‘Killed By My Debt’ highlights the fatal extremes of the gig economy

How £130 in traffic fines led to the untimely death of Jerome Rogers – in a tragic true story of debt, insecure employment and poverty that shows the high real-life costs of the low-paid gig economy

Two years ago, in the woods near his home in Croydon, Jerome Rogers took his own life. He was just 20 years old and was in debt to a bailiff, owing more than £1,000.

A little over a year earlier, things had looked bright. The teenager had his first job. He had a tight-knit group of friends in his local community. And he was from a supportive family – his mum Tracey, a cleaner working four jobs, was proud of her son for finding employment.

But so many of the elements that make life so precarious for so many people living on the breadline in Britain combined in a thoroughly modern tragedy that led to his untimely death.

Killed By My Debt shows the consequences of the gig economy

The story of Jerome’s descent into debt, as fines from two minor motoring offences spiraled out of control after being handed over to bailiffs, airs on BBC One this week, after initially being on BBC3, alongside a series of programmes and online features around debt on the iPlayer.

It’s a tough watch. But Killed By My Debt should be a wake-up call. Because Jerome’s story highlights the consequences of precarious employment, why the lack of regulation of the bailiffs to whom councils outsource debts matters, and how people living on the edge of poverty are vulnerable to predatory payday lenders.

Killed By My Debt shows the reality of the gig economy – in which zero hours contracts lead to insecure and irregular work and precarious self-employment on low wages, as employers out-source business costs and risk to sole traders who have little choice but to accept harsh conditions.

Jerome Rogers (played in the film by actor Chance Perdomo) was a motorcycle courier for CitySprint. His work was important – he was transporting blood between hospitals, keeping the NHS going, saving lives.

But he had no guaranteed minimum hours, no guarantee of earning a certain amount, had to pay £24 per week to CitySprint for his courier pack (uniform and radio) and cover his own fuel costs. He was not paid for journeys to and from his pick-up and drop-off points and received no sick pay.

According to Citizens Advice, 4.5 million people in the UK are in insecure work, and more than half of zero-hour jobs are filled by people aged 18-34 – with BAME youngsters overrepresented.

Dr Morag Henderson from UCL says: “Even when they have the same GCSEs, the same A-levels, the same education generally, people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to end up in unstable work at the age of 25. So instabilities in the labour market are affecting people disproportionately.”

The film shows how Jerome’s work dried up after he takes an enforced sick leave (without pay, naturally) due to an asthma flare up. It shows how unpredictable his take-home wages were – so when Jerome was fined £65 by Camden Council in April 2015 for straying into a bus lane, he didn’t have the money. Another fine followed two months later.

So not only is Jerome affected by insecure and low-paid work, he is now in debt. Underfunded local councils outsource debt collection services these days – and within six months, Jerome had received a number of letters from bailiffs and the amount he owed had soured to more than £1000. Yet after expenses, his take home pay in November and December was £20 per week.

According to Confessions Of A Bailiff, a film made by BBC Three to accompany Killed By My Debt, 70 per cent of bailiffs are also on zero hour contracts. They are also part of the gig economy, reliant on the money they are able to recoup for the debt collection agencies. Jerome was denied a payment plan.

Money and mental health are inextricably linked

With debts increasing, Jerome’s mental and physical health suffered. His asthma was exacerbated by the stress. The bailiff (played here by Line of Duty actor Craig Parkinson) threatens to seize Jerome’s motorbike, his only source of income, adding to a vicious circle that now consisted of poverty, insecure work, debt and physical and mental health problems.

“Money and mental health are inextricably linked,” according to Paul Spencer from mental health charity Mind. “If you are struggling with your finance or are in debt, you are likely to find that it has a negative effect on your mental health.

“Equally, if you are experiencing a period of mental ill-health, you may find you are more like to struggle to pay your bills. Three times as many adults with a mental health report money problems.”

And, in common with so many young people, Jerome didn’t feel able to ask for help.

His brother Nat says: “As is the case with many young people, and many men who take their own lives, they keep these issues to themselves and you are not aware of it until it is too late.

“Had we known, there is something we could have done to support him mentally and financially. But the fact that he kept it all within himself, the stress and financial worry built up and up.”

Jerome’s story also highlights the way in which debts owed to the council but outsourced to bailiffs are unregulated – and the consequences of this lack of regulation.

“How can a bailiff turn up to your front door demanding £1000 and no one has any influence or control over that situation, but if a bank wants you to repay a £100 loan, the FCA regulate that and make sure they contact you and find out how much you pay out for food and that you can make the repayments?” continues Nat.

“The whole industry of bailiffs going to people’s front doors, demanding thousands and if not they are taking your possessions and there is no one you can turn to in order to stop it – how is that part of our society these days?”

Computer records show that Jerome was frantically trying to get payday loans, while also looking at online discussion forums – where he encountered people in similar positions, sharing their despair and feelings of hopelessness. After another text from the bailiff, Jerome also started researching suicide online.

“If Jerome had approached anybody, things would have turned out very differently,” his brother says. “I hope any young people in a similar financial difficulties watching this film realise that taking your own life isn’t the answer. And it affects a lot more than you, it affects the people around you that love you.”

In March 2016, after a final confrontation with the bailiff, who threatened to report Jerome to the police if he doesn’t let him clamp his motorbike, Jerome leaves his home for the final time.

“There are a lot of young men in the same position Jerome was in,” says his mother, Tracey. “They are trying to work hard and earn an honest wage, but they have been put in a position where they don’t feel there is any way out…”

Killed By My Debt airs on July 18th on BBC1 at 9pm (10.40pm in Wales, 10.45pm in Scotland), and is available on iPlayer here.

Main image: BBC

Jerome Rogers