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The public has spoken: It's time to wage a war on wage theft

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Disgraced celebrity chef George Calombaris underpaid his staff nearly $8 million (Screenshot via YouTube)

Recent revelations that top chefs have severely underpaid staff have raised awareness of the wage theft issue, writes William Olson.

THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION has spoken with great volume — the recent news that MasterChef co-host/restaurateur/celebrity chef George Calombaris paid a $200,000 fine to the Fair Work Commission amid revelations of collectively underpaying staff at his restaurants upwards of $8 million is being viewed as a big croquembouche (and a massive steaming pile of croquembouche, at that).

Add in Tuesday evening’s news that Calombaris and his fellow MasterChef judges won’t be returning to the series in 2020 after contract negotiations with Network Ten reached an impasse, in addition to previous further revelations that a number of his former employees reject Calombaris’s claims that he has paid everyone back to whom he owes back wages.

Many of these people were behind union action to claim those renumerations back and Fair Work even admitted that they’re investigating Neil Perry’s Rockpool group for the same offenses that Calombaris’s MAdE Establishment group committed. No one in the hospitality industry is safe from the perils of wage theft as an alleged “business model”.

The sceptics among us who feel that wage theft isn’t a problem, but simply how businesses operate, have had their cover blown wide open. I would normally suggest to these people: What if you or someone you know, family or friends, was getting paid $12-15 per hour, with no penalty rates and quite likely no superannuation — how would that make you feel about this issue? This is where it inspires an emotional impact for that person, while the person directly affected may have issues paying rent or bills, buying groceries, saving for a holiday, or even have relationships with those family and friends deteriorating as a result.

What has happened to the George Calombarises and Neil Perrys of the hospitality industry represents the micro-tip of the iceberg of a situation that has been simmering at or beneath the surface for many, many months, or perhaps a couple of years. And now with Fair Work having admitted that they are going to check the books of any retail-type hospitality establishment – collectively, those which comprise restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs and pubs open to the general public – no one is safe, regardless of whether they’re being operated by a celebrity chef or some fly-by-night small business operator out to make a quick buck and being a non-discriminatory practice occurring in capital and metropolitan centres or regional areas alike.

War is about to be waged on wage theft. At least this will suffice until proper wages rise in general.

My voluntary disclosure: I’m a hospitality professional that has spent the last 15 years working in various restaurants and bars and the like, witnessing too many of my friends and colleagues fighting for their fair wages for a fair day’s work and repeatedly having to battle for it. And these examples have only multiplied in recent years.

Personally, I no longer work in the retail sector of hospitality and steadfastly refuse to do so due to the ongoing epidemic state of wage theft there. Instead, I work for a few different corporate caterers in and around Melbourne, in the catering and events sector of the industry, because I know that they are quite reputable for paying proper award rates, penalty rates and superannuation. All at once — it’s not that hard.

And on top of that, it’s the law, too, via Fair Work’s legislation.

Personnel exists as any business’s finest asset, said many times but especially held true in the hospitality industry. But are a lot of managers and supervisors in the retail end of the industry actually abiding by that rather than just employing mere numbers? In doing so, they’d not only be enhancing the investment in their businesses but also improving the culture of the workplace. And as the old axiom goes, happy workers become productive workers.

And trust me, such a collective attitude within that culture becomes quite infectious, from the top all the way down.

Conversely, those who aren’t being paid at least the award rates under the Restaurant Industry Award or the Modern Award for Hospitality – or on any related EBA, for that matter – their morale suffers. And those feelings of ill will would spread through a workplace’s culture faster and with a worse and potentially more lasting impact than the other above example.

In other words, cream rises to the top, but a cancer spreads from within, usually a lot faster and a lot more lethally. And with more permanent consequences.

In Victoria, investigations led by Hospo Voice – the retail hospitality-specific union operated under the auspices of United Voice – have uncovered leading Melbourne precincts such as Chapel Street in the inner east, Victoria Street around Fitzroy and Collingwood and even pockets of Melbourne’s CBD, among others, possessing a vast majority of businesses not complying with Fair Work regulations for paying proper award wages, penalty rates and superannuation. 

The union has accordingly taken action against many such businesses failing to comply, but also calls out those that do the right thing by their employees and even going above and beyond, rewarding them with their “Fair Plate” initiative to the general public.

And staying in Victoria, one cornerstone of Premier Daniel Andrews’s successful re-election campaign last year was to call for legislation to issue fines and/or jail time for any retail hospitality business operator found guilty of wage theft violations against their employees. Such action is understood to still be under deliberation at Spring Street. However, in light of recent events, public opinion and union pressure could influence a fast-tracking of this legislation.

Does this mean that Calombaris, a repeat offender by all accounts, will be going to jail? Not necessarily, if he predictably exhausts the appeals process with the magistrates courts system in Melbourne. 

But at the end of the day, rising public opinion also dictates that for everyday retail hospitality business owners and managers, if they cannot manage their budgets to put wages first, even as the largest expenditure of their business at anywhere between 25–33 per cent of their overall operating costs and look after their employees and build a positive culture in the workplace as a result, they should have no right to own or operate such a business in the first place.

William Olson was a freelance journalist from 1990-2004 and hospitality professional since late 2004. Follow William on Twitter @DeadSexyWaiter.

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