In the week before Christmas, employees in the Packer empire receive a hamper. It is a substantial basket containing turkey, ham, wine and other Christmas goodies.
The origin of the Christmas hamper heralds back to the time when Sir Frank Packer was at the helm of the company. According to Packer legend - and these are legion - employees of Consolidated Press which included at that time The Daily Telegraph newspaper would receive a Christmas cash bonus. Some wives were unhappy about this arrangement because their husbands would spend the Christmas bonus in the nearest pub. They complained to Sir Frank and the food hamper replaced the cash bonus. The hamper tradition has been carried on by Kerry Packer and now by his son James. The hamper anecdote offers an interesting spin on the over-hyped issue of employee entitlements on several levels. The tradition of the Christmas bonus whether in the form of a hamper or cash is not in the strictest sense an employee entitlement such as pay in lieu of notice or redundancy pay. It is also different to accrued benefits such as long service leave.
Yet, the underlying assumption by government, by unions and by parts of the community is that an employer owes a duty of care to his employee far beyond the concept of a "fair day's pay for a fair day's work". A mind-boggling array of employee benefits and entitlements are prevalent in industries such as resources and construction. What purpose do they serve? We have reached a stage in Australia, especially in the so-called old economy industries, that has taken the concept of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work into the stratosphere. It is also a practice that is paternalistically demeaning for all workers and is based on the 19th century assumption that workers are too stupid or too irresponsible to take care of themselves. The result is that we have introduced a complex set of arrangements on both an employer and government level to protect Australian workers not only from themselves but also from their employers, the weather, bad food during lunch breaks, downturns in the economy, loss of market share, takeovers and privatisation of government businesses such as Telstra.
The latest paternalistic effort that the government wants to introduce is the so-called safety net for employees who stand to lose their entitlements if a company goes broke. The safety net does not extend to shareholders who lose their money or to suppliers who do not get paid. Paternalism only goes so far. However, can you imagine the uproar, if for instance a billion-dollar hedge fund manager or broking company in Australia goes broke and the fund managers or stock brokers who were earning millions in bonuses turn to the government's safety net and ask the taxpayers to fund their lost bonuses and entitlements. Why should the workers of billion dollar industries be treated any differently than the assembly workers at National Textiles. If the principle of a safety net is viable then it should apply across the board. We live in the 21st century. Work practices and conditions as they applied 100 years ago are no longer relevant. A worker earning $25,000 dollars a year (the average wage) in a high-tech company who is also paid in share options does not worry about employee entitlements. His only concern is to ensure that the enterprise prospers. He is prepared to take risks.
Individual workplace agreements, contract labour and employee share ownership and options are replacing historical workplace arrangements and entitlements. An additional arrangement should be the situation where the payment of employee entitlements are at the head of the queue when company assets are sold.
The Packer Christmas hamper is a quaint tradition from another time when workplace arrangements were far different. Packer company employees these days are given share options or the ability to buy shares in the enterprise.
It is time this was acknowledged by government and that paternalistic measures such as employee safety nets are a residue from the old economy not the new. There are other far more sensible ways to ensure that employees receive what is owed to them than by imposing an extra burden on taxpayers.
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