“Sorry We Missed You”: Ken Loach Exposes the Holes in the Gig Economy

Still from “Sorry We Missed You.”

Director Ken Loach has done it again.  “Sorry We Missed You” is a family drama infused with a searing look at life in the “gig economy” with a frayed social safety net. Like his previous film, “I, Daniel Blake,” this movie is about working class people maintaining their dignity and humanity in the face of government austerity, privatization, and corporate greed.

“Sorry We Missed You” was just released in the U.S. through affiliated independent theaters, such as our Boston-area Coolidge Corner.  A portion of the ticket price through virtual screenings support these theaters.

In the context of a pandemic, “Sorry” connects us to the frontline workers delivering packages and caring for the elderly and disabled — workers who are grossly underpaid while being at greatest risk.

Set in Newcastle, UK, the film takes its name from the package delivery slip that Ricky, the father in a family of four, leaves when no one is home to sign for a package.

Like most workers in the U.S. and UK, Ricky and his spouse Abbie are still struggling to get out of debt a decade after the 2008 economic meltdown. Abbie works as a home care nurse, hopping buses between visits to up to eight patients a day. Ricky takes a job as a driver with a package delivery service. Both work hard and with integrity. Abbie says she cares for her patients “how she’d like people to treat her own mother.”

Like workers at Uber, DoorDash, and other similar delivery services, Ricky’s employment status is in the limbo between employee and independent contractor.  Maloney, the boss man who manages the package distribution facility, makes it clear: Ricky isn’t an employee, but a “franchisee,” a self-employed delivery driver. This status requires him to take on all the risks, including purchasing a van, leasing a delivery scanner, and toiling unlimited hours. The scanner serves as the symbol of the surveillance economy that enables the company to monitor Ricky’s every turn. Yet the company also fines him for late deliveries and, when robbers smash Ricky’s delivery scanner, they assess him a £1,000 charge.

Ricky and Abbie attempt to mind their two children, Seb and Lisa Jane, often via phone and text. The children absorb the stresses of their parents, who work 12 to 16 hour days to survive.

Director Loach balances a family story while dramatizing the structural forces that drive the gig economy and pit workers against each other. When one delivery driver struggles with family issues, the boss Maloney offers his route up to other drivers. Breaching the thin whisper of solidarity between the drivers, Ricky takes the other driver’s more lucrative route. Meanwhile, one of Abbie’s nursing patients shares photos and stories from her struggles as a labor union activist, a reminder of the past solidarity that existed among workers. “What happened to the eight-hour day?” she asks.

Maloney celebrates his own tough-guy unwillingness to bend to meet Ricky’s need for an emergency day off, saying the “shareholders of the trucking depot should build a [expletive] statue of me here.”  Maloney also blames the customers, saying to Ricky, “do any of them ask you how you are? They just want their package delivered on time for as cheap as possible.” We have met the enemy, and it is in part the consumer who expects to pay less and get it now, with no understanding of the social costs of convenience.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are more dependent than ever on those who drive the delivery trucks, who bring the packages, who stock the shelves, and attend to those in need.

“Sorry We Missed You” dramatizes why we need a system where all workers have universal health insurance, living wages, and paid family leave. And we need stronger protections against employers who restructure their enterprises to extract more wealth, while shifting costs on to workers and the rest of us.

Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he also co-edits Inequality.org.