High-end restaurant group Rockpool is accused of tampering with timesheet records and making staff work excessive hours in an “audacious” scheme to cheat them of overtime pay.
The Hospo Voice Union has engaged Maurice Blackburn Lawyers to lodge a complaint against Rockpool with the Fair Work Ombudsman, with the matter to go to mediation on Friday.
The group is accused of tampering with timesheet software to limit employees to 38 hours pay a week, despite the use of fingerprint scanners for staff clocking on and off and having some work up to 100 hours a week.
But Rockpool Dining Group (RDG) said the allegations had been made without evidence, adding it had not been given any details in the Maurice Blackburn claim.
“RDG has no evidence to substantiate claims of group-wide manipulation or destruction of data in order to intentionally underpay employees,” the company said in a statement on Thursday.
“RDG continues to assess historical wage practices and remains committed to addressing legacy practices.
“At all times the company remains engaged with FWO and RDG team members, past and present.
RDG is one of Australia’s top restaurant groups, fronted by celebrity chef and brand ambassador Neil Perry and owned by multibillion-dollar Quadrant Private Equity group.
It has 2500 staff working across 80 venues, including Spice Temple, Rosetta, Sake and Rockpool Bar & Grill and turns over $400 million per year.
Last year it reported a profit of $40 million.
Earlier, Maurice Blackburn said the alleged underpayment was “one of the most egregious cases of wage theft Australia has seen yet,” estimating Rockpool’s unpaid wage bill to be at least $10 million.
It argued that, as its estimation exceeds the $7.8 million repaid by George Calombaris’ MAde Establishment Group, the federal government should seek court-imposed penalties at the maximum amount.
During Senate Estimates, Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker conceded that Mr Calombaris’ $200,000 “contrition payment” was too light.
BREAKING: #Rockpool accused of underpaying staff over $10m & destroying pay records.
— Senator Jess Walsh (@JessWalshVic) October 24, 2019
However Ms Parker said her agency was “learning and evolving”.
Rohit Karki, a former Rockpool chef spoke of his experience: “I started working at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne in 2012 and I was treated like an animal. Like a slave.”
“Each week I did two 20-hour shifts, back to back. I’d start at 4am and work until midnight or later, without a break. Then at 4am, I’d start all over again and do another 20 hours.”
“There was no time to go home between shifts, so I slept on a pastry bench in the kitchen for a couple of hours.
“They tampered with our time sheets, so staff had no record of all the hours we worked.
Mr Karki said he was paid about $12 per hour, while people paid hundreds of dollars a head to eat the meals he prepared.
“I felt trapped. I went into a depression. It was the darkest period in my life. But eventually I complained about this wage theft and how Rockpool treated me. Then I was bullied out of my job,” he said.
Tim Kennedy, national secretary of United Workers Union, said he believed wage theft represented “a business model”, a conscious choice on the part of owners to steal from workers.
“The actions of Rockpool are the latest confirmation that wage theft is not aberrant behaviour, but rather the calculated pursuit of profit maximisation by our largest and most sophisticated employers,” Mr Kennedy said.
RDG said in its statement that the comments attributed to Mr Kennedy “are simply untrue”.
“We take these allegations very seriously. We encourage team members, past and present, to continue to make use of our HR hotline … to report their concerns.”
Mr Perry initially denied claims of underpayment, insisting the business was operating fully within employment laws.
He subsequently made an offer of $1.6 million to settle the claims.