The union penalty is more than double the $200,000 “contrition payment” that Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker accepted from Calombaris’ company MAdE Establishment last year, which she later told a Senate Estimates hearing that she “would have liked” to be higher.
“In the Calombaris matter, workers have been paid $7.8 million of wages they were owed thanks to the work of the government regulator,” Mr Morrison said.
He said the Coalition had increased funding to the Fair Work Ombudsman “by more than $60 million in recent years … so they could go and do their job and ensure that workers who’d been dudded their payments would get their payments.”
Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian rejected employer complaints that the Ombudsman had unfairly “named and shamed” Calombaris’ restaurant empire for underpaying workers and contributed to its collapse, telling a Perth radio station: “I don’t agree with that.”
“The fact is that if you underpay your staff, there is neither good reason nor capability to keep that a secret,” Mr Porter said.
He said the fact that contrition payments were made public was an “important feature of the system”, serving as a deterrent to other employers.
“If you are a business that under-pays your staff, no doubt, there are going to be commercial ramifications to that because people think that is unfair – because it is unfair – and they will take their business elsewhere,” he said.
Mr Porter said the amount of the $200,000 Calombaris contrition payment had been carefully set in consideration of the company’s “overall financial stability”, so as not to push it into insolvency – which was “not in anyone’s interests”.
The minister is drafting a new bill to criminalise the worst cases of wage theft, which he last month told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age was “well advanced” and intended for introduction into Parliament by May.
Employers have implored Mr Porter not to impose criminal penalties for wage underpayments, which they argue are mostly accidental and linked to the complexity of the modern award system.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox sprang to Calombaris’ defence on Tuesday after news broke of the collapse of his restaurant empire, slamming the union movement for its “overblown” and “divisive” wage theft campaign.
“Balance needs to be restored to the wage underpayment discussion given the fact that the vast majority of underpayments are inadvertent and fixed when discovered,” he said.
Mr Willox, who was struck by the campaign’s blow to Calombaris’ brand when he dined at one of the restauranteur’s Melbourne venues and found it near-empty, said MAdE Establishment’s underpayments had been “genuinely in error, and then self-reported”.
“The heat put into the issue of wage underpayments through using unnecessarily loaded terms like ‘wage theft’, have had the result of costing more than 400 people their jobs,” he said.
Mr Porter has said he expects large employers to invest in payroll software to ensure they do not inadvertently underpay workers.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.