George Calombaris has been through the wringer after news broke of Made Establishment’s $7.8 million underpayment scandal.
There’s been countless articles written about the staggering sum and the Melbourne chef has been called everything from a thief to a liar. Calombaris broke his silence during an interview with Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7.30.
While the Q&A received a mixed bag of reactions from the public, from pity to rage, Calombaris highlighted an important fact some people have overlooked: The business back paid 515 staff in wages and superannuation in 2017 after the underpayments were discovered during an audit.
Let’s be clear — underpaying staff is unacceptable, but so is trolling and bashing people behind a keyboard. Calombaris has become the poster boy for underpayments and is a living, breathing example to those who aren’t aware of how their business is operating. It’s the law, and staff deserve to be paid fairly. And if you can’t do that, running a business isn’t for you.
The unfortunate reality is many chefs aren’t taught how to run a business — they’re taught to cook. Teamed with an award system that can be difficult to navigate, underpaying or overpaying (yes, it happens) staff occurs. Small admin mistakes can put a business in the red, and if there’s no one there to pick up these errors, they snowball — fast.
Calombaris said this was the case at Made Establishment and the chef believes the business lacked sophistication. We will never know how aware or unaware Calombaris was about the underpayments, and it doesn’t matter because running Made Establishment lawfully was his responsibility.
“There was no CEO, no people and culture manager, no elite finance team like we have now,” he said. “You’re running a million miles an hour being creative and you assume that in the back end, things are happening at the same speed, but they weren’t.”
Assuming the business was running above board was an unacceptable oversight given Made Establishment was issued with a letter of caution in 2015 from the Fair Work Ombudsman for the underpayment of one Press Club employee.
“A letter came to us about some issues we needed to fix in terms of classifications,” said Calombaris. “I signed that letter, assuming it would all be fixed. In 2017, we discovered there was a problem because the systems I thought were in play weren’t in play.”
The business self-reported to the Ombudsman and the investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman concluded two weeks ago. The penalty? A $200,000 contrition fine to the Consolidated Revenue Fund and the appointment of external auditors to ensure workers are paid correctly. Calombaris will also engage in public speaking engagements on the topic of workplace compliance.
While underpayments are not unique to hospitality, they are one of the most pressing concerns for the industry, to the point where underpayments are one of the top compliance priorities for the Fair Work Ombudsman.
What is unique is the level of public interest. Calombaris is one of the most recognisable chefs in the country, which means he’s subjected to scrutiny by default. But he’s not the first or last celebrity chef or Joe Blow to underpay staff.
Calombaris and his celebrity status has ensured the issue is now front and centre. So could this mean we will see fewer cases of workers being underpaid in the future?
The chef hopes so. “I look at this as my next opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of my community and this industry that I value so much that it can be done right,” said Calombaris. “I hope the rest of the industry sees this and double checks and triple checks everything.”
Image credit: ABC