Food & Wine

George Calombaris admits to “crying a lot" during wage theft scandal

George Calombaris admits to “crying a lot" during wage theft scandal

Former MasterChef judge and restaurateur George Calombaris has opened up about his wage theft scandal in 2019, admitting that he “cried a lot” as it unfolded.

Talking to Sam Newman and Don Scott for their You Cannot Be Serious podcast, Calombaris said of the scandal, “It was brutal and I cried a lot.”

In 2019, the Fair Work Ombudsman ordered his hospitality group, Made Establishment, to pay back $7.8 million to workers after failing to pay them penalty rates for several years. Calombaris was also personally penalised $200,000 for the underpayments. His decade-long stint as a judge on MasterChef was brought to an end that year, after contract negotiations between judges Calombaris, Matt Preston, and Gary Meighan, and Network Ten, broke down.

Throughout the scandal, he maintained that it was a mistake caused by inexperience. In addition, as the scandal was unfolding, Calombaris was charged with assault after shoving a 19-year-old at the 2017 A-League grand final for heckling him about the controversy.

Early last year, it was announced that Made Establishment had entered voluntary administration. Calombaris admitted on the podcast that he drank during this time, and was an “emotional wreck”. He said, “I drank a lot, I really did. When I drink, I don’t get aggressive, but when I drink excessively like I did in that period, I’m an emotional wreck.

“I probably should have opened up more. I was trying to fix it all behind a closed door and I was literally fist-punching myself internally and emotionally.”

In 2017, Made Establishment calculated that its current workforce had been underpaid $2.6 million and publicly disclosed the issue, immediately repaying 162 people and committing to working with Fair Work Australia to ensure the matter was finalised.

It eventually came out that the problem was much worse than that, however, with the company being informed in 2019 that they had underpaid staff by $7.8 million, affecting 515 employees over a six-year period. Of the revelation, Calombaris said, “We went to Fair Work and said, ‘Guys we found these issues, we’re paying up, every cent, but we also want to give it to a journalist to talk the story.”

"Hopefully that will get everyone else in an industry that is rife with payments under tables and stuff like that, for everyone to pull their socks up. That turned. That became, ‘George Calombaris the wage thief’, ‘George Calombaris in his Toorak mansion living the big life’, blah blah. It went disgustingly bad.

“Unfortunately, the name George Calombaris, when it was high, everyone was flying and loved it, everyone wanted to be around it. But when they did that list I became this poster boy as the wage thief. It punched us right in the face.”

Image: Daniel Munoz/WireImage

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