MasterChef winner blasts ‘wage theft’
Former MasterChef contestant Adam Liaw has fired up against "wage theft" in the hospitality industry and declared there are "no excuses" for restaurants that underpay their staff.
Chef Liaw was one of the panellists on Monday night's Q&A that went to air little more than a week after former MasterChef judge George Calombaris' restaurant group paid back almost $8 million in unpaid wages to staff.
Liaw was the winner of the second series of MasterChef Australia which Calombaris presented.
In a thinly-veiled attack on his former celebrity mentor Liaw revealed he had been underpaid when starting out in the restaurant industry, on some occasions being paid as little as $5 an hour, and said jail time should be an option.
"Prison for doing large-scale systemic wage theft is certainly something that should be on the table," he said.
Earlier on Monday he sent a tweet out which said he might "flip the desk over" on Q&A.
But he faced a cringe-worthy moment when Liaw's fellow panellists were asked to nominate their picks for the reality juggernaut's next judges. Not one named the man they were sitting next to, despite Liaw being one of the most successful graduates from the MasterChef kitchen.
Liaw didn't deny he was keen: "I don't think anybody would not be interested in that job".
Earlier this month, the Fair Work Ombudsman found Calombaris' MAdE Establishment company had underpaid 515 restaurant staff by $7.8 million in wages and superannuation.
Calombaris said the company itself uncovered the missed wages, has apologised and the firm has said it repaid the money to staff.
Last Monday, Channel 10 said that neither Calombaris nor his co-hosts Matt Preston and George Mehigan would be returning to the top-rated program in 2012.
Liaw said he knew all about wage theft in the restaurant industry - he'd been a victim of it himself.
"I have worked in an awful lot of restaurants. I have flipped burgers, washed dishes and cleaned toilets and in the vast majority of those jobs I was not paid an award wage," he told Q&A guest host Fran Kelly.
It was often smaller restaurants that underpaid, Liaw said. That's in contrast to Calombaris' company that owned a raft of eateries.
"Generally the larger the organisation, the organisations that could afford to have payroll people to keep an eye on whether everyone was being paid accordingly, were the ones that paid better.
"Mum and Dad restaurants that couldn't keep across the complexities of the award wage system were the ones that were paying below the award wage.
"In my case that was $10 an hour and $5 an hour in some cases.
"But none of that is an excuse for not paying your employees properly".
I am going to be on #QandA tonight so apologies in advance if I flip the desk over.— Adam Liaw (@adamliaw) July 29, 2019
Asked by Kelly whether underpayment of wages should be a criminal offence, which could have seen Calombaris' in far more of a pickle, Liaw replied: "Why not? It's fraud and dishonesty."
"The deterrence in terms of increasing penalties and putting people in prison for doing large-scale systemic wage theft is certainly something that should be on the table."
However, he was unwilling to speculate on whether Calombaris himself should be behind bars.
"Let's not get giddy about celebrity chefs being thrown in prison because I don't think we're quite at the point yet."
Labor Senator for Victoria, Kimberley Kitching, was adamant when she was asked if she thought underpayment should equal jail time.
"Yes, I do. For the reason that it is thieving. It is thieving from people."
Last week, news.com.au found many of Calombaris' Melbourne outlets were almost empty of customers, a point picked up by Ms Kitching.
"There were reports that Mr Calombaris' restaurants weren't being very well patronised and that is because people are going to vote with their feet. They don't want to be associated with someone who has done that to his staff."
Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz was in lock step with his Labor counterpart.
"Wage theft is completely unacceptable. Stealing from employees - and that's what it is - should be treated by the criminal law in exactly the same way as employees stealing from employers."
He said he'd encourage his fellow politicians to change the law. He was perplexed how a firm as big as Calombaris' could have underpaid staff by such as huge amount.
"There is difficulty, as in any criminal prosecution, as to whether it was an honest mistake or not.
"But when it's so systemic, especially in bigger institutions, then one suspects that it might not have been an honest mistake of a Mum and Dad restaurant accidentally reading the wrong award.
"When we're dealing with the figures that have been mentioned, clearly something is terribly wrong. Theft is theft."
FUTURE MASTERCHEF JUDGE?
Matters took an awkward turn with a question about what values the new MasterChef judges should have and who the panellists would nominate for the positions.
Ms Kitching opted for: "the one who does the Great British Bake Off".
Mr Abetz was stumped, partly because he hadn't cooked a meal in, well, decades.
"Cooking has never been my forte. I was spoiled for 40 years by a lovely wife who always loved cooking for me," he said.
Despite Liaw being right there next to them, not one panellist suggested him for the coveted, and as we now know, well remunerated, position.
For his part, Liaw said it was a tragedy Margaret Fulton, who died last week, never got a chance to be a judge.
"She is literally the woman who taught Australia how to cook," he said.
But Kelly wasn't letting him get away with not talking about his own ambitions. 'You're not interested, are you?" she asked.
The question led Liaw to nervously laugh and shift in his seat.
"It's the best job in television and the best job in food.
"I don't think anybody would not be interested in that job but I haven't had a phone call yet."
Despite the recent scandal, he paid homage to the show that propelled him to a household name.
"MasterChef Australia is the most influential cooking show in the entire world. And the reason it is so popular and it connects with so many people is it reflects the incredible food that we have here in Australia, the way that we cook in our homes, the diversity of influences and the wonderful produce we have."