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Why are we so soft on wage theft?

  • 05 August 2019


George Calombaris, chef, restaurateur and recently departed MasterChef judge, has emerged as the poster boy for wage theft in the hospitality industry after it was revealed in July that his business, MAdE Establishment group, underpaid more than 500 former and current staff $7.8 million.

Calombaris is not the only employer to be caught out. A Fairfax investigation revealed that the Rockpool Dining Group, a private equity-owned restaurant empire fronted by celebrity chef Neil Perry, underpaid its staff $1.6 million in the 2017-18 financial year. Bistro Guillaume at Crown Melbourne, Vue Group and Teage Ezard-owned eateries Ezard and Gingerboy have also been accused of underpayment. Several fast-food franchises have also been embroiled in underpayment scandals, including Muffin Break, Domino's Pizza, and Retail Food Group, the parent company of Donut King and Crust Pizza.

While it might be making headlines, this isn't news to me. In the decade I spent working in hospitality, my employers very rarely paid me anything approximating the award wage. I was once offered $7 an hour for a ten-hour split shift by a Wollongong restaurant owner — but only after I'd completed a three-month training period paid at $5 an hour.

Adam Liaw, a cook, writer and television presenter who became a household name when he won MasterChef Australia in 2010, told of a similar experience when he appeared on Q&A recently. Liaw acknowledged the widespread nature of underpayment in the hospitality industry, which he attributed to the complexity of the award system.

However, in my experience, underpayment was simply part of the business model. If you asked for a higher rate for weekend shifts, you'd likely find your hours cut — the mentality was take it or leave it. There was always another uni student ready to take your place if you spoke out.

Many employers accused of wage theft use the defence that it was 'accidental' — but it's difficult to argue underpayment was unintentional when, as in the case of Rockpool Dining Group, emails show that management instructed employees to log incorrect hours. At Bistro Guillaume, staff often worked 70 hours a week but were paid for just 38 hours. This type of underpayment is clearly not a simple back-office error.

'This is an industry-wide problem and it needs an industry-wide response,' said Natalie James, former Fair Work ombudsman, when a one-off blitz in 2018 by Fair Work in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney revealed an underpayment bill of $472,000.


"We're much