Calombaris case may prompt introduction of criminal charges for wage theft

George Calombaris (centre) with hs former <i>MasterChef</i> co-judges Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston.

George Calombaris (centre) with hs former MasterChef co-judges Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston. Photo: Instagram

Attorney-General Christian Porter has confirmed he is considering criminal penalties for employers who engage in wage theft and exploitation following MasterChef‘s George Calombaris’ underpayment of 500 workers.

Mr Porter again described Calombaris’s $200,000 Fair Work Commission penalty as “light” and warned the Morrison government had “zero tolerance” for the wage theft. 

“I have said that is an area where we will review penalties,” he said on Wednesday. 

“I am open-minded to submissions that there should be firmer penalties there, inclusive of potentially criminal penalties reserved for repetitious breaches.”

As well as the $200,000 “contrition payment”, Calombaris has repaid $7.8 million to the hundreds of workers affected. 

The case sparked petitions for him to be sacked from MasterChef, but Calombaris announced this week he and his fellow hosts would quit the program following a pay dispute. 

Network Ten claimed the three hosts – Calombaris, Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston – wanted more money, They were already paid $1 million a year.

The network had come under intense pressure to sack Calombaris as a judge on the reality cooking show MasterChef after revelations of the wage underpayments. The chef was dumped as the face of a tourism campaign for the Western Australian government on Monday.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Labor focused its questions on what the government planned to do about wage theft and exploitation. But the government turned the attack back onto Labor and “rip-offs” by unions of their membership. 

“I am aware our government has a zero tolerance for this sort of behaviour, whether that is underpayment or wage theft,” Mr Porter said. 

“The difficulty is that they seem over there to have a very low tolerance for underpayment but they’ve got a monstrously high tolerance when it’s workers’ money being diverted from workers to unions.”

Mr Morrison said the government was also acting to address the exploitation of foreign workers in Australia, including in restaurants. 

“Right now the Attorney-General is drafting laws to deal with criminalising worker exploitation,” Mr Morrison said. 

“On top of that, there are bills in the Parliament right now that deals with the wage theft that’s occurring in the union movement through workers’ entitlement funds.”

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