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Restaurateur and judge of the hugely popular television programme MasterChef Australia, George Calombaris (pictured above right), has been found guilty of underpaying staff on a massive scale at his Melbourne restaurants by AU$7.8 million (US$5.5 million).
The disgraced celebrity chef was found guilty of underpaying 515 employees and ordered to reimburse staff for the full amount as well as paying a fine of AU$200,000, Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman ruled on 18 July.
The issue first came to light in 2015, when the Fair Work Ombudsman alerted Calombaris’ Made Establishment Group to a problem with its payroll system – which had resulted in the mispayment of one staff member.
This proved to be the tip of the iceberg, as subsequently, many payment discrepancies were identified, revealing that many more staff had been underpaid, estimated at the time at AU$2.6 million.
In a personal statement at the time, Calombaris said he was “devastated” by the turn of events, adding that correcting the underpayment was of the “highest priority”.
However, the magnitude of the full extent of the underpayment that came to light last week has been met with condemnation. Hospitality unions have called for Calombaris to be fired as judge on MasterChef Australia.
“We are truly shocked at the full extent of wage theft at Made Establishment. For the seriousness of this crime, a $200,000 fine is not sufficient,” said United Voice union national secretary Jo-anne Schofield in The Guardian.
“If someone deliberately took a thousand dollars out of someone else’s bank account, there would be a high likelihood of a criminal conviction for theft. But when you’re a multimillionaire restaurateur/celebrity chef you can take $7.83 million in wages from your workers and get away with a ‘contrition payment’.
“And he gets to keep his TV show, huge profile and mansion and keep raking in cash off the back of hardworking chefs, wait staff and bartenders. And all the while he’s also been campaigning to slash the penalty (overtime/weekend) rates for all hospitality workers.”
Calombaris is not the first restaurateur to get into hot water over the treatment of staff.
Another celebrity chef, Neil Perry, is also being sued for allegedly underpaying a chef who reportedly worked 20-hour shifts at his Rockpool Bar & Grill restaurant, also in Melbourne. The chef also claimed he slept on a pastry bench between shifts.
Josh Bornstein, a lawyer for Maurice Blackburn, says Rockpool has committed several serious breaches of the Fair Work Act.
“This is another Dickensian example of wage theft and exploitation of vulnerable workers that is all too common in the hospitality industry. Rockpool is no bit player. It’s a highly profitable business empire which has been cheating,” he said.
Image: Network Ten