“They call it ‘flexible labour’,” says veteran left wing film director Ken Loach. “What that means is its good for the employers but not good for the people who work. And I think this shift from stable employment to casual labour has not been explored significantly yet.”
His new film, It’s A Free World, starts to fill this gap. It was written by his long term collaborator Paul Laverty and will be screened on Channel 4 on Monday 24 September.
Laverty’s script has already scooped one major award, taking the prize for best screenplay at the Venice Film festival last weekend.
I asked Ken why he decided to make a movie about migrant labour in Britain today.
“Paul Laverty and I wanted to make a film about immigrant workers for some time,” he said.
“Paul has been interested in the subject ever since spending time in Los Angeles with Central American workers while writing the script for our earlier film Bread and Roses.
“Both of us were also following closely what was happening here with the arrival of new workers from eastern Europe.
“What interested me was how the experience of workers has changed. We’ve gone from the security of a job that would often last a lifetime to casual labour, agency work and short-term contracts.”
Angie, a woman who sets up an “employment agency” for immigrant workers, is the film’s main protagonist. I asked Ken why he chose to do this.
“We wanted to make a film from the point of view of the exploiter rather the exploited,” said Ken Loach. “Which would have just been too predictable. We wanted to look into the process of exploitation from the employer’s point of view, to try to understand that mentality.
“Angie is working class. She’s 30 years old, she’s been ripped off for ten years of her working life, going from one job to another and on short-term contracts and so on.
“She’s afraid of ending up like her parents – in comparative poverty in a council flat.
“She’s on the make. But we wanted her to be sympathetic initially – someone who takes the audience on the journey of her being a victim to her becoming the exploiter.
“We tried to show that there has been a shift of consciousness among a lot of people – and you can trace this back to the Thatcher years.
“We wanted a protagonist who would express this new consciousness – everything is a deal, everything is to be negotiated, you’re on your own, you look after yourself, and you have no responsibilities to the rest of the world.
“As Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘There is no such thing as society’.
“We tried to contrast this with the ideas of Angie’s father, who is obviously from an earlier generation, with his values of solidarity and looking after your co-workers.
“Angie has absorbed the ‘business ideology’ – she’s ruthless in pursuing her interests. She follows all the business dictums – get the labour as cheaply as possible and undercut the opposition.
“Gradually she sees that she can make more money by moving from ‘bad practice’ to downright illegality.”
I asked Ken how he’d researched the movie.
“We talked to a lot of people from different backgrounds. Paul went to the north of Scotland and to Aberdeen, Manchester, London and the West Country.
“We could have made a movie just about the horror stories people were telling us – the accidents, the lack of safety.
“One woman died of a haemorrhage after working continuous shifts at a factory. People get killed by unsafe machinery.
“There are endless stories about people working and not getting paid.Somebody had worked all week and made 21p because of all the bogus fees his agency deducted. Some people did a week’s work for £10 or got taken in cars and dumped in the middle of nowhere.
“But we thought the best film to make would be one where you saw the logic of what the exploiters do. It isn’t arbitrary and they aren’t necessarily bad people. It’s the logic of business.”
In Bread and Roses, Loach’s film about janitors in the US, workers began to organise and fight back. I asked him what he thought were the possibilities of that happening here.
“There are signs of immigrants getting organised, but it’s very frail at the moment,” he said.
“We did hear a story about young Ethiopian students in the north of Scotland downing tools when they discovered they were being ripped off.
“But they were in a less vulnerable position than many other workers who send money back home to their families.
“In the original script we did have a scene where some of the workers went on strike. But when we shot it, we felt that it had become redundant in the context of the film. It wasn’t dramatically necessary – but it is included on the DVD.
“I think the efforts of the unions to organise migrant workers are quite valiant in some areas. But I do think the union leadership has to be much more dynamic.
“It’s one thing to persuade immigrants to join a union – but then they have to see that the union is doing something. Otherwise, why should they join?
“The problem is that even when a union decides to take action it is often too late – because of the anti-union laws. So a lot of immigrants will already have moved on, and will be off the agency’s books. The unions need to act immediately to have any impact.
“I think there also needs to be a campaign by the wider public to repeal the anti-trade union laws. Gordon Brown doesn’t want this – he wants weak unions.
“But I also think the unions need to go back and say, ‘To hell with our big offices – we need to organise on the ground, at a grassroots level.’
“Their priority should be organising workers, not looking after the union’s bureaucracy.
“Exploitation and low wages are not peripheral features of this society – they are central to it.
“Many immigrant workers aren’t registered, they don’t receive benefits when they are sick or out of work.
“But their cheap labour is at the heart of the economy – it makes a nonsense of the minimum wage legislation. Cheap labour gives us cheap clothes, food and so on.
“Brown says he has to control inflation. If people were paid the minimum wage, the cost of food and clothes would go up and he would lose the battle against inflation.
“So the government has to make sure the minimum wage exists in name only – it has to subvert its own legislation. There’s a great hypocrisy right at the heart of the New Labour government.”
It’s A Free World will be screened on Channel 4 at 9pm on 24 September. The Ken Loach DVD Collection Volumes 1 and 2 are out now from Sixteen Films (£54.99 each)