Features Australia

Eat the chefs

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

The offenderati have been baying for blood ever since it was revealed that MasterChef Australia judge George Calombaris had been cooking the books, as well as the meals, at his celebrity restaurants. It mattered not a jot that the company had reported itself to the Fair Work Ombudsman in 2017 after its own audit showed that it had failed to correctly apply the byzantine annualised salary reconciliations on overtime and penalty rates.

Calombaris told staff he was devastated and vowed to repay everyone affected but that was never going to satisfy the unions, which rolled out a campaign calling for the ‘MasterThief’ to be sacked. The union set up a crime scene tape at one of his restaurants at lunchtime with the words ‘Wage Theft’ strung across its entrance. ACTU president Michele O’Neil said Calombaris was getting off lightly making a contrition payment of ‘just’ $200,000. Tourism WA dumped the chef from its food and wine campaign after intervention from the Labor government in Western Australia.

Finally, on Monday, the ABC’s Q&A managed to come up with rhetoric that satisfied the howling mob, with a new take on the old revolutionary cry to eat the rich — eat the chefs. As one rapturous commentator put it, ‘under the stewardship of guest host Fran Kelly, Q&A delivered its version of the MasterChef fireball, devouring Calombaris in a debate that summed up the issues raised by recent wage-theft revelations with a clear message: Lock up the chefs.

Strangely, as Ms Kelly was guiding the debate, it somehow slipped her mind that Aunty has engaged in its own ‘wage theft’, admitting in January that it had systematically underpaid far more employees — some 2,500 casual staff over the past six years, compared to only 515 employees by Calombaris — ‘stealing’ their penalties, allowances and loadings. One staff member was underpaid $19,000 over three years, which, if it were indicative of the average, would mean the ABC would be up for back pay of more than $47 million, let alone contrition payments. Was that deliberate? Who knows?  Aunty’s columnists were debating more important topics such as ‘the overwhelming whiteness and maleness’ of the MasterChef judges. ‘It’s disappointing, given the ABC has repeatedly responded to our concerns by assuring us they are paying casuals correctly,’ said the union, which has been strangely muted in calls for heads to be served up on platters.

There has been no shortage of ‘woke’ employers underpaying staff including Qantas, Lush and, most deliciously, if you savour irony, Maurice Blackburn, the Labor law firm whose clients have included the ACTU, the MUA, and whose former employees include former Labor leader Bill Shorten, no less.

It was Maurice Blackburn — ‘we fight for fair’ — that went after 7-Eleven and Pizza Hut for underpayment of staff. Turns out that it underpaid 400 of its own staff. The appeal of working at Maurice Blackburn was the social justice aspect, said one former staffer, adding ‘I probably should have just taken a higher salary at a corporate firm.’

Fairfax, however, was sympathetic on this occasion with the journalist commenting that ‘the brutal reality is the award system has become increasingly complex. The retail award alone has 100 different pay rates.’ Not so Ms Jenna Price, who made no mention of any of these sins in her column in the Sydney Morning Herald in which she demanded that Calombaris be sacked after a televised Maoist-style self-criticism session.  It’s a pity. What this country surely needs is a good show trial. A live broadcast of ABC Managing Director David Anderson, and former MDs Michelle Guthrie and Mark Scott, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, the management teams at Maurice Blackburn and Lush, all confessing their crimes before being dragged off to prison in handcuffs might be just the ticket to boost the national broadcaster’s anaemic ratings. As that great and humane philanthropist the Mikado once put it, the object all sublime is not just to make the punishment fit the crime but to ‘make each prisoner pent, unwillingly represent, a source of innocent merriment, of innocent merriment, tra la’.

For Price however, there was only one villain — Mr Calombaris — and she wanted him to sing for her supper. ‘Get him on the telly, dressed in blacks, urging viewers to join their unions.’ Join the union to make sure you don’t get ripped off? What a quaint idea. Perhaps Ms Price was catching up with the cooking shows when the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption documented the way in which the Australian Workers Union negotiated deals that benefited the union at the expense of the workers’ wages.

If only, instead of running endless repeats of Midsomer Murders, Aunty made a few docu-dramas about companies like Cleanevent, which cleaned up, so to speak, when it paid a paltry $25,000-a-year membership payment to the AWU on behalf of its workers and in exchange got a workplace agreement that saved the company $1.5 million a year in wages.

The notion that unions might rip off the workers is not palatable to ‘progressives’. One such commentator tweeted that he was waiting ‘to hear one — JUST ONE — state or federal LNP Minister condemn wage theft. Let alone promise to do anything about it. They’re too busy bashing trade unions and industry super funds,’ he harrumphed on Twitter.

Two days later his wish was granted when Attorney-General Christian Porter condemned the ‘theft of wages’ by Calombaris as ‘deplorable,’ and said he was considering imposing criminal sanctions on employers who failed to pay workers appropriately. But it’s a proposal that has been roundly rejected by Labor because the government’s plan is to link the legislation to a bill cracking down on unions which skim off millions of dollars intended to pay for worker entitlements and give the money to their own organisations instead.

‘Why is it OK for a fund set up by a union, which is meant to hold worker entitlement money, to transfer millions of dollars back to the union without any explanation?’ asked the Attorney-General, referring to a deal struck, in 2017 and 2018, by the Victorian branches of the Electrical Trades Union and the National Electrical Contractors Association in which they agreed to siphon off a cool $27 million from the workers. Why isn’t that wage theft?, asked Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox. Because when the unions eat the workers, all the offenderati say is bon appetit!

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