The restaurant empire fronted by celebrity chef Neil Perry is saving millions of dollars a year from unpaid wages, with senior managers and chefs saying its profits are based on the systemic exploitation of workers.
Overwhelming new evidence from current and former employees of Rockpool Dining Group includes hundreds of pages of leaked company documents, rosters and records of pay and hours.
All point to the group’s dependence on extensive unpaid work by permanent skilled chefs and managers who are often migrants.
And a former general manager of one of its Sydney restaurants, Fratelli Fresh, said wages budgets were set at the private equity-owned group at “impossible” and “unattainable” levels, and could only be reached by “burning out” staff.
Last week an investigation by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald revealed that key staff at restaurants Sake and Munich Brauhaus, which are part of Rockpool Dining Group, were earning as little as half their lawful entitlements.
Staff were being paid for 38 hours a week while working up to 20 hours of unpaid overtime; their actual pay could be as little as $15 an hour. Some weeks chefs would be as much $800 out of pocket compared to the award, the wages safety net.
Rockpool Dining Group, Australia’s largest high-end restaurant business, disputed the findings of the investigation.
However, dozens of pages of documentary evidence, and interviews with more than a dozen employees, indicate similar practices are in place across the wider Rockpool empire including at restaurants Fratelli Fresh, The Bavarian, The Argyle and even the flagship, Rockpool Bar & Grill.
"They [workers] were treated as dispensable on every level,” the former general manager said. “They [company executives] do not care about the humanity of the industry.''
''All that was ever talked about was the bottom line … You were told ‘you need to get these numbers’, I remember telling them that the labour numbers they wanted were impossible.''
A Rockpool Dining Group spokeswoman said the company did not believe there was underpayment across its business but said it was inquiring into the reports.
''We don’t believe there is a systemic issue of excessive overtime,’’ a spokeswoman said.
''That said, we will be looking into the issues which have been reported – this process has already commenced – and if we identify that any employee has been underpaid we will rectify that situation.’’
While adhering to prudent financial discipline was important to running a responsible and sustainable business, the spokeswoman said, ''this is not at the expense of employee wellbeing and entitlements".
The hospitality industry has a culture of long and unsociable hours and the restaurant award allows management to ''buy out'' penalties and overtime for a 25 per cent higher hourly rate.
However, under the buyout, workers must still be paid more than the award overall, and it is a clear breach of workplace law for an employer to require excessive unpaid overtime that pushes wages below minimum rates.
Chefs at Rockpool Dining Group would only need to work between one to five hours a week of unpaid overtime to be underpaid, an analysis by The Age and The SMH of hourly and pay records shows.
The group says it has systems in place to track overtime and ''mechanisms in place including time off in lieu to compensate for overtime hours".
In late 2016, Neil Perry sold his restaurants for a reported $65 million to a company owned by Quadrant Private Equity, to create the merged Rockpool Dining Group.
Perry remains a shareholder and the group’s chief brand and culinary director. He declined a request for an interview, noting he was not a company director.
Neither group chief executive Thomas Pash nor Quadrant boss Chris Hadley agreed to an interview.
Private equity wins
The former general manager of Fratelli said that when the businesses merged, the private equity business model approach had won out.
"What I know from the structure of the [Perry] Rockpool Group, their methods and beliefs and training programs were amazing … It’s unfortunate to see what Neil Perry built kind of get destroyed by this merger.’’
Chef Jose* worked at a number of restaurants owned by the group in 2016 and 2017 including the Bavarian Bier Cafe, Fratelli Fresh and the now-closed Cafe Ananas.
Originally from south-east Asia, Jose was paid for 38-hour week but regularly worked up to 55 hours a week in his $50,000-a-year job.
"On a typical day I would start at either 9 or 10 am and finish at about 10:30 or 11 in the evening,’’ he said. "There would sometimes be no break at all if it was really busy.’’
"There were no timesheets at that time and the employees were just notified of their roster with a printout.’’
Jose said the issue of unpaid overtime was raised at a meeting of chefs with a senior executive chef but nothing changed. He resigned shortly after in early 2017.
