Capturing Precarity

The demise of secure work and the rise of 'precarity' is a theme of the modern world - and now, it's finding its way onto the big screen.

In Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, work no longer guarantees a secure existence. ‘You may have a job, even two, and still not have enough to feed yourself and your family,’ says Loach, whose recent film shows the impact precarious work has on family life. Abby Turner is a care worker on a zero-hour contact, responsible for elderly patients, many with dementia. Her husband Ricky works as a parcel delivery driver, with no holiday or sick pay, and no union to advocate for anything better. She’s paid only for the visits she does but not for travel time; he’s trapped in the legal limbo of being a self-employed owner-driver and bound to the ‘gun’ – the scanner whose beeps plot his delivery schedule and push him to work a 14-hour day, six days a week. Unsurprisingly, they fall into debt, and their ability to support their teenage children Seb and Liza Jane vanishes with the hours they spend working. The insecurity throws up problems they don’t have the resources to solve, and Abby’s despair is palpable: ‘We’re drowning in quicksand.’  

Two things help to explain why work no longer pays. With trade barriers disappearing after the collapse of communism, capital can fly across the globe while laws that protect workers cannot, and the entry of an estimated two billion new workers from China (and other emerging economies) into the global labour market has pushed wages downwards. These trends were captured in two films by filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. Their 2009 documentary The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, interviews workers driving in and out of work as the plant, based in Moraine, Ohio, prepares to close. People voice disappointment at losing a job for life; they speak of the factory floor camaraderie; but regret is also mixed with pragmatism. ‘All this is getting ready to come to an end,’ says Louis, a body shop worker. ‘We had a long run.’

The run continues however, because in American Factory (2019) Bognar and Reichert capture the plant as it boomerangs back to life. Chinese firm Fuyao Glass, under their billionaire owner Cho Tak Wong, open a factory on the same site. We see the razzmatazz of the factory opening, the machines coming in, and the ramp up towards production – but the new working conditions tell a less positive story. Fuyao pay a starting wage of around 12 dollars an hour while a full-time wage at GM wage paid 29 dollars an hour. The union is also locked out of the plant, and there’s constant pressure on the workers as the US factory fails to turn a profit. 

At one point Fuyao’s American management travel to China. Sheets of glass fly through the workers’ hands like quicksilver, and the production targets they hit there impress the visitors. They also witness the bizarre military-style drills at the start of each shift (‘Good! We are Good!’) and meet workers who speak of 12-hour days and a lack of time off. Yet Chinese and American bosses unite in their disdain for U.S. rank and file staff. Supervisor Curt is talking to his Asian counterpart. They complain how American workers talk and joke around at work. ‘The best thing we can use is duct tape,’ Curt says. ‘Put it over their mouths. They will perform better.’ 

Still, we should be careful not to blame globalisation for everything, because the folly of keeping wages low was long predicted in the UK. What wasn’t predicted was an explosion in unpaid work, a subject David Hyde knows something about. Co-directed with Nathalie Berger, their film Call Me Intern (2019) opens with David asleep in a tent, bathing in a lake, and getting ready for work. He puts on a suit, ties his shoes, and makes coffee – while in the background we hear his phone conversations with employers, who give him details of the internships he’s applying for (‘Yes of course, you get to do real work’).

I ask David about the tent he lived in while working an unpaid internship at the U.N. ‘It is a clear visual paradox,’ he says. ‘You have someone who’s supposed to be a professional working for the most important organisation in the world, but they’re living in a tent because there’s no funding, no salary, nothing. That was the core idea and we ran with it.’ The film explores unpaid internships and the double bind young people face. Needing experience to land a job, they move through the one gate open to them – unpaid internships – but these provide neither good experience nor advance their careers. ‘One day they might have to work a crazy amount for something their boss really needs and then the next day they might sit around folding stuff,’ he tells me. ‘You’re forced to burn super-bright and go the extra mile to make it clear to your boss that you want the job at the end’. But at the end of that road, a door slams in their face. 

