Ten’s support of George Calombaris is a cop out, and undermines the very show it’s seeking to promote

Firing George Calombaris ahead of the Masterchef finale was never a serious option, suggests Reputation Edge's Patrick Southam. But by standing by him after (another) wage theft scandal, Ten is turning a blind eye to the exploitation of workers in the very industry Masterchef promotes.

Tomorrow night, the 2019 Masterchef Australia winner will be crowned. It should also be judge George Calombaris’ finale.

Last week, Calombaris admitted to underpaying $7.83m in wages and superannuation to 515 workers employed across his restaurant empire.

After a lengthy investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman, his company, Made Establishment, was fined $200,000, and Calombaris was ordered to undertake “speaking engagements to educate the restaurant industry on the importance of workplace compliance”.

It was a shocking revelation, and a very embarrassing one for Network Ten. Calombaris is a repeat offender. In 2017, on the eve of the ninth season of Masterchef, it was revealed the celebrity chef underpaid nearly 200 of his staff $2.6m in wages and overtime.

At the time, he blamed “poor processes” and “lack of attention to detail” for the bungle, which is the same excuse he used last week. In 2017, Network Ten stood rock solid behind its star celebrity chef.

“George Calombaris and his team at Made are dealing with the incorrect payments made to employees to ensure every affected employee receives their full entitlements. George has the full support of Network Ten,” declared a Ten spokesman.

“He is an integral part of Masterchef Australia and we know viewers are looking forward to welcoming him, Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston back for an exciting and engaging new season of this much-loved and extremely popular show.”

Fast forward two years and Ten still stands by him, although the statement is less enthusiastic.

“George and Made Establishment have reached an agreement with the Fair Work Ombudsman in relation to this matter. George has the support of Network Ten. We will not be making any further comment,” was the official line.

Ten’s PR ‘strategy’ is crude but obvious: Back Calombaris, don’t give the story oxygen in the final week by staying silent, and hope it will all be forgotten by viewers by the time season 12 rolls around.

But this is a massive cop-out by Ten and it doesn’t pass the pub test for several reasons.

Calombaris is one of the biggest names in an industry which is notorious for ripping off staff, who, for the most part, receive very ordinary pay for the long hours they put in.

The nation’s peak union body, the ACTU, said illegal underpayments typically occur in the industry due to a failure to pay legal overtime and penalty rates, and through excessive use of unpaid overtime.

President Michele O’Neil called Calombaris a “serial wage thief” and urged Ten to dump him from MasterChef.

Calombaris is on the record complaining about the cost of penalty rates faced by restauranteurs. In 2012, he said paying staff weekend and public holiday penalty rates was uneconomical.

“And it’s not like they’ve had to go to uni for 15 years,” he said at the time. Nice one, George.

The irony is delicious.

As a judge on Masterchef, Calombaris champions the creativity and work ethic of contestants who want to enter his industry.

Offscreen, he’s been systematically ripping off hundreds of his own staff who have helped make him millions.

Ten would be quietly furious with Calombaris’ latest stuff-up, but dumping him ahead of the peak ratings week of the series was never a serious option. Masterchef is one of the biggest shows on Ten’s low-rating roster.

But by standing by their man, Ten is turning a blind eye to the exploitation of workers in the very industry its show promotes. And the worst offender is one of its judges.

This is why George Calombaris should not return for season 12 of Masterchef Australia.

Granted, Calombaris has repaid his staff over $10m in wages and is clearly apologetic. But he’s a two-time offender who has criticised penalty rates under the Fair Work Act.

Will Ten adopt a three-strikes-and you’re-out policy?

Patrick Southam is a partner at Sydney PR firm Reputation Edge, and specialises in reputation management and crisis communications


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