Australia’s largest high-end restaurant business, Neil Perry’s Rockpool Dining Group, is facing its first high-profile legal claim for underpaying and mistreating a migrant chef, just days after Masterchef’s George Calombaris has been ordered to backpay staff millions.
The claim by chef Rohit Karki, who worked at the prestigious Rockpool Bar & Grill restaurant, could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in underpayment penalties and damages.
The Federal Court claim follows an investigation by Australian newspaper The Sunday Age which exposed systemic wage underpayment at the Perry-fronted Rockpool Dining Group.
The investigation uncovered evidence that permanent chefs at Rockpool were required to do excessive unpaid overtime, a practice stretching back many years.
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That pushed wages well below the minimum rates of the award, the wages safety net. Staff were being paid for 38 hours a week while regularly working 20 to 30 hours of unpaid overtime.
Karki’s claim – through leading labour law firm Maurice Blackburn – covers more than six years of alleged underpayment and is the highest-profile legal action taken against Rockpool so far.
Karki alleges he initially regularly worked over 80 hours a week – more than half unpaid – and more recently in excess of 70 hours a week, much of that unpaid.
That pushed his wage down to as little as A$12 (NZ$12.50) an hour.
A Rockpool Dining Group spokeswoman declined to comment as the matter was before the court, but said it was working with the Fair Work Ombudsman’s investigation into its business.
“We continue to work with the Fair Work Ombudsman and past and present employees regarding any amounts that may be owing,” the spokeswoman said.
Karki, originally from Nepal and on a temporary work visa, described years of mistreatment at Rockpool Bar & Grill during his two stints working at its high-end Melbourne restaurant.
Some shifts, he said, he would work up to 20 hours and finish at 1am and was due to start a new shift just three hours later.
“I slept several nights at Rockpool on a pastry bench because there was no way I could go home and come back in time,” he told The Sunday Age.
The tough physical work and extreme hours left him despairing, in particular before he got Australian permanent residency in 2014.
“I went into depression but I couldn’t even figure out if it was a depression. I just wanted to get out but I didn’t have any choice because of the 457 visa.
“That chunk of my life I used to just lie down on my weekend and do nothing. There were days I just felt like crying.”
The private equity-owned Rockpool business agreed to pay back staff A$1.6 million last October for a single year of underpayment.
It has since expanded those payments stretching back a further five years which could be worth in total up to A$10 million.
Rockpool Dining Group has not disclosed the total cost.
But the payments – which are often about A$2000 per year of underpayment – have been regarded by many chefs as derisory and they say they are owed much more.
The company has previously quietly settled individual claims.
One migrant chef received nearly A$30,000 after working more than 1500 hours of unpaid overtime over two-and-a-half years.
Over the past year an investigation by The Age has exposed some of the industry’s biggest names as fronting businesses based on systemic wage theft.
They include businesses fronted by Perry, Heston Blumenthal, Teage Ezard and Guillaume Brahimi.
Maurice Blackburn principal Josh Bornstein said the law firm was seeking compensation for Karki along with “significant penalties” for serious contraventions of the Fair Work Act.
It would also seek other unusual remedies including having the Australian Federal Court order an external and comprehensive audit of Rockpool’s business to see if there had been other contraventions.
They would want the audit to stretch back six years and be provided to Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman to assist its ongoing investigation into Rockpool Dining Group.
There was also a push to have Rockpool be required to undertake ongoing training and compliance assessments by WorkSafe and the Ombudsman.
Bornstein said Karki’s case involves an adverse action claim as he was allegedly pressured to leave his job after complaining about the underpayments in late 2018.
The claim says he was bullied by a senior chef and forced to do the work of three staff and pressured to resign. He quit earlier this year.
“What he describes is straight out of the pages of a Charles Dickens novel and an organisation completely out of control where a chef is working up to 80 hours a week,” Bornstein said.
He said cases such as Karki’s highlight “part of the reason we have wage stagnation in parts of the labour market”.
“We are bringing in workers on false pretences so they can be abused and underpaid and suppress the wages in the sector in which they work.”
Bornstein said Australia was now “paying a huge price for a de-unionised labour market”.
The Rockpool spokeswoman said the company had implemented new payroll and time attendance systems which enabled it to better track hours and monitor rosters.
And in a statement, Rockpool said it had paid back current and former staff money it owed them stretching back six financial years.
“The group is continuing its attempts to contact former employees affected in respect of this period and we continue to work with employees who believe amounts remain owing,” the company’s statement said.