It's a Free World...

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Director: Ken Loach; Late September Channel 4

Angie, having been unjustly sacked from her job in an employment agency, sets up her own. But this is no conventional tale of plucky entrepreneurs building their business through sheer determination to win well-earned prosperity.

While Angie and her partner see their new business as a way out of economic hardship, it soon becomes clear that it will shape them more than they shape it. There has been much in the media about exploitation of migrant workers by gangmasters, but Ken Loach has not opted for the easy option of demonising them as simply "evil".

In wonderful performances Kierston Wareing as Angie and Julliet Ellis as her partner, Rose, show their humanity being challenged by their economic relations with the desperate migrant workers and the ruthless employers to whom they supply them.

The film highlights the complexity of these relationships - migrants who have no legal authority to work are grateful to the agency for the chance to do so, but employers are only keen to have them because their vulnerability makes them compliant. The chances of detection are low, and anyway the worst offences against workers will go unpunished - forced labour is no crime in New Labour's Britain. Unsafe transport, overpriced accommodation, questionable pay slips, unpaid wages and tax fraud are all accurate reflections of the experience of agency workers - particularly migrants, whatever their legal status.

This is not what we are supposed to see. The agency's cheerful rainbow logo, the leaflets, sales patter and Blackberries will be familiar to anyone who has had dealings with "labour providers". Angie wants her family to see that public face, but her father and young son turn up at the hiring yard where they witness the daily scrum around the vans.

Those workers deemed too old or unpresentable are brutally turned away by Angie. "I thought these days was all over..." says her dad bitterly (played by retired docker and TGWU activist Colin Coughlin). Sadly, they are not.

The young women are increasingly caught in the contradictions of trying to rise above their own misery by standing on the shoulders of those below, with grim consequences for them and those around them.

Collective resistance from the workers themselves is not much in evidence. For that you will need to revisit Loach's earlier Bread and Roses. But the main characters' actions and arguments bear out Marx's assertion that people's social existence determines their consciousness, not vice versa. In other words, it's the economic system that is evil, and it taints all it touches.

The low-key style, script and cast do credit to this central theme, but also raise other issues such as the roots of racism and the effect of work on family life. Loach again gives us much to think about.


See also Hsiao-Hung Pai's article on migrant workers in this issue.