The Gig is Up


On to the next gig.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Al Aloudi, Annette Rivero, Nick Srnicek, Ying Lu, Rui Ma, Derek Thompson, Leila Ouadad, Jason Edwards, Mary L. Gray, Mitchell Amewieye, Prayag Narula, Jerome Pimot, Sidiki, Wu Guoyong, Ali. Directed by Shannon Walsh

 

The nature of employment is changing. More and more adults are being employed through the so-called gig economy, working for such tech giants as Uber, Deliveroo and TaskRabbit. They are by-products of convenience and technology, as we rely more and more on our smart phones to provide us with products and services. Whenever you order a burger on Uber Eats, you are employing a gig worker to pick up and deliver the food to your door. When you summon somebody to put together your Ikea desk on TaskRabbit, you’re hiring a gig worker. When you call Lyft to get a ride to the airport, you’re being driven by a gig worker.

While some take these jobs out of necessity – perhaps they are undocumented workers like Algerian Ali in France, or maybe they are unable to secure traditional employment like Floridian Jason Edwards, a convicted felon with a mouth full of gold teeth, both of which are essential job offer killers – many take these jobs voluntarily, seeing these jobs as a means of escaping the tyranny of the cubicle. You set your own hours, and can make much more in tips than you would make at a traditional wage. Hearing promises like that, people tend to jump at the chance, particularly those in the more vulnerable echelons of society. You don’t need an education or social standing to get these jobs; you don’t need a great resume to acquire them. In that sense, the gig economy is truly egalitarian; in theory, it pays you on results.

But as entrepreneur Prayag Narula eloquently puts it, we’re trading the tyranny of a boss for the tyranny of an algorithm and that is much, much worse. The reality of gig work, as Canadian documentarian Shannon Walsh shows in her timely film, is that you are lured by the promise of good pay and employment autonomy but find yourself trapped as your wages are determined by your employer, who charges the consumer less than the work costs. The difference is made up by the gig worker, who must pay for their own fuel and maintenance out of their own pockets. The employer always – always – gets paid, whether through fees or in the case of food delivery, by upcharging the amount of food ordered by the customer compared to what the restaurant charges and pocketing the difference. The driver sees none of that; they exist on tips, and many customers choose not to tip them.

They also exist on ratings. One bad rating from a customer can severely impact their employment; a complaint from a customer can be devastating. Also, gig workers are tracked by numbers besides ratings; how long it takes them to deliver, how many deliveries they accept. If those numbers are below the curve, the worker is “deactivated,” tech-speak for fired.

Also, because these employees are classified as “independent contractors,” they are often not paid wages or salaries, and of course get no benefits whatsoever, including sick time. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, and an on-the-job injury isn’t covered; the worker must pay their medical expenses on their own. We see further heartlessness when Leila Ouadad tries to get her employer to pay back wages to a fellow food deliverer in France who has been severely injured when riding his bicycle with someone’s dinner and being hit by a truck.

The movie also examines ghost workers, those online workers who do the kind of support that requires human eyes, like cleaning up data, transcribing audio and taking surveys. The largest provider of ghost jobs is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (or M-Turk) with over 500,000 registered workers (including Edwards). Many of these jobs pay pennies and are performed by people in Third World countries, who are paid not in cash (only workers in the United States and India get cash) but in Amazon gift cards, a reminder of a time when coal workers were paid in company scrip which was accepted only at company stores.

The movie is eye-opening. While some of the workers profiled, like Jason Edwards, are pretty clear-eyed and even have a sense of humor about their situation (some of the film’s sweeter moments occur when Edwards’ mother interrupts the interviews, much to the annoyance of her son), many seem caught in the grip of despair and exhaustion. Narula warns that if we don’t take action soon, these employers are going to make the Middle Ages look like paradise. While some gig workers, like the activist Al Aloudi, a San Francisco Uber driver, are beginning to fight back, many gig workers feel dehumanized, reduced to replaceable numbers in a vast, uncaring machine.

If this is progress, I don’t think the term is being properly used. This is more like regress. The one issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t hold Big Tech’s feet to the fire; we like to think of Big Tech as progressive and benevolent, but they are showing themselves to be the new Robber Barons. Everyone who uses an app for some kind of delivery service should be required to watch this.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely and necessary film. Explores the pros and cons of gig work. Shows the global impact of gig work.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit too polite.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The median income for people using Mechanical Turk is $2 per hour.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Hell Hath No Fury

Sorry We Missed You


It’s a grim prognosis for the working class.

