Gig economy is 'extreme exploitation' says British film director Ken Loach

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Workers on zero-hours contracts are victims of “extreme exploitation”, British film director Ken Loach said on Monday, ahead of the release of his new film exploring the human impact of the “gig economy”.

The 83-year-old director said the term concealed abuse of workers by businesses using zero-hours contracts, which do not specify set working hours or guaranteed income.

His latest film “Sorry We Missed You”, released in Britain on November 1, features a couple in the northern English city of Newcastle struggling to make ends meet working as a delivery driver and a carer.

“They have to exploit themselves because they are trapped in this idea they are self-employed, that they are entrepreneurs. They are nothing of the sort, they are workers controlled to within an inch of their lives,” he said.

“Some people call it slavery - I think it is simply extreme exploitation.”

Firms ranging from taxi apps to food and mail delivery services are hiring workers on flexible contracts that allow them to work simultaneously for different companies but provide no guarantee of minimum work hours or pay.

Businesses say the model offers flexibility to both sides, while unions and other critics argue it is exploitative and creates a sub-class of often low-paid and insecure jobs.

“They (employers) lower labor costs by increasing exploitation, by making workers vulnerable, and the new technology added to that means that workers can be controlled,” Loach told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Loach’s film, former construction worker Ricky Turner hopes that working as a one-man franchise for a mail delivery firm will offer a chance to finally gain financial security for himself and his family.

However, he finds himself ground down as he races to meet automated delivery slots that do not allow time for bathroom breaks.

He is hit with fines for missing shifts and other breaches of his contract after having to take time off work due to personal circumstances.

“It is fear that drives people to do this - fear and economic necessity,” said Loach of such contracts.

“Ricky begins by thinking he will be an entrepreneur, in charge of his own destiny. In the end he is trapped, and he acknowledges the trap.”

More than 900,000 people in Britain said their main job was a zero-hours contract in 2017, according to government data published last year that showed a sharp rise over five years.

Contracts like those shown in the film can result in increasingly vulnerable workers being pushed into modern slavery, said Emily Kenway from the British charity Focus on Labour Exploitation.

“The proliferation of zero hours contracts, a trend towards bogus self-employment and the decline of trade unionisation, coupled with a lack of social safety nets, constructs a labor market in which modern slavery can thrive.”

Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit