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Free Beer at Work: a Perk or a Right?

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As if living through this recession isn’t bad enough, those lucky enough to still have jobs are facing ever diminished returns in exchange for their labors. These days, people are working harder and longer than they have in a long time, while wage growth has more or less stagnated. And don’t even mention perks and benefits: with current unemployment levels, simply having a job is a perk.

The latest group of workers feeling hard done by are the folks at Danish company Carlsberg, one of the biggest producers of beer in Europe. According to the Wall Street Journal, some of the brewer’s workers walked off the job last week, unhappy that the company is attempting to remove one of the most cherished perks of the job: the right to drink the company’s product while they’re at work.

Now, lest we jump to any quick conclusions, here’s a little more background from the WSJ piece: it’s not like we’re talking desk jockeys, or people with back-office functions here. The company culture traditionally allows everyone at the firm—from forklift operators in the warehouse to truck drivers—access to beer during their workday. And that’s in addition to receiving two free cases of Carlsberg to take home every month.

And it’s not like the new rules the company is instigating are taking the right away altogether: as of April 1, workers have been limited to a mere three pints every day.

On the face of it, then, the Carlsberg decision makes sense from every single business perspective: the company is losing less productivity, cutting down on the potential for workplace accidents, and keeping more of its product to sell to actual customers—all desirable things to any business owner.

But however sensible the reasons may be, the story still causes one to reflect on what we lose when corporate culture clashes with the rights of individual workers. Carlsberg employees point out, for example, that they’ve had the right to drink at work for a century, and complain that the company has removed the perk without any negotiation. And, while we’re clearly living in a different age from when the first Carlsberg brewery was founded, there’s still something sad about corporate governance trumping tradition—not least because it represents a breakdown of trust between employer and employee.

Obviously in this case we’re not talking normal perks at an everyday company, but that’s precisely what makes this so interesting: no-one would bat an eyelid at a firm that cut travel costs or free sodas for employees, after all. And it leaves me wondering: which party do your sympathies lay with in this case? And what other perk-related stories do you have to share?

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Written by Phil Stott

April 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm

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