There are renewed calls for the federal government to introduce criminal sanctions for wage theft, following the revelation that celebrity chef George Calombaris underpaid hundreds of workers almost $8 million.
The latest underpayments scandal follows another last year, when Calombaris was forced to back pay $2.6 million to employees who weren’t paid their proper penalty rates.
Fellow celebrity chef Neil Perry was also caught out ripping off workers at his Rockpool Group restaurants last year – and forced to back pay $1.6 million.
High-end restaurant sector ‘rotten’
Investigative journalist Ben Schneiders has exposed some of the industry’s biggest names who have fronted businesses that have made huge profits while engaging in systemic wage theft.
Writing today in The Age, he described the high-end restaurant industry as “rotten”.
“Many of these men are seriously rich with glittering media careers as the high-end food craze has turned them into celebrities from TV shows such as MasterChef,” Schneiders opined.
“But they represent the worst excesses of our era; a celebrity-focused, winner-takes-all culture in a time of high inequality.”
$200,000 penalty ‘dismally low’
The Fair Work Ombudsman today announced that Calombaris will have to make a ‘contrition payment’ of $200,000 – the only penalty for ripping off so many workers over so many years.
“The Calombaris penalty of $200,000 in restitution is dismally low and a reflection of how weak our laws are,” Schneiders writes.
“The main penalty for these rich men appears to be public shame.”
Like many others, Schneiders argues that it’s time for wage theft to be made a criminal offence, with repeat and deliberate cases attracting convictions and even jail sentences.
“The Morrison government has made the behaviour of unions – in particular the CFMMEU – its key priority in workplace relations with its Ensuring Integrity bill,” he writes.
“But wage underpayment should be the most pressing issue for reform. It is a systemic problem hurting hundreds of thousands of workers and is contributing to the economic crunch of low wage growth.”
Unions call for MasterChef to axe Calombaris
ACTU president Michele O’Neill told The Australian that Mr Calombaris should lose his job as a judge on MasterChef.
“Channel 10 and the sponsors of the MasterChef program need to consider the damage their brand caused by their continued support for a serial wage thief,” she said.
In response, Network 10 confirmed it was sticking by the celebrity chef, with a spokesperson saying:
“George and MAdE Establishment have reached an agreement with the Fair Work Ombudsman in relation to this matter. George has the support of Network 10. We will not be making any further comment.”
Penalty ‘woefully inadequate’
Miles Heffernan, Litigation Director at Industrial Relations Claims, described the $200,000 penalty imposed by the Fair Work Ombudsman as “woefully inadequate”.
“What an absolute joke – this scumbag is a multi millionaire who has made his fortune by systematically ripping off hundreds of workers – and all he has to do is pay a relatively tiny penalty,” he said.
“He doesn’t deserve to be on television to promote his restaurants – Channel 10 should do the right thing and sack him.”
Mr Heffernan has long advocated for wage theft to be made a criminal offence, including making an extensive submission at last year’s Queensland wage theft inquiry.
“Until governments get serious and start introducing tougher penalties and start locking up low-life greedy bosses, then wage theft will continue to run rife in Australia,” he said.
“The Morrison government is so intent on cracking down on unions, but is happy to sit back do nothing for the tens of thousands of Aussie workers who are being ripped off by their boss – their priorities are all wrong.”