Hundreds of Australian steel workers went on strike yesterday in protest at what they called the Scrooge-like decision of their managers to break with a decade-long tradition of handing out Christmas hampers. The 24-hour stoppage involved around 750 employees at a plant run by BHP Steel in Western Port, 65km southeast of Melbourne, which supplies sheet steel to Australia's builders and car manufacturers. Union officials said the Christmas hamper ban came on top of other cost-cutting moves, including the closing of the plant's chaplaincy. 'First they ban God and now they ban Santa,' said Bill Shorten, the national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union. 'I think it is a Scrooge act.' He said the union would like to know how much managers were planning to spend on corporate entertainment over the festive season. For the last 10 years the hampers, each worth A$25 (HK$110), have been given to employees in the run-up to Christmas. Stuffed full of glazed hams, plum puddings, chocolates and nuts, they were eagerly looked forward to by workers and their families. But this year BHP Steel management decided the baskets of goodies were too expensive, despite the fact that the company last month reported a profit forecast of A$400 million after tax. 'We are very disappointed that employees have chosen to walk out over such a trivial issue,' a spokeswoman for BHP Steel said. She said the company had decided to spend its money in other ways, contributing to an employees' Christmas Party last weekend and a family open day in which 1,500 children were sent home with party bags of sweets and toys. In addition the firm had donated A$20,000 to a youth driver safety programme in Victoria, and A$5,000 to a fund which will provide presents for 250 under-privileged children who would otherwise receive nothing on Christmas Day. The company said the walkout, which ends today, would affect productivity and came at a time when two important steel contracts were being negotiated with the car industry. The trigger for the strike came when an employee was reprimanded for using the company e-mail system to inform his colleagues of the decision to scrap the hampers. Managers sent him a written warning for breaching a policy which only allows e-mail to be used for 'legitimate business purposes'. Mr Shorten said the reprimand set a dangerous precedent and might discourage workers from speaking out on important issues in the future. 'If workers aren't encouraged to give bad news it might have tragic consequences,' he said. The dispute follows a 24-day strike at the plant in May and June over an enterprise bargaining agreement, which almost brought the car industry to its knees.