(2019) Drama (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberKris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Julian Irons, Sheila Dunkerley, Maxie Peters, Christopher John Slater, Heather Wood, Alberto Dumba, Natalia Stonebanks, Jordan Collard, Dave Turner, Stephen Clegg, Darren Jones, Nikki Marshall. Directed by Ken Loach

 

It has likely never been harder to be a working man now than since the Middle Ages. Making ends meet is nearly impossible; wages have dropped sharply while the cost of living continues to rise. Jobs are not plentiful, certainly not of the kind that pay well enough to live decently. Cutting corners has become a way of life as people traverse the gig economy with tentative steps, knowing that they are much like people walking in a minefield with steel-toed boots.

Ricky Turner (Hitchen) has just lost his job in the construction industry and frankly, he’s sick and tired of working jobs that can be taken away from him at a moment’s notice. He wants to be his own boss and make a wage that will allow his family to have the things they need. However, jobs are particularly scarce in Newcastle, where he and his sweet wife Abbie (Honeywood) live with their teenage son Sebastian, or “Seb” as they call him (Stone) and their brilliant tween daughter Liza Jae (Proctor).

One of Ricky’s mates links him up with PBF, a parcel delivery service who is run by the bullet-headed bulldog-like Maloney (Brewster) who runs his business like a drill sergeant. In the parlance of PBF, they don’t hire employees, they onboard independent drivers. Drivers must supply their own vans, or rent one from the company at an exorbitant rate. However, if Ricky works hard and delivers his parcels on time, he will be making more than he ever did in construction, maybe enough so after two years they can save enough to put a down payment on a house, the dream of many renters.

isn’t quite so enthusiastic. In order to buy a van, they’ll have to sell the car that she uses to get to her job which is as an in-home caregiver to the elderly. She goes to their homes, cooks their meals, bathes them and tucks them into bed. She’s ideally suited for the job, but her clients are all over the map and getting to her appointments on time required a car. Taking the bus will cause her to be late more often. However, in the interest of family harmony, she gives in.

At first, things are sunshine and roses. Ricky does well on his route and becomes Maloney’s fair-haired boy, but there are some troubling signs. For one thing, the constant murderous pace of delivering parcels means drivers never get breaks and must learn to pee in a bottle rather than stopping anywhere for a bathroom break. For another, missing delivery windows and deadlines can lead to a system of demerits, which cost the drivers fines which put them in debt to PBF, forcing them to work more.

To make matters worse, Seb is indulging in some hooligan-ish behavior, skipping school, spray-painting graffiti along the roadsides and eventually getting into more serious trouble, forcing his parents to miss work in order to attend meetings with school headmasters and eventually police officers. Ricky is often so exhausted that he can barely see straight when he drives his van and taking the bus has forced Abbie to work longer hours as well. And despite the promise of better pay, the family is barely holding their heads above water as it is – it will take only the slightest of bumps to drown the lot of them.

Loach is one of the finest English directors of the past four decades and when I say that this is one of his best ever, keep in mind that he has films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake on his filmography. Like many of his films, this is a taut, no-frills productions – there’s no score, and few special effects. The brisk pace keeps the story moving and whereas lesser directors might get bogged down in subplots, Loach and his longtime collaborator writer Paul Laverty keep their focus throughout.

It doesn’t hurt that he gets fantastic performances from the entire cast, some of whom are non-professionals and Hitchen and Honeywood exhibit some marvelous chemistry and screen presence. The dynamic for the entire Turner family feels organic and realistic; this could be the family living in the flat (or apartment) three doors down from yours, Ricky the guy down at the pub (or bar) rooting for his favorite team (in Ricky’s case, Manchester United).

The accents are very thick here, as they are in that part of England and so subtitles are necessary; some of the phrases may not be familiar to American audiences, so it might be frustrating to those who aren’t familiar with English idioms. Still, this is a marvelous film that is a triumph for the 83-year-old director who shows no signs of slowing down. This is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing the working class, so much so that it may cut a little too close to home for some. Even so, it should be required viewing for economics and business students who should see what the human toll of the current profits-at-any-cost mindset of business worldwide really is.

REASONS TO SEE: A grim portrayal of the working class circa 2019. The family dynamic feels very realistic. Hitchen and Honeywood do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: The heavily-accented English requires subtitles and some of the idioms used may be difficult to follow for the layman.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The license plate number for Ricky’s van is AK65 JFX.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: DriverX
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band