(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

If one thing is clear from Australia’s mainstream media over the last five days, never get between them and a pot of money — in this case, money stolen from the big tech companies under the guise of “content theft”.

If the media was misleading audiences beforehand about the news bargaining code scam, Facebook’s calling of Australia’s bluff and removing all the content that media companies insisted was being “stolen” last week unleashed a holy war against the social media giant, led by sanctimonious journalists, froth-mouthed academics, raging media executives and furious government ministers.

Unusually, this was one culture war that united left and right, with progressive economists and commentators competing with Coalition apologists at News Corp to see who could denounce Mark Zuckerberg more strongly.

Meantime in the Fair Work Commission, the pursuit by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) of Deliveroo for the unfair sacking of rider Diego Franco last year is winding its way to a close. The case will finish in the wake of a major ruling last week by the United Kingdom Supreme Court that Uber drivers are employees.

It was a bad week for the gig economy in Europe: Dutch courts last Tuesday also ruled that Deliveroo riders are employees. Both the UK and Dutch cases are long-running ones — the British drivers first took legal action in 2016.

A panicked Uber settled a South Australian case in December when judges mocked its claim that it was simply a marketplace connecting consumers with suppliers. The TWU began that case, involving driver Amita Gupta, in September 2019.

While big media companies can draft legislation for a compliant government to impose on tech companies in a blatant demonstration of sovereign risk, and then run a shameless and lie-filled propaganda campaign for it, trade unions here and elsewhere have to undertake the hard slog of litigation over years to try to establish some basic rights for gig economy workers — in particular, an end to the fiction that they’re rugged individualist independent contractors enjoying cherished “flexibility”, rather than employees.

Not merely has the media paid rather less attention to this long march for workers’ rights through the courts than its own battle with tech giants, but the government has displayed no interest in any regulatory intervention of the kind that News Corp and Nine have on tap. “It is clear that the evolution of the gig economy presents significant opportunities for flexibility and innovation for Australia,” opined Industrial Relations Minister Christian “Public Bar” Porter last year in response to a Victorian government inquiry.

Porter responded to Labor’s recent proposal to provide casuals and contractors with moveable leave entitlements with an absurd claim — credulously reported by many journalists — that it would inflict a $20 billion impost.

The gig economy — and a business model like Uber’s where there is constant downward pressure on workers’ incomes to curb the company’s massive losses — have been an important part of the story of wage stagnation in Australia and other countries over the last decade. In 2018, the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane argued that “the dark side of job flexibility is increased income uncertainty and job insecurity”. He noted that the share of the UK’s workforce that was “self-employed, doing agency work or on temporary or zero-hours contracts” had risen in recent years.

Job insecurity reduces workers’ pay power and weakens upward pressure on pay. Empirical evidence is consistent with that. Even after controlling for different occupations and locations, self-employment has been found to result in a wage discount for workers of around 15%. Temporary contract workers face a wage discount of around 5-6% and agency workers of around 2.5%.  Zero-hours contract workers suffer a wage discount of around 7%.

In flowing through to what Haldane calls “income insecurity” as well as lower wages, the impact of the gig economy, as well as greater casualisation and short-term contracts, has very real implications not just for the lives of workers and their dependents but for lower economic growth and consumption. That is, it has far more direct impacts on people than the transfer of income from dinosaur media companies to tech platforms with more effective advertising models.

Workers, however, don’t have News Corp, Nine, and hundreds of febrile journalists to lobby for governments to do anything about it.