Who doesn’t dream of being your own boss? It’s the modern dream of control over our time and choices, and today’s gig economy hasn’t been slow to capitalise on it. From Uber drivers to Amazon delivery workers, gig work reels us in with the shining promise of flexibility and freedom to ‘hustle’. But how much freedom can working-class folks really have, without the traditional safety net of workers’ rights? In Ken Loach’s scathing social drama Sorry We Missed You, the glitzy shell of gig work is peeled back to reveal an engine of merciless profit, driven by overworked, underpaid cogs.

“You don’t get hired here; you come onboard,” explains delivery-depot boss Maloney. “You don’t drive for us; you perform services. There’s no employment contract.” Faster than you can say ‘bullshit’, this slick doublespeak lures in ex-construction worker Ricky Turner (played by an exhausted-looking Kris Hitchen). Signing on as a ‘self-employed’ owner – aka delivery driver – he has to sell his wife’s car to raise cash for his own van. Hoping to earn enough for the deposit on a family home, he embarks on a hamster wheel of 14-hour shifts, scurrying to hit deadlines so tight that he must piss in a bottle to save time.

“There’s no wages, but fees. No clocking on – you become available. Master of your own destiny, Ricky… it’s your choice.”

Everything is your ‘choice’ in this clockwork system – family emergencies and personal illness included. Cutting work early to bail out his shoplifting son is Ricky’s choice, for which he deserves a £100 fine. Going to work with one eye swollen shut to avoid more fines is Ricky’s choice – after all, it’s not his not-boss’ job to keep him from sinking into debt. Loach’s film is a brutal exposé of how the gig economy, for all its utopian fluff about ‘self-employment’, brings together the worst of both worlds: the tyranny of being micromanaged, and the lack of basic rights like medical leave and health insurance that marks freelance work.

On the surface, his wife Abbie’s job could not be more different. As a healthcare worker, Abbie (played by sweet-voiced Debbie Honeywood) makes the rounds of elderly patients at home. She tucks them in; soothes their anxieties; swaps children’s photos with them like old friends. Hers is the tender realm of emotional labour – yet it, too, is in the grip of the same toxic logic that underpins Ricky’s delivery-floor grind.

Just as Ricky is paid per delivery, Abbie is paid only by the too-short visit. Struggling to be humane under her hellish quotas, she spends countless (unpaid) lunch hours and (equally unpaid) overtime with her patients while, ironically, neglecting her own children. It’s a job that systematically pulls at the heartstrings, and we can only watch helplessly as she and her family, on cue, begin to unravel.

In our brave new world of insecure work – startups, gig work, so-called ‘self-employment’ – there’s a shocking amount of exploitation that we’ve cheerily accepted in the spirit of hustling. It takes a brilliant class critic like Loach – a veteran director of grim social realist films from Kes to I, Daniel Blake – to show us just how much we’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid.

Like most of Loach’s startling films, Sorry We Missed You will make you want to take to the streets in protest. At the same time, it has the mesmerizing despair of someone driving blindly towards disaster – one of those nightmares where you’re in the driver’s seat, the brakes don’t work, and you’re speeding straight towards economic crash. Strap in for the ride.

Sorry We Missed You is screening from 19 March to early April 2020 at The Projector, #05-00 Golden Mile Tower, 6001 Beach Road, Singapore 199589. The film is also available for purchase on Amazon

All photos courtesy of Joss Barratt