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‘I take full responsibility’: Calombaris blames poor oversight for unpaid $7 million

“Creativity’s flying, the ideas are flying, the dream is there, but the sophistication in the back end wasn’t there.

“There was no CEO, there was no people and culture manager, there was no elite finance team like we’ve got now.”

George Calombaris is interviewed by 7.30's Leigh Sales.

George Calombaris is interviewed by 7.30’s Leigh Sales.Credit:ABC

The celebrity chef was was slapped with a fine of $200,000 after admitting to underpaying 515 current and former employees of his hospitality empire.

The full extent of the underpayment scandal has dwarfed initial estimates by Calombaris from April 2017 following a four-year investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman, revealed in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald,  that uncovered a raft of breaches, including a failure to pay minimum award rates, penalty rates, casual loadings, overtime rates, split-shift allowances and annual leave loadings.

Calombaris was initially alerted to the issue in 2015 when staff from his restaurants complained to Fair Work but he said he only realised the extent of the offending two years later. Calombaris took full responsibility for the underpayments and apologised unreservedly.

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“I want to apologise to all my team, past and present, for the effect I have had one them. That we have had on them. I apologise.”

Veteran interviewer Leigh Sales said the average viewer might think the underpayments was more than failure to pay attention to detail.

“That sounds like a systematic effort to avoid paying people what they really deserve to get paid,” Sales said.

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But Calombaris doubled down, saying there is a “myriad of stuff” that needs to be “triple checked” and admitted in his case, those things had not been done.

“There is no excuse, but, you know, I truly believe we owned up, we paid up.”

Calombaris branded his team as a “voice for change” in the industry, admitting they had made a mistake but praising their decision to self-report.

“We went and said, ‘hey, this is a mistake’. Yes we need to fix it, yes we need to get slapped for it, and we definitely have, but also now need to be a voice for change.”

He acknowledged that many restaurants don’t have the opportunity to have a chief executive and a fully-fledged business team, but said that didn’t excuse wage underpayment.

“They need to seek advice, they need to make sure they are on top just as much the food, the service, the great wine, the great dishes, at the back it needs to be just as delicious.”

Calombaris said he had no plans to shut any of his restaurants and asked patrons not to “punish” his staff by boycotting the venues.

“Great restaurants are voted by bums on seats and obviously don’t punish my people.

“Just know that when you come into one of our restaurants, that when you pay the bill, that my people are getting paid, and paid correctly.”

In 2012, Calombaris fuelled a national debate about the viability of penalty rates, when he complained that some of his restaurants were unprofitable on a Sunday because he was required to pay staff up to $40 an hour.

“The problem is that wages on public holidays and weekends greatly exceed the opportunity for profit,” he said at the time.

In a statement on Wednesday night, Calombaris’ company Made Establishment praised his appearance on 7.30.

Made executive Radek Sali said the last fortnight has been “extremely challenging” for the celebrity chef.

“And yet he has remained positive and kept the team focused.

“In completing this interview, George has demonstrated once again the qualities that first endeared him to the Australian public and that we recognised when we first came on board as investors in Made.”

But ABC viewers were not so pleased, venting their anger on Twitter to call-out crocodile tears and a lack of genuine remorse. Viewer Terri Quilty described the interview as “hollow excuses and a lack of true contrition”. Other Twitter users had different takes.

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