fashion reminiscent of the benefit sanctioning in IDB).  Ricky and his fellow disposable workers are pitted against each other in an environment that fosters competition and discourages solidarity.

The film is especially timely in its rendering of surveillance technology use in the workplace.  The use of GPS to track delivery workers’ location leads to degradations, and acts as a rebuff to simplistic notions of technology as an overwhelmingly progressive force.  In this sense, SWMY provides a stark warning of the tyranny of technology as a means of controlling workers.  Whilst the overall picture SWMY paints of the gig economy is credible, it deserves particular praise for its well-researched insights into the pernicious effects of this relatively new form of control.

Privatisation and outsourcing – staples of the neoliberal era – play a huge role in shaping the paid work environments of Abby and Ricky.  They both lack recourse to the occupational welfare that postal workers or employees of state-delivered care services have had in the recent past.  Research and writing by Lydia Hayes argues that the privatisation of care work devastates working class communities, yet the corrosion of working class life is culturally and intellectually narrated as a product of the deindustrialisation of heavy industry and a feature of male experience.  Her research is scathing towards the gender inequalities resulting from domiciliary care work (whose workforce is 84% female), and those along class lines.

Abby’s paid domiciliary care work

Paid care work is overwhelmingly the preserve of working-class women, and it is clear from SWMY that Abby’s income level partly explains the continuing material difficulties faced by her family.  They struggle to pay their rent having missed out on a mortgage at the time of the 2008 crisis, which was also when Ricky’s stable work in construction dried up (the film also indicts the epic failures of recent UK housing policy).  They are unable to call on the financial support of family common to those further up the class hierarchy, and their increasing desperation is surely heightened by an awareness of crumbling state support for those on low incomes.   When Abby discovers that her teenage son Seb has sold his winter jacket, it is apparent that this is a family with limited means.  While it is important to recognise that some of the negatives of the gig economy and precarious work are being felt across the social structure, it is undoubtedly true that those in its higher echelons are able to insulate themselves to a far greater extent.

SWMY’s portrayal of paid domiciliary care work is nuanced and great credit must go to Loach and his team for this.  Although it is never made clear exactly what Abby earns, adult social care work is consistently among the lowest paid of all sectors.  Unlike the NHS, social care in the UK is means-tested, and the state holds key legislative powers to shape who receives what care.  The majority of care is state-funded, and the state has a defining influence on working conditions, including the extent of regulation.  Adult social care has been one of the principle casualties of austerity through cuts to local government funding, and this is an example of the less immediately obvious ways in which SWMY continues IDB’s critique of austerity.

Abby works long hours and often gets home late in the evening.  The reasons for this are not spelled out in the film. However, there are hints, and what is known about care work can aid understanding.  Adult social care (including domiciliary care) faces a serious labour shortage with current figures estimating a shortfall of 122,000 staff.  This increases the pressure on existing staff to put in more hours to fill those gaps and lessen the knock-on effects of lack of cover.  Abby is hourly paid, therefore the more she works the more she earns.  Due to the likelihood that her hourly rate will be close to the legal minimum it makes financial sense for her to work many hours to try to help her family maintain a decent standard of living.  Furthermore, it is clear Abby’s employment does not offer much in the way of occupational welfare, so working longer hours also serves as a way of attempting to make up for this.

Very low pay and lack of occupational welfare are hallmarks of domiciliary care work in the UK (and adult social care work more generally), yet this lack of value belies the complexity of the work that SWMY so vividly captures.  Despite the myriad problems with the conditions, Abby’s experience of care work foregrounds some of the sources of satisfaction commonly felt by those engaged in it.  The UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is currently running a recruitment campaign in an attempt to address the labour shortage.  The scenes from SWMY are not too dissimilar to those from the recruitment campaign, and both highlight the variety and rewards of care work.  However, what the DHSC campaign does not include is reference to the working conditions in the sector, whereas SWMY shows how these negatives impact upon finances and family life.  These aspects undoubtedly contribute to the sector’s staffing woes, which require greater, more sustained action alongside the recruitment campaign.