This is what happened to Marisa, an intern on Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign. Seeking a permanent position with Obama For America (OFA) she found herself on the end of racist comments, and alleges that her supervisors sexually harassed her – a crime from which, shockingly, as an intern she had no protection under NY state law. Another intern in the film, Kyle, lands a once-in-a-lifetime internship with Warner Music, yet after a chain of events that leave him homeless his supervisor fires him on the spot. All the interns struggle to understand the position an unpaid job has put them in. Lord Chris Holmes, also interviewed in the film, says that for many young people an unpaid internship is something shameful, and that it ‘simply crushes character’.

What are the psychological effects of a system which relegates people to subservient roles in society? Burning (2018) by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong lights up the paths down which precarity might be leading us. Wearing a pink miniskirt and dancing to Korean pop, Hae-mi is working as a promotional model enticing customers into a store (‘gifts just for visiting’) when she bumps into drifter Jong-su. He doesn’t recognise her at first though they come from the same town. She’s had plastic surgery and studies pantomime for fun. Later they meet for a drink. He watches as she mimes peeling a tangerine (‘Look. I can eat tangerines whenever I want’).

 They sleep together, and he agrees to look after her cat when she goes on holiday to Africa. She returns, accompanied by the Gatsby-like Ben, who drives a Porsche, lives in a luxury flat, and does whatever he likes – while his occupation remains a mystery. ‘I play,’ he says enigmatically. The three of them meet at Jong-su’s family home in Paju, close enough to the North Korean border they can hear the pro-regime radio broadcasts in the distance. They smoke a joint. Hae-mi dances half-naked as the sun goes down, then starts to cry. They put her to bed, and as the two men sit together Ben shares his guilty pleasure. He goes into the countryside, picks a greenhouse, and burns it. ‘It’s like they’re all waiting for me to burn them down,’ he says. ‘And as I watch them burn to the ground, I feel great joy.’ Adapted from ‘Barn Burning’, a Haruki Murakami short story, the characters seem out of touch with themselves and everyone else; adrift from their families and from social structures; groping for an explanation or a way out.

The hunger for a better life is both a driver of precarity and an effect. Outsourcing, wage-cutting and similar policies are now imposed in sectors previously outside the market, like education. In Search of Professor Precarious, a documentary film due out in spring 2020, makes visible the threads binding precarious staff to institutions in Canada, loose ties that can be cut as and when required. ‘I had to pass the hat round the department for the teacher I shared an office with,’ Gerry Potter, the film’s director, tells me. ‘He was broke. Let go at 75 with no work pension, no healthcare, and no proper ID to quality for welfare.’ At some of Canada’s universities up to 70% of staff are precarious, suffering low pay, poor working conditions, and invisibility within a system that milks them for their time, labour, and enthusiasm year on year.  

Universities were once convivial places to work; now they’re punitive. ‘The public doesn’t have a clue that the people who are teaching their children are struggling,’ Gerry says. Many teachers sign a bad contract hoping they’ll get a permanent position in the end; often they have loans to pay back and young families to support. Yet that secure teaching job never comes, and a precarious work situation means many refuse to join a union or take action that might threaten the little they have. Administrative hoops like student evaluations compound the problem. ‘There are institutions where if you get below a 4 or a 5 they won’t rehire you. Basically you need higher marks than your students!’ Gerry tells me. He describes how corporatised higher education in Canada – essentially a system of large-scale poverty creation – swallows people and spits them out when they’re used up. ‘I interviewed a philosophy professor who needed to supplement his income. He applied to work as a dishwasher, but they said he was overqualified.’ Marx wrote: ‘The Roman slave was held by chains; the wage-labourer is bound to his owner by invisible threads.’ These films make visible the threads binding the precarious to the plutocrats. The next step is to make manifest the decent working conditions of a humane society.