Celebrity chef George Calombaris has been issued with an enforceable undertaking from the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) where he must complete seven public speaking engagements to educate the restaurant industry about workplace law compliance.
The FWO investigated Mr Calombaris’s MAdE Establishment Pty Ltd group of companies after a self-disclosure of underpayments at its Press Club, Gazi and Hellenic Republic restaurants in Melbourne.
It was found that between 2011 and 2017, 515 current or former employees were underpaid more than $7.83 million. Nine employees at Jimmy Grants were also found to be underpaid by more than $16,000.
The FWO says that the employees have since been back paid.
A slap on the wrist
In addition to the speaking engagements, MAdE will also have to make a $200,000 ‘contrition payment’ to the Commonwealth Government’s Consolidated Revenue Fund.
While Sandra Parker of the FWO has said that “MAdE’s massive back-payment bill should serve as a warning to all employers that if they don’t get workplace compliance right from the beginning” because “they can spend years cleaning up the mess”, others have been outraged by what they see as a small penalty.
Oahn Tran, the lawyer who had represented MAdE employees told ABC Radio Melbourne that the $200,000 was a “piddling percentage” out of the $7.8 million Calombaris had taken from his workers over the time he employed them.
“It can potentially become a cost of doing business, you can say ‘how long can I get away with it and what am I going to be hit with, potentially just a slap on the wrist’,” Ms Tran said.
President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Michele O’Neil, believes Mr Calombaris is a criminal.
“If anyone stole $7.8 million and got caught they would expect to spend a long time in prison, but when you’re an employer and you steal from your workers all you have to do is pay it back. This needs to change,” Ms O’Neil said.
“Wage theft is systemic across entire industries. We need harsher penalties, directors to be held responsible for their actions and rights for unions to access workplaces and ensure that workers are being paid correctly.
“This isn’t an isolated indecent or an oversight by a handful of employers, this is a business model for the retail and hospitality sectors and we need to change the law to change behaviour.”
Workers aren’t happy either
Orlaith Belfrage, who worked at a Hellenic Republic restaurant up until 2014 says she is still owed $2,000.
“I’ve been fighting to get back pay from my time working for Hellenic Republic for over 2 years. I sent emails, made phone calls and sought legal advice. Still MAdE Establishment, George Calombaris’ company, refused to pay me for all of my work,” she said.
“Pretty much everyone who has ever worked for him has been underpaid, but because the case has gone on so long, many former staff won’t ever get to recover their money. It’s likely to be way more than 515 workers who have been underpaid.”
“How many workers can no longer reclaim their money because they are outside the six year statute of limitations?
“It’s also untrue that he has been cooperating. Workers have requested repeatedly that Calombaris hand over records so that they can recover their stolen wages and he has not provided them with the documents they need to get their money,” Ms Belfrage said.
Mr Calombaris must say ‘sorry’
The FWO’s enforceable undertaking also requires Mr Calombaris, at his company’s own cost, to publish public apologies in prominent positions in the Weekend Australian, Saturday Age, and Saturday Herald Sun, as well as three hospitality industry magazines.