It feels like the only thing coming out of the Australian restaurant industry at the moment is report after report about the underpayment of workers. The problem appears endemic to the entire industry, but the stories we particularly love to hear about involve the celebrity chefs; the guys who dominate our screens while also failing to adhere to basic Fair Work laws behind the scenes.
Some of Australia's most prominent restaurateurs have taken to the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald today to propose an "amnesty" on staff underpayment – acknowledging they likely aren't in total compliance with the law, but suggesting the legal framework is too complex for them to completely play it by the book.
“Making any hospitality company 100 per cent compliant is hard because there are so many different awards,” Sydney chef and restaurateur Matt Moran told the SMH. “We are compliant but it takes a lot of resources. The whole thing should be simpler.”
Whether or not you accept that reasoning – and it's pretty hard to swallow – you can certainly appreciate why the country's top chefs might be sweating. After all, it isn't just George Calombaris who has invoked the wrath of Fair Work for failing to pay his workers properly: it's an industry-wide problem.
To that end, let's take a trip down memory lane to see which top chefs have copped a slap for underpaying the workers in their restaurants.
For better or worse, MasterChef top dog George Calombaris has become the face of wage theft in Australia.
In July, Calombaris apologised for underpaying staff of his restaurants – managed under the company name Made – to the tune of $7.8 million.
He blamed a lack of sophistication in his business processes for letting the multimillion dollar problem spiral out of control.
“There was no CEO, there was no people culture manager, there was no elite finance team like we’ve got now, that can make sure that mistake that we made will never happen again,” he told the ABC's 7.30 program.
But despite the contrition on display, George's company’s actual penalty was pretty measly. On top of paying back the $7.8 million, it was only forced to front up a measly $200,000 make-good fine.
The ritzy Rockpool empire, operating across Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and fronted by celebrity chef Neil Perry, paid staff back $1.6 million after a Nine newspaper investigation revealed systemic underpayment.
As with many similar cases in the hospitality industry, it turned out plenty of staff were working "excessive" overtime hours for no additional pay.
Rockpool Dining Group CEO Thomas Pash denied the allegations when they first emerged, describing them as “spurious" and "inaccurate" – but changed his tune once the Fair Work Ombudsman became involved.
In July, Rockpool was hit by a lawsuit from a former chef, in a case which could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and damages.
After the Nine newspaper investigation, which exposed the problems at his restaurants, Perry argued his business would now be one of the only ones in the country actually complying with the award rate.
"We have made a few changes to better reflect the award," he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. "It's always hard in restaurants, but I believe we would be one of very few, if any, that are complying with it currently.'
British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, most famous for operating Michelin-starred UK restaurant The Fat Duck, has a local eatery in Melbourne, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Like the others on the list, that restaurant has seen its share of wage theft allegations.
A 2018 investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age found head chefs at Blumenthal's Melbourne restaurant were being underpaid by up to $30,000 per year – again largely due to unpaid overtime. According to the investigation, the hours worked by chefs at Dinner by Heston meant they were essentially being paid $15 to $17 per hour.
The case is still under investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman.
French-born chef Guillaume Brahimi was also stung last year for underpaying stuff – and you guessed it: it's unpaid overtime. Sensing a theme?
Another investigation by the Nine newspapers based on leaked rosters and payslips found that Guillame's restaurants across the country were paying staff an effective rate of as little as $17.50 per hour thanks to long overtime shifts for no extra money.
This meant, as the SMH and The Age reported, that "up to 20 to 30 hours a week" for some employees was not paid at all.
"This matter comes as a surprise to us and we have not received any complaints from our team," the company said in a statement following inquiries from the Nine newspapers.
"As a business, we care for and respect all our employees. It has never been our intention at Bistro Guillaume to not remunerate our team appropriately."
Pastry wizard Adriano Zumbo – who you probably haven't heard from in a while – was actually in some ways a canary in the coal mine for the current wage theft conversation.
Back in 2017, five staff members across Zumbo's multiple Australian pastry shops went public on A Current Affair to accuse Zumbo of underpayment. It may or may not shock you to learn the underpayment came in the form of... yes, you guessed it: unpaid overtime.
At the time, Zumbo blamed a new overtime system for the discrepancies in staff payments. “As a result, a number of discrepancies were identified in the calculation, approval and payment of overtime to a limited number of staff,” he said.
It certainly seems there has been an absolute rash of payment system discrepancies over the past few years. Interesting.
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