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Kitchen nightmares show George Calombaris’ wage theft scandal is tip of the iceberg, experts say

Courier Mail 2020-02-12 11:11:00

The issue of wage theft in hospitality is receiving renewed attention after the collapse of George Calombaris’s restaurant empire, but experts say it masks a litany of other “toxic” traits plaguing the industry.

Academics, advocates and insiders have revealed that many commercial kitchens are places where abuse, bullying, unacceptable work conditions and a culture of fear are commonplace.

Associate Professor Richard Robinson from The University of Queensland’s business school, also a former chef, interviewed 180 culinary students, apprentice chefs and mature chefs as part of a research project and found “worker exploitation is institutionalised”.

A toxic culture in many kitchens allowed serious instances of bullying, sexism and hazing rituals to fester, while dangerously long hours were considered the norm, he said.

“I don’t want to sound sensational, but yes, I have heard a lot of personal stories that suggest the bullying and harassment of yesteryear are still present in some kitchens,” Associate Professor Robinson said.

Being subjected to inappropriate treatment and “banter” was viewed by senior chefs as a rite of passage for young apprentices, he said.

“It’s what younger people might call ‘hazing’. I found a lot of evidence of that. I also observed that the kitchen hasn’t become a friendly environment for females,” he said.

media_cameraMade Establishment, the empire founded by George Calombaris, entered voluntary administration on Monday.media_cameraHundreds of jobs are at risk after the immediate closure of restaurants owned by George Calombaris. Picture: AAP

The impact of toxic work environments could be devastating, particularly for young chefs, and affect mental health, Associate Professor Robinson said.

“The kitchen is a pressured and stressful enough environment already. There’s the pressure of getting meals out on time, busy services that go for a few hours, often backing up and doing it three or four hours later, people are working unsociable hours, the kitchen is hot and sweaty, things do go wrong,” he said.

“What my research is showing is that the pressure cooker is always on but there’s this other stuff that’s dialling it up unnecessarily.

“Some of the saddest stories we heard in our research were from the young people who live in fear. People are frightened to go to work, frightened to ask questions, frightened to do what they’re supposed to be there to do, which is to learn.”


Part of the problem is that sometimes a particularly “toxic” workplace is one that’s attractive for prospective staff, Associate Professor Robinson said.

That leads to a conscious trade-off from workers “between the learning, passion and opportunity, and some pretty appalling conditions”.

“They like having a famed or celebrity restaurant’s name on their CV, the work is stimulating, and putting aside some of these negative aspects, there’s an incredible and exciting vibe,” he said.