George Calombaris, Neil Perry, Heston Blumenthal and Guillaume Brahimi have been caught up in wage scandal but some chefs say attention is unfair
But many chefs say the media attention on restaurants is unfair given the wage scandals in other industries. And they’ve called for an update to legislation, which spreads the industry across many different awards and makes compliance difficult.
No Australian restaurateur has yet used ignorance as an excuse for payment discrepancies, but behind the scenes industry players are frustrated by the complexity of workplace law – the Fair Work Act is 1035 pages long – and the challenges in remaining compliant.
“Making any hospitality company 100 per cent compliant is hard because there are so many different awards,” said Sydney chef and restaurateur Matt Moran. “We are compliant but it takes a lot of resources. The whole thing should be simpler.”
Chris Lucas’ company employs almost 1000 people at restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne – Chin Chin and Kisume among them – and it has been subject to underpayment accusations.
“The legislation is in need of serious reform,” he said. “It is outdated, convoluted and complex. It is almost impossible for even the most professional organisation to be totally compliant, but hitting employers with a big stick is not going to solve the problem.”
Along with a review of the legal framework, he proposes an amnesty “to allow employers to make adjustments without fear of being publicly attacked or fined”.
Chef and restaurateur Jesse Gerner, who employs about 70 people across three Spanish restaurants in Melbourne, including city bar Bomba and Fitzroy’s Anada, said “everyone is scared of getting rolled”. “Maybe there have been bad eggs, but most people are trying to do the right thing. It’s just hard to stay on top of it all.”
As chefs progress in their careers and become restaurant owners, they often struggle with the administrative side of their business. Unusually, Gerner undertook business courses before opening his first restaurant, but even so he recently hired a human resources consultant and discovered there were things he had unwittingly been doing wrong.
“Everyone in our restaurants sits down for family dinner at 5pm – it’s a nice way to get ready before the mayhem of service,” he said.
“We paid them for that time but we didn’t clock them out and then back on. We realised that if we hadn’t clocked them out and they’d already worked five hours, they should have gone on to overtime or double time. There are so many things that you can get tripped up on.”
ACTU secretary Sally McManus has previously said that “wage theft” had become a business model for “far too many employers” and that unions needed greater rights to inspect the books when pay was not right. The Fair Work Commission needed to be empowered, Ms McManus said, to “deliver swift, low-cost, plain-language access to justice”.
Hospitality workers have traditionally operated in a hinterland of long hours and harsh conditions with a culture of unpaid work experience.
“For sure, everyone should get paid fairly but every good job I’ve got in my life has started with me offering my services for free,” said Gerner. “That’s how I’ve learnt, shown that I’m eager, got a foot in the door.”
He would not usher in a young chef on that basis today. “I’d be wary,” he said. “I would call my HR consultant to find out if it’s legal.”
Gerner compares restaurants to white-collar professions. “I have friends in other industries – lawyers, accountants, office jobs – they start on $45,000 and work 60 hours a week until they make a name for themselves. I’m not saying that’s a good thing but there does seem to be a bit of an attack on hospitality.”
Lucas also thinks hospitality is being singled out. “The restaurant industry is being painted as the only area struggling with compliance,” he said. “That’s not true. Everyone is grappling with it.”
He points to Bunnings, which recently admitted to underpaying superannuation for nine years, and Super Retail Group (owners of Rebel Sport and Rays Outdoors), which underpaid overtime by $32 million over six years.
Ironically, legal firm Maurice Blackburn, which has brought actions against restaurant groups, was last year discovered to have shortchanged staff by $1 million. As well, Sunglass Hut recently back-paid $2.3 million it had failed to pay 620 staff, and in February Qantas blamed an error for misclassifying 220 workers, some of whom were then underpaid.
“It’s easy to pick on the restaurant industry because it’s made up of small businesses who aren’t usually able to defend themselves,” said Lucas. “It needs to be put in perspective. Every employer in the country is in the same position.”
Erez Gordon owns The Bishop in Sydney’s Surry Hills and has worked in restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney since 1988.
“The so-called ‘wage theft’ has been culturally acceptable for decades,” he said. “That’s not because restaurant owners are driving Maseratis, it’s because that’s how they survive and stay in the game.”
Employers’ efforts to stamp down costs, including wages, form part of the cycle that keeps prices lower for consumers. When Gordon ran a restaurant in Melbourne in 1996, he charged $30 a steak.
“I’m doing the same in Sydney in 2019,” he says. “The market won’t let me charge more.”
That same market has an opinion on how much he should pay his staff.
“The consumer waggles their finger and says, ‘Shame on you for not paying enough’,” said Gordon. “Well, fair enough, we must adhere to the law but I wish there was a law about how much you should pay in my restaurant so I can pay super, wages, penalties and maybe even pay my mortgage and feed my kids.”
He believes the industry would be on firmer ground if every restaurant in Australia raised the price of an average dish by $10. “But most operators are too scared to say that.”