The Navigators (2001)

 “Unfortunately, the days of a job for life are gone.”

In The Navigators, director Ken Loach explores the collapse and privatization of British Rail through the personal lives of a handful of workers.It’s Britain in 1995, and the workers at a British Rail station in South Yorkshire are informed that British Rail is dead and gone, and that they now work for East Midlands Infrastructure. A manager tells the men that work is no longer guaranteed, but instead the company must compete to “win contracts.” Apparently, “just doing the job is not good enough.” Some of the workers decide to take a lump sum severance pay and retire. Other workers decide to stay on imagining that sticking with the new company will guarantee security. Most of the men have spent their entire working lives employed by British Rail, and they can’t imagine doing anything else. Plus the fact that there’s a different name on the sign doesn’t really mean that much to them. As far as they are concerned, life goes on as usual.

navigators1Unfortunately over time, the men who remain with the new company learn that things have indeed changed, and the good old days are long gone. Some of the men, fed up with the new management changes at East Midland (which is promptly bought out heralding yet another change of ownership) work as independent contractors for the new rail system companies. At first, the wages sound good, but the men learn that they no longer have 40 hours a week guaranteed. Instead they are called in for piecework when and if they are needed. There’s no more pension, no more holiday pay, no more sick pay. Those lucrative-sounding wages shrink quickly when measured against the steady employment of the past.


The workers learn that shrinking wages are not the only thing they face. Competing for contracts whittles manpower down to hazardous work conditions, and woe betide the worker who tries to speak out. Ken Loach’s characters just aren’t types here. We see how the privatization of British Rail alters the lives of the families who depended on those jobs. Comfortable lives shrink down to hand-to-mouth existences as families struggle to make their bills. And ultimately workers are reduced to the lowest common denominator–demeaning work where they are underpaid units of production. One of the best scenes in the film takes place when former British Rail employees share a job site with a couple of inexperienced men who’ve driven all the way from London to make a day’s wage. This is a sobering reality for the former British Rail workers as they are brought face-to-face with the shrinkage of their value as experienced workers.



 The British railway system was nationalized in 1948, but privatized in stages during the years 1994-1997. This privatization occurred during the conservative government of John Majors, and it was just a continuation of Thatcher’s privatization of publicly owned utilities. And lest you imagine that privatization of the rail system stopped government subsidies (i.e. the privatized system is more efficient, blah blah) think again. Before privatization, subsidies to British Rail were around 1 billion pounds a year. After privatization, it was thought that 1.8 billion pounds a year would cover it (with this amount to decline 2-3 million pounds a year). In 2006, the total subsidy to the private companies that now run the former British Rail reached 6.3 BILLION POUNDS. Will the Royal Mail be next?



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Filed under British, Ken Loach, Political/social films

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