Sunday, 4 August 2019

George Calombaris is just the tip of the iceberg

According to one news source I have seen George Calombaris and his company MADE Establishment failed to pay $7,849,324 to 524 workers between the years 2011 and 2017 at six Melbourne restaurants operating under the trade names Press Club, Gazi, Hellenic Republic, and Jimmy Grants. According to the Fair Work Ombudsman’s (FWO) website he has repaid the money owed to these employees and has also paid a $200,000 fine on top of that.

While the stated deficiency is somewhat less striking in the form given above than it is in the news headlines that most often portray it, there is no online information about how much each member of staff was underpaid. Was it a few dollars an hour across the board? Was it just a few staff who were underpaid by a significant amount? What is the exact nature of the misdemeanour here? Clearly, the 524 workers weren’t all working in the restaurants at the same time; so many workers wouldn’t be needed to run six establishments. And clearly you won’t be able to arrive at an answer to these sorts of questions just by dividing the total amount by the number of workers affected, hoping to arrive at a figure that was denied each one of them. The reality will be more complex than either of these calculations would provide for.

I wrote a different version of this post a couple of days ago and saw its deficiencies after publishing it so took it down in order to rework it a bit more so that I could give a more accurate picture of the issues involved.

What I think is that to justify the level of negative animus being aimed at the chef we deserve to know more. The information from the FWO is partial, for example. And while Calombaris is a major employer in Melbourne there is no information I could find online about the turnover of his business. But it must at least be in the order of tens of millions of dollars each year. Given that, it is unforgivable for him to have underpaid staff who enabled him to enjoy such profits as he earns from running eateries. On the other hand, Calombaris has to be respected for building a successful business and for making it grow to a size that would allow him to employ so many people.

The media feeding frenzy – every time you turn on the radio or look at the TV or open your web browser there is a new story about this one man – and the rancour that this chef has stirred up among people in the community I think say more about us than they do about him. There is something unseemly about this kind of aggression. I think it is something that politicians and prominent journalists know well: the baying mob, hungry for blood.

So I wonder at what point people will stop sticking pins into effigies of this one owner and start to look at the systematic underpayment of hospitality workers in Australia, workers at almost every restaurant and cafe – going by my sources – in the country. The Calombaris debacle should be making us turn our attention to other abuses in the same sector of the economy, but it’s not.

This is because the issue is complex and doesn't fit the black-and-white treatment that is usually given to topical issues by the news media. In Calombaris’ case, there is a ruling by a statutory authority, so all the necessary digestion of facts has already been done and it’s just a matter of writing a simple story. All news outlets have written this story. Easy as pie.

But the reality of the situation is extremely complex in fact. On the one hand, people who want to set up businesses need to be given some leeway. On the other, workers need to be paid properly. Furthermore, diners need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the food and drinks that they consume, and they might not be willing to pay more if restaurateurs suddenly put up their prices in order to enable them to adequately pay staff.

And then if you are a student who was born in another country and you are working at a Sydney restaurant for $10 an hour you are unlikely to say anything. Presumably you would know you are being underpaid, at least you would eventually find out the truth. But getting the sack is easy and it can be very disruptive when you have to pay rent, pay for transport to get to your work and to your university or college, and pay for food, electricity, clothing, and entertainment for yourself. If you do complain and if you do take your case to the FWO in the hope of getting fair treatment from your employer, chances are that your employer will suspend your employment with no pay. So you effectively lose your job even if you are not sacked on the spot. Then it takes time for the FWO to process your case – time during which you are not being paid – with the outcome uncertain.

The barriers that are put in place that stop workers from receiving their legal entitlements are high enough for a local, so how much harder must it be for foreigners to achieve justice? If we want to do the right thing we have to leave Calombaris alone for a while and turn our attention to the much larger problem that exists in places where light is rarely shone. And the next time you sit down at a Thai food place to order a pad see ew, ask the waitress if she’s being paid the award wage. 

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