Obituary: Richard Pratt, the “Cardboard King”

Richard Pratt, one of Australia’s richest men, died from prostate cancer on April 28 aged 74. Pratt was the chairman of one of the world’s largest privately owned packaging, printing and recycling companies, Visy Industries. He was also a past President of the Carlton Football Club.

Even before Pratt’s death the Australian establishment was in mourning about the loss of a “great Australian hero”. While he was on his death bed he was given praise from many quarters including from past and present politicians.

Victorian Premier John Brumby described Pratt as a “great Australian success story” and a “very generous” man. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd thanked Pratt for his service to the country and even former union leader and current Labor Party MP, Bill Shorten, said “Richard Pratt is one of the most respected members of the Australian community.”

Pratt arrived in Australia at an early age and following the death of his father in 1969 took over the family box making business. At the time it had several hundred employees and an annual turnover of $5 million. Since then Visy Industries has expanded to include more than 55 plants employing over 9000 people. Through Visy, Pratt has amassed a fortune estimated at more than $5 billion and earned the nick name of the “Cardboard King”.

Much has been made of Pratt’s philanthropy but while he sat on billions of dollars he was reluctant to pay his workers decent wages. He also often prompted industrial disputes by trying to wind back wages and conditions and sacking union activists. Visy is a renowned anti-union company that even went so far as to threaten workers with legal action for participating in rallies against Howard’s Work Choices legislation.

In the 1990s Pratt was one of the first Australian employers to use helicopters to carry scabs and material across picket lines. While the money he donated to charities was substantial, it was a fraction of what he spent on his anti-union activities which were aimed at increasing his personal wealth and beating his workforce into submission.

Pratt was not only dedicated to increasing the exploitation of his workforce but he was also involved in some very shady business practices which were aimed at ripping off consumers. In the 1990s Visy was ordered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to pay a half million dollar fine for trying to lock competitor, Northern Pacific Paper, out of the market.

Again in 2007 Pratt was in trouble when he was convicted, along with Visy, of colluding with major competitor Amcor to fix the prices of cardboard boxes. It is estimated that this scam netted Visy almost $700 million. The Federal Court fined Pratt and Visy a mere $36 million which was roughly 0.75 per cent of his fortune at the time.

Pratt was accused of giving false or misleading evidence during the case but just prior to his death the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided not to pursue further criminal charges because he was terminally ill and “it was no longer in the public interest”.

Pratt was a man who made the bulk of his fortune off the backs of the Visy workers. Through illegal collusion he forced ordinary consumers to pay exorbitant prices for boxed goods. While Pratt may have been a ‘hero’ to big business bosses and the owners of the capitalist press, he was far from a hero to ordinary people. Workers will remember Pratt as a corporate criminal who escaped jail and an anti-union employer who was only generous with other people’s money.

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