George Calombaris says he ‘drank, cried a lot’ during ‘wage theft’ scandal


Former MasterChef judge George Calombaris has opened up about the “brutal” wage underpayment scandal which saw his entire company collapse.

Former MasterChef judge George Calombaris has opened up about the dramatic toll the “wage theft” scandal took on him, which saw his entire company collapse, admitting he “cried a lot” as it unfolded.

“It was brutal and I cried a lot,” Calombaris told the You Cannot Be Serious podcast hosts Sam Newman and Don Scott.

In 2019, the Fair Work Ombudsman ordered the hospitality group – Made Establishment – to pay back $7.8 million to workers after years of failing to give them penalty rates.

Calombaris, 43, was also hit with a $200,000 penalty over the underpayments. He has maintained it was a mistake caused by inexperience.

While the scandal was playing out in the public eye, the restaurateur was charged with assault after shoving a 19-year-old at the 2017 A-League grand final after being heckled about the wage controversy.

In 2019, his more than decade-long tenure on MasterChef came to an abrupt end, as he and fellow judges Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston after contract negotiations broke down with Network Ten.

In early 2020, it was announced that Made Establishment had entered voluntary administration.

Speaking on the podcast, Calombaris admitted he “drank” and was an “emotional wreck” during the turbulent period.

“I drank a lot, I really did,” he told the hosts. 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 April 2017, Made Establishment calculated that its current workforce had been underpaid $2.6 million and publicly disclosed the issue. It immediately repaid 162 people and committed to working with Fair Work Australia to ensure the matter was properly finalised.

After the self-disclosure almost three years ago, there was a minor and brief ripple in terms of diner numbers, but things settled.

However, it turned out that things were much, much worse than first thought.

The company was told that the full extent of underpayments was a staggering $7.8 million, affecting 515 employees over a six-year period.

“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,” Calombaris told the podcast.

“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.”

Originally published as George Calombaris ‘cried a lot’ during ‘brutal’ wage scandal

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