Legal

MasterChef star George Calombaris to pay $200,000 fine for underpaying 515 workers $7.8 million

Matthew Elmas /

George Calombaris

Celebrity chef George Calombaris arrives at the Downing Centre court complex in Sydney on Wednesday, January 31, 2018. Source: AAP Image/Daniel Munoz.

Celebrity chef George Calombaris will pay a $200,000 “contrition payment” and be forced to speak on the importance of workplace compliance at industry events after his restaurant company back paid workers $7.8 million in wages.

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) announced the high-profile businessman would pay the fine on Thursday morning after signing an enforceable undertaking with the regulator over the wage theft.

Calombaris is the founder of MADE Establishment and was a director from 2008-2018, covering the entire period of the workplace contraventions. He will now be forced to use his profile in the industry to speak on the importance of workplace compliance.

But the union representing workers in Calombaris’ industry has savaged the penalty, calling it “not sufficient”.

“If someone deliberately took $1000 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,” United Voice national secretary Jo-anne Schofield said.

“And you get to keep your TV show, your huge profile and mansion, and keep raking in cash off the back of hardworking chefs, waitstaff and bartenders.”

The penalty equates to about 2.6% of the wages Calombaris’ company MADE Establishment failed to pay some 515 workers over six years at prominent Melbourne restaurants Press Club, Gazi and the Hellenic Republic.

Allegations of underpayment within the MasterChef star’s business came to light following a series of Fairfax stories, although workers had complained about non-compliance with workplace laws as far back as 2015.

Fair work ombudsman Sandra Parker on Thursday said the back payment bill should serve as a warning to other employers.

“The Court-Enforceable Undertaking commits MADE Establishment to stringent measures to ensure that current and future employees across their restaurant group are paid correctly,” Parker said in a statement.

“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, they can spend years cleaning up the mess.”

MADE is a high-profile case of wage theft in the hospitality industry, but is representative of an evidently more systemic culture of non-compliance with workplace laws, which the FWO has been actively combatting in recent years in the wake of media attention.

When inspectors ran the ruler over the company they found significant underpayments stemming from failure to correctly apply annualised salary arrangements for some staff, resulting in overtime and penalty rates being underpaid.

When news of the underpayments was first breaking, Calombaris said he was “devastated” by the situation.

MADE will now have to fund external auditors to watch pay and conditions for workers within its business until the end of 2022.

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany. You can contact him at [email protected].