MasterChef star George Calombaris has launched a spray at the Gillard government’s Fair Work Act, claiming that public holiday and weekend penalty rates have the potential to force his new restaurant venture to the wall.
In an exclusive interview for The Power Index, the straight-talking multimillionaire said that waiters at his new South Yarra pasta den Mama Baba would have to be paid “$40 an hour on Sundays”, “and it’s not like they’ve had to go to uni for 15 years”.
“The problem is that wages on public holidays and weekends greatly exceed the opportunity for profit … it’s just not a good business practice to be paying penalty rates. It’s really difficult to stay open and we only do it because of tourism but the reality is it’s uneconomical,” he said.
“So our labour laws are something that need to be looked at and we keep talking about it.”
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About 350 staff are employed across Calombaris’ seven-venue Press Club Group. Workers in the hospitality sector receive 25% loading on Saturdays and 75% on Sundays. In the 12 months to September, hospitality industry wages increased by 3.1%, well below the average 3.6% wages growth in other industries.
But Calombaris, a self-described “proud Mulgrave boy”, told The Power Index he had recently stumped up $45,000 for a pasta extruder for Mama Baba and that “variables” were threatening to turn the restaurant’s books a deep shade of red.
“People underestimate the cost, as soon as those doors open, you’ve got variables, you’ve got labour costs, your beverage costs, your food costs, your fixed costs, they all start adding up,” he said. “People say we’re very expensive in Australia in terms of costs. You know I can eat at [UK three Michelin star restaurant] Fat Duck cheaper than I can at some fine dining restaurants in Australia. But I know why it’s like that … because of our labour laws.”
Workplace relations minister Bill Shorten, who has appointed an independent panel to review the Fair Work Act, rejected Calombaris’ analysis, pointing out that “waiters like other low-paid employees, couldn’t even afford to eat in high-end restaurants if they weren’t paid penalty rates”.
“I appreciate George’s excellent cooking and his business sense is to be applauded, but I can’t agree that cutting wages of low-paid workers is a boost for the hospitality industry,” he told The Power Index this morning. “If George wants to bargain with his workers and improve productivity and be even more competitive, then the tools exist in our present workplace system.