The temporal dimensions of care

In addition to the long hours, Abby faces other time pressures in her paid care work.  Domiciliary care visits are commissioned temporally, so workers support cared-for people for 15- or 30-minute time periods, for example.  Hayes, in another searing analysis, draws on the work of E.P. Thompson to show the incompatibility of these time slots with “nature’s time”.  Again, SWMY illustrates this through Abby’s phone remonstrations with her supervisor who criticises her lateness following this situation:

“She was half-naked…covered in faeces…smeared all over the walls…it was in her clothes, her bed, the bathroom, inside the front door…it was in her hair, under her fingernails…she was screaming and crying for over half an hour…she was slapping me as I tried to clean the poor soul and for your information I got covered in it too…she is terrified of her own daughter who never turns the heating on…and she was freezing!”[i]

As well as what sociologists would term the dirty work and body work of care, and the violence of it, Abby has the added time pressures (compounded by her supervisor’s lack of understanding or action).  During the conversation, Abby points out that she has repeatedly told her supervisor of her concerns about the insufficiency of the woman’s care, but this has not been addressed appropriately.  This is an example of inadequate care provision, and these gaps in provision have mounted during austerity.  Returning to the point about time and money, it is highly unlikely that Abby will be paid for the time on the phone to her supervisor, and her over-running will lead to more unpaid time between and after care visits.  Although not as extreme as the GPS tracking of Ricky, during some, if not all, visits Abby clocks on and off using a landline phone and this once more grants control to her employers to monitor and potentially alter her work schedule and pay.

The unpredictability of care leads to Abby struggling to stay on time with her visits and means she does not know when she will get home at night.  This time pressure compromises care quality, and this is evident in the words of Robert whom Abby assists with personal care:

“Thank you Abby…you never rush me like the others…I always pray it’s you…you’re a gem…”[ii]

Research shows frequent instances of domiciliary care workers being paid below the legal minimum due to the narrow, unrealistic confines of contracted time.  In the short term it is difficult for Abby to maintain control over her own work and non-work time, and SWMY demonstrates how the distinction between the two is often blurred.  In addition to Abby using the time between care episodes to speak to the people she works with, it is taken up making care arrangements with her own children.  Hayes theorises the legal and social treatment of care workers as inferior labour market participants as “institutional humiliation”.  Autonomy and a degree of control over time use in the context of paid work is without doubt a source of privilege for employees in the contemporary moment.

This blurring of work and non-work time is vividly realised in the relationship Abby has with Mollie, an elderly, physically disabled woman.  One of the rare occasions that Abby, Ricky and their children are able to spend time together – over a Saturday night takeaway – is interrupted by Abby receiving a call from Mollie.  Mollie has returned home and there is no care arranged to help her from her wheelchair to bed, and so Abby decides to go to her aid during her free time and in the knowledge she will not get paid for doing so.  Abby clearly cares for Mollie and the other people she supports, and this scene also shows how Abby is warding off the guilt commonly felt by care workers when they are unable to meet needs of those they support.  Although the emotional elements of care can at times be over-emphasised, and there are dangers in essentialising the work around it, the emotional capital that Abby has built up in her paid and unpaid care helps her to do it so well.  However, as Clare Stacey remarks, in the context of paid care work, “it is important to remember that this capital carries little advantage in terms of monetary compensation or social validation”.  As Ricky and Seb bemoan the unfairness of it all, Abby says: “I can’t leave her…I won’t sleep”.  Abby then gets upset about being taken away from her own family: “I don’t want to spoil the fun” and apologises to them repeatedly.  In the end, the whole family decide to go in the van together and it turns into a bit of an adventure; however, the scene shines a spotlight on the strain Abby is under.

Although more commonly associated with unpaid care work, SWMY’s nuance extends to its depiction of interdependence within the context of social care services.  When problems at home and work are piling up for Abby, she is soothed by the attentions of Rosie gently brushing her hair.  There is much in the way of reciprocation between Abby and Mollie too, as the older woman listens and takes a genuine interest in Abby’s life.  The tone and pacing of these scenes is exceptional, and their intricate and intimate details well-realised.

These scenes showcase the relational aspects of care, but the time pressures often squeeze out such opportunities for domiciliary care workers with packed schedules.  Yet these are foremost sources of satisfaction for workers, and highly valued by cared-for people who often have limited other support or social contact.  One of my recurring thoughts whilst watching the film was that acts of kindness are punished rather than valued or encouraged in the world of both paid jobs.

In both work contexts, the neoliberal era has ushered in privatisation of services and marketisation.  A new culture of scarcity, particularly evident in social care, prevails.  The nature of the delivery sector is to some extent – alongside the privatisation – driven by consumer demand.  I wonder, however, how much competition really matters to consumers in this case?  Surely consumers would be happy to rely on a single service provider to deliver goods if it meant better conditions for workers?  Is it really necessary for goods to be delivered at all times of day – or in one-hour windows like Ricky’s – and within other such strict timeframes (especially considering the impact this can have on workers)?

