Amid calls for George Calombaris to be dumped from TV’s MasterChef after his food empire underpaid employees, the celebrity chef is feeling “pretty contrite”, a source close to him told The New Daily on Friday.
“He’s very apologetic. He’s sorry for what has happened, but he wants people to understand he’s not a wage thief.
“They never set out to do this,” the source said.
In a statement made by Calombaris on behalf of MAdE Establishment to The New Daily on Friday afternoon, he said: “We intend to be a force for change in the hospitality industry, to ensure that this does not happen again”.
He apologised to all “affected team members, past and present – as it is our people that make our restaurants great”, adding there were no excuses for what happened.
“When we started as a small business we did not have the necessary systems and processes in place, particularly as the business grew.
“There is no excuse for this and we have the systems in place now. We have committed to three years of audits to double-check our classifications, and we’re providing our team with training programs to make sure we have the right skills to classify staff correctly,” the statement said.
Earlier, former Hellenic Republic waitress Orlaith Belfrage said Calombaris had avoided proper punishment after acknowledging underpaying more than 500 workers nearly $8 million.
“George should pay a serious price for this massive theft of workers’ wages,” she said.
“He should be taken off MasterChef. How many more excuses does George get?”
Ms Belfrage worked at Hellenic Republic Brunswick for two years. She told Ten’s The Project on Thursday she was misclassified as a casual and not paid overtime.
“I’m probably owed anywhere between $3000 and $4000,” she said.
“For my overtime, it was just explained that that is just how it is and I can suck it up and work the job or leave.”
Outraged unions also called for Calombaris to be axed from the reality show after it emerged on Thursday he had reimbursed 515 current and former workers for underpayments between 2011-2017.
But Network 10 is standing by its judge.
“George and MAdE Establishment have reached an agreement with the Fair Work Ombudsman in relation to this matter,’’ a spokesperson told The New Daily on Friday.
“George has the support of Network 10. We will not be making any further comment.”
Asked what Calombaris’ response is to the calls for him to be sacked from his lucrative TV gig, “There is no response,” the source close to him told The New Daily.
“The thing to remember is $7.8 million has been repaid. If someone has a legitimate claim, they’re getting paid.”
Calombaris may have to face new heat next week. With the 2019 series of MasterChef ending, “There’s a whole lot of media that George will be doing,” the source said.
Calombaris and his MAdE Establishment company were ordered to make a $200,000 “contrition payment” on Thursday after acknowledging the extensive underpayment.
Former and current employees of Calombaris’ restaurants – Press Club, Gazi and Hellenic Republic – have been back-paid more than $7.83 million. A further $16,371 was back-paid to employees of Jimmy Grants.
Calombaris has also been ordered to implement new payroll and compliance systems for his restaurants, and to do speaking engagements to educate the hospitality industry about workplace laws.
On Friday, Calombaris denied being a wage thief, and rejected claims the years of underpayment were deliberate.
“I have always believed that actions speak louder than words. The first action we took is that when we discovered there were incorrect payments to members of the team, we self-reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman and cooperated with their investigation,” he said in the statement provided to The New Daily.
“The second is that our past and present team members have been back-paid in full in consultation with Fair Work.”
Unions have called on the federal government to address wage theft penalties.
“While anyone else would face prison time for theft of millions of dollars, employers routinely steal huge amounts from working people and get away with simply returning the money they have stolen and paying a paltry fine,” ACTU President Michele O’Neil said.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said Made’s “massive back-payment bill” should be a warning “to all employers that if they don’t get workplace compliance right from the beginning, they can spend years cleaning up the mess.”
The company must fund external auditors to check pay and conditions for workers across the group every year until 2022.