$30,000 payout but no investigation
Since last week,The Age and The SMH have received more than 50 individual claims of exploitation from people saying they were workers and managers at the Rockpool Dining Group. Most are migrants on a range of visas.
The workplace regulator, the Fair Work Ombudsman, has been aware of the problem of exploitation for at least two years, and has received numerous complaints from workers.
One migrant chef worked more than 1500 hours unpaid overtime in 2½ years, an average of more than 17 overtime hours per week.
After he went to the Ombudsman with his records, he received a payout for unpaid overtime of nearly $30,000.
The chef said he was told by an Ombudsman inspector that they planned to do a much larger investigation into the group.
However, no such investigation appears to have been initiated until workplace minister Craig Laundy said in the wake of The Age and SMH investigation that the government had "zero’’ tolerance for exploitation of workers, and called on the Ombudsman to follow up the allegations.
A spokesman for the Fair Work Ombudsman said the office “will conduct inquiries into this matter. It is not appropriate to comment further at this time.”
He called on workers to contact the Ombudsman if they had concerns about their pay and conditions.
The Rockpool Dining Group spokeswoman said it had resolved eight issues with the Fair Work Ombudsman in recent years over pay.
The spokeswoman said it reached a confidential settlement with the former employee who said they had worked more than 1500 hours of unpaid overtime.
"There was no admission on our part that the individual had worked the number of hours he had claimed.’’
The Rockpool Dining Group is Australia’s largest high-end restaurant business, with expected turnover in 2017/18 of more than $300 million, and profits of $40 million.
It owns 16 restaurant brands including "premium" eateries Sake and Rosetta, "casual and fun" restaurants including Munich Brauhaus and The Bavarian, as well as its flagship, Rockpool.
Perry, with his distinctive ponytail, is regarded as one of Australia's best and wealthiest chefs.
He opened his flagship Rockpool in 1989 and has a long connection to Qantas. He is also a columnist for The Age/SMH’s Good Weekend magazine.
This week more than a dozen current and former chefs, nearly all on temporary work visas, told The Age and The SMH of the excessive overtime. They said they could not be named for fear of losing their jobs and being forced out of Australia.
Many likened their working conditions to slavery, with migrant chefs saying their visa status made them vulnerable to excessive work, significant underpayment and exploitation.
They fear that, if they speak out or complain, they will lose their job and be forced out of the country, and a number accuse their employer of dragging out their applications for permanent residency.
The former general manager at Fratelli Fresh said the problems were systemic and migrant workers on visas had their status “held over their heads” by senior management.
''There is absolutely no substance to the suggestion that we exploit or take advantage of temporary visa workers,'' the Rockpool Dining Group spokeswoman said.
Doctored time sheets
Some chefs had calculated, with lawyers, that they were personally owed more than $40,000 in unpaid wages. One estimated their underpayment at $100,000.
Many others did not know how much they were owed due to a lack of records.
Some said hours were doctored or not recorded at all and that, in recent weeks, internal systems had been overhauled.
However, leaked rosters, interviews with workers and other documents point to systemic overwork, regularly in excess of 55 hours, sometimes more than 70 hours.
"When I left I thought about suing them but I was afraid for my visa to be cancelled,’’ said one chef, who regularly worked more than 70 hours a week without being paid overtime.
Another chef had worked at several of the group’s restaurants including Fratelli Fresh and Munich Brauhaus.
She was forced to leave Australia and return to the Philippines after she was sacked with four days' notice.
"I have been working for 55 hours or more weekly, and I'm lucky if I will get any break in a day.’’
Others said they attended meetings and training on their days off, unpaid.
A former Rockpool Bar & Grill chef, an Australian, said he had worked up to 85 hours in a week while on a flat annual wage of $52,000.
The investigation is the latest to reveal widespread flouting of Australia’s workplace laws involving some of Australia’s biggest businesses.
*Assumed name to protect his identity
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Ben Schneiders is an investigative reporter at The Age with a background reporting on industrial relations, business, politics and social issues. A two-time Walkley Award winner, he has been part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.