Privatisation and austerity have reshaped adult social care, but the personalisation of services driven by disabled people is wholly necessary, and the existence of a workforce to offer round-the-clock, person-centred care vital.  In SWMY, Abby cares for Ben, a young physically disabled man, who gets understandably annoyed that his time to get up is dictated by Abby’s schedule rather than his wants.  One morning Abby agrees to come back later to assist him in getting up, but once more she has to do so during her break which will lead to more unpaid work.  Although not borne out in this example, the care sector’s staffing problems extend to having difficulties getting workers to fill shifts during antisocial hours.  This is in part due to the sector’s continuing over-reliance on women with additional unpaid caring responsibilities: it is women who still perform the vast majority of this work in the domestic sphere.  There is an urgent need to attract younger staff and men to paid care work, and for men to contribute a more equal share of unpaid care.

Abby and Ricky’s paid work meets family life

Although the film does not give an extensive insight into this, it is clear that both Abby and Ricky play their part in caring for their children.  However, the combined pressures of their paid jobs dramatically reduce the time available for it.  This paid-work-before-all scenario marginalises the caring work that goes on in families.  Moreover, paid care work’s devaluation is in part due to its connotations of unpaid care, which is relegated as a form of work due to the lack of status conferred on it in an economic-centric polity.  The structure of these jobs does not contain the provision and space to support young families like Abby and Ricky’s, and the current incarnation of the welfare state is sorely lacking in this regard.  This contributes hugely towards gender inequality, as not only do women continue to perform the majority of unpaid care (and domestic work) within households with heterosexual couples, but women are in the majority when it comes to single parenthood.

On the subject of single parenthood, the possibility of a family split becomes strong as the film progresses and the pressures of work and family life interact and accumulate.  The expectations that Ricky feels – in part gendered – contribute to the worsening situation.  Both Ricky and Abby are in exhausting work with long hours that confer neither adequate material rewards nor status.  However, it is Ricky who feels the need to “take up the slack” as he puts it: his work takes priority over Abby’s ‘supplementary’ paid care work.  This can be seen through the sale of their car when Abby uses it for her work, and in the way that Ricky justifies being late for a school meeting about Seb as if he is the only one with a demanding job.  These gendered expectations around breadwinning and paid work constrain men. Whilst absolutely not excusing or trivialising the symbolic violence Ricky experiences at work, and the physical violence meted out to him towards the film’s end (there are severe harms here), his own violent response – taken out on customers and his children (and his recklessness at the end of the film endangers Abby too) – of course requires condemnation of its own.

The contrast of Ricky and Abby’s reactions to their paid work and family situation brings to mind the recent work of Lili Loofbourow:

“It’s not that men’s pain isn’t real; it’s that our culture vastly overestimates it…Of course men believe they suffer more, and many women – having spent their lives accustomed to men’s feelings mattering more than everyone else’s – will agree with them.  Most of us have been socialized to sympathise with men, the troubled geniuses, the heroes and antiheroes.  They’re the protagonists…If men on that journey experience a setback, their plight scans as injustice….Their suffering must, therefore, be more acute.”

With regards to gender, the social order stubbornly retains a hold that certain men feel they have to live up to, and when they fail to, it creates extra burden for them.  Yet, society needs to move on, and men need to play their part. This means resisting this narrative, and crucially improving their response to injustice. This is not a call for greater ‘resilience’, but for men to show more awareness of the relative nature of their experience.

In conclusion

Loach, his scriptwriter Paul Laverty, his producer Rebecca O’Brien and the rest of their cast and crew deserve immense credit for this realistic portrait of working-class life and work.  Far more needs to be done to improve the working conditions within the gig economy, and the work-rewards pendulum that has swung too far in the direction of capital, businesses and management needs to be rebalanced towards ordinary workers.  Addressing the inadequate funding and structural limitations within adult social care is long overdue, and an approach that prioritises the views of disabled people and care workers (and acts upon them) is essential.  State policy to protect the rights of workers should make the time, space and resources for unpaid care central to that agenda, and not merely an add-on to an economic-centric polity.

Duncan U Fisher is a PhD student at Teesside University.  His research is about young adults’ experiences of work in adult social care in Teesside, north-east England

Image credit: Still from Sorry We Missed You

[i] This quote is reproduced exactly as in the screenplay for Sorry We Missed You. Laverty, P. 2019. Sorry We Missed You. Pontefract: Route, p.83.

[ii] Laverty, P. 2019. Sorry We Missed You. Pontefract: Route, p.40.