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After the Covid: to see better, by Ryan Service

creato da Rocco D'Ambrosio ultima modifica 18/05/2020 17:05
Shakespeare, in King Lear, implores us to “see better". Has it got value for the post-virus world?

To see better, by Ryan Service

This article was written while waiting for a parcel to be delivered — and, deliberately so. Instead of merely filling time, I am trying to be conscious of a process that many of us shape but often without reflection. With the wonders of online shopping apps we know where our packages are at any point along their journey. Tracking products gives customers this paid-for omniscience except it might be asked at what human cost because behind these packages are people: the delivery workers who navigate the map etched by our consumer needs. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic there is ever more reliance upon delivery services that bring vital materials to our health services. Domestically, too, food has reached the doors of those who cannot leave their homes at all. For many people, though, the lockdown experience began with a series of panicked orders: from the exercise mat, which remains boxed, to books that stand as good intentions upon the shelf. 

There are too many deaths, too many tears, and too much confusion to make a statement about how Covid-19 is changing our societies. Yet, T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets invites us to be attentive to what is happening such that these words never become our own: “[w]e had the experience but missed the meaning”. There is something to be observed in the way deliveries have adapted to preventative measures. Instructions are explicit that parcels should be left on the doorstep or in a safe place by the driver while maintaining essential social distancing. A dance, of sorts, is orchestrated as the driver advances to leave the package and the recipient stands back before bowing down to pick up the product. There we have it: a transaction of bodies manoeuvring around a product. 

The surprising element —the “meaning” — to be noticed is how the driver has suddenly appeared in the customer service equation. The fact is: they were always there, but rarely acknowledged. At one level, they are unveiled through fear for our health and safety. They are seen because they are another point of human contact, which within a pandemic is perceived as a threat. At another level, though, reduced physical contact and socialisation has rendered them more present, hopefully meaning that their work is valued differently in these times. Perhaps people have begun to thank the driver too as solidarity is finally given a face and a voice. As more features of that face emerge, a narrative develops that asks us to look anew at how our consumer choices impact upon employment.

Ken Loach is arguably the most famous director of films depicting social realism. Far from being a form of Poverty Safari, to quote the title of McGarvey’s book, Loach’s films act as antidote to typical Hollywood scenes that offer escapism: he presents the reality from which we are trying to escape. With the script written by Paul Laverty, a former Gregoriana student, Loach’s 2019 film Sorry We Missed You takes us to the other side of the consumer process that is slowly becoming visible. Presenting the life of Ricky, a delivery worker in a context of zero-hour contracts, our online shopping enters his domestic life. He is married to Abbie, who is also a zero-hour contract worker in her role as carer. Between them they are trying to maintain two children in a dignified existence despite the pressures of unpredictable working hours. 

Zero-hour contracts are treated differently across the EU. Data from the Full Fact organisation reveals how in some countries they are permitted with heavy restrictions and are often described as “on-call” work (Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia). In other countries they are very restricted in use (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Lithuania, Luxembourg). Among Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, Norway, Sweden, and the UK zero-hour contracts are allowed and feature as standard employment practice. They materialised in the context of the gig economy, whereby workers are treated as independent contractors who perform short-term work (hence the term gig) for companies through online platforms such as Deliveroo, Amazon, Uber, and so forth. Putting it into figures from the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS): in 2010 there were 168,000 people aged over 16 on zero-hour contracts. By December 2019 that number increased to 974,000 people and the majority (560,000) are women. While not all are contracted as delivery drivers (15% of December 2019 total), zero-hour contract workers help sustain the British health and social care service (20,3%), as well as the accommodation and food sector (22,9%). 

Sorry We Missed You is fraught with tension directly caused by the work insecurity zero-hour contracts permit. Where working hours are not guaranteed the basics of food and housing become dichotomous. Can we afford food or housing? Where the individual is regarded as a service provider rather than as an employee, people are denied the employment protection that others enjoy: holiday pay and sick pay are not protected. In one way, zero-hour work contracts were a short-term response to changing demand in the consumer market, nevertheless the lack of income stability is a continual threat to livelihood, making family life increasingly difficult. Families trapped withing zero-hour work are denied the possibility of imagining a future because there is no guarantee of work on a weekly basis. Illness becomes a greater fear because illness prevents work. Parenting is carved around work. Couples meet like ships passing at night. Housing becomes a threat rather than comfort since rent agreements require fixed income.

In a brutal scene, Ricky, who has been attacked by local thieves, continues to work because not working would mean no salary. Driving with a broken arm and with one eye dramatises the strain of zero-hour workers, who risk their lives so as to have something resembling sustenance. Ricky’s boss, upon hearing that he has been injured, rather than inquiring about his health reminds Ricky that he must pay for damaged machinery. The very device that authorises our omniscience about our parcels also tracks workers in their tea breaks, toilet stops, and missed deadlines. Our omniscience is someone else’s misery. It is no surprise the machine in the film is called a “gun” for as neutral as a machine is, in the wrong hands it kills humanity. 

Seeing the bigger picture is important because it might be asked whether people ordering online are aware of the plight of delivery workers. There is clearly conflict between the demand of management and the demand of workers, in turn relating to consumer demand. Family life and personal health are regarded as disruptive of work. In a moving scene in which Ricky brings his daughter on his delivery round, complaints are received by management and he is asked never to bring his child to work again. It is a tragic scene because finally the bridge between precarious work and family life seems to be crossed: they sit eating sandwiches at the back of the van. The true tragedy, however, is that such a scene could be perceived to be a bridge at all. Sharing a delivery round with your daughter is not dignified as family time: it has replaced family time. 

Describing his film during an interview for the British Film Institute Loach makes a pertinent observation: “[i]t’s saying, look, this is how we live. But also the drama of people’s lives is very intense. People who are really struggling to survive, the issues they deal with, the choices they have, are very complex. It’s a question of survival; questions of ‘Where am I going to live? What happens if we get in debt? What happens if we’re evicted?’ These are major issues that people have to deal with. And they’re much closer to the bone than middle-class choices. The richer you are, the more insulated you are from these huge questions”. As Loach’s Sorry We Missed You brings us “closer to the bone” in the reality of people’s lives perhaps the social distancing measures that have adapted the way items are delivered will enable us to ‘put flesh’ onto those bones: to see the person behind the tracking device. A certain William Shakespeare got it right in 1606 through his play King Lear where he implores us to “see better” (Act 1, Scene 1, line 166). May we continue to “see better” because in doing so we restore the humanity of others and, in turn, our own.  

[Ryan Service, priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, completing the Licence in Catholic Social Teaching and Public Ethics at PUG]



Eliot, T. S. 1943. Four Quartets


McGarvey, Darren. 2018. Poverty Safari. Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass.      London: Picador

McKinney, Conor James. 2016. “Zero hours contracts: is the UK ‘the odd one out’?” Full Fact Charitable Organisation. 26 July. 


ONS. 2020. “EMP17: People in employment on zero hours contracts.” Dataset. 


Shakespeare, William. 2011 (1606). King Lear. London: Methuen Drama.

Thomas, Lou. 2019. “Ken Loach on Sorry We Missed You: ‘I want to be part of the world, not somehow locked away’”. British Film Institute. 8 November. (https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/ken-loach-interview-sorry-we-missed-you).

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