Yesterday’s news that famed restauranteur and rude TV chef George Calombaris had been slugged with a $200,000 fine for underpaying his workers to the tune of $7.8 million had a lot of people asking one question: wait, only $200K? Really?

It might feel like a trite comparison by now, given basically everyone is saying it, but it bears repeating: if you stole nearly eight million bucks from a series of people at gunpoint, you’d never see daylight again. If someone on the dole defrauds Centrelink of a tiny fraction of that figure by fudging income statements, they go to jail too.

And yet, deliberately building a business model off the systemic theft of workers’ wages gets you a slap on the wrist fine which is easily less than the interest you earned on the proceeds. How does that figure?

There have been a number of conversations in recent months and years about the prospect of criminalising wage theft, in much the same way plain old theft is also a criminal act. Premier Daniel Andrews made the criminalisation of wage theft a re-election promise for the Victorian Labor Party last year. Bill Shorten also pledged to do something about the problem if elected.

As you might expect, business leaders in Australia curiously don’t seem to think wage theft is much of a problem. Certainly not a criminal one. Speaking before a parliamentary inquiry into wage theft last year, the Housing Industry Association took offence to the notion that deliberately withholding someone’s owed pay was ‘theft’:

[The problem has been] greatly exaggerated by implying that all underpayment of wages is theft.

The complexity of the current workplace relations framework and in particular the … awards applicable to the residential building industry are a major contributor to underpayment that in no way should be construed as theft.

The Australian Industry Group said basically the same thing in their submission to that same inquiry.

The term ‘wage theft’ is inappropriate. It risks inappropriately branding employers who mistakenly underpay their employees as criminals.

This is basically the prime argument which gets trotted out, no matter which industry we’re talking about. Paying people is so complex in Australia, they argue, that mistakes are very easy to make, and therefore can’t be called ‘theft’. Of course, that’s a copout. If paying people what they are legally owed is too difficult, you shouldn’t be running a business! You probably shouldn’t even be in charge of anything more complex than a weekly book club!

It’s also a copout for bad actors like George Calombaris, who absolutely cannot blame his consistent failure to pay people properly on simple ignorance. As Ben Schneiders writes over at the SMH, wage theft is a business model in Australia, enabled by a legal framework ripe for exploitation of low-paid workers, many of whom are migrants in precarious visa situations. A lot of that is fuelled by raw greed, but we need to take the necessary legal steps to disincentivise this kind of conduct.

(At the very least, kick Calombaris off MasterChef. Come the fuck on, Ten.)

A lot of attention is being directed at the food and hospitality industry, which is particularly prone to this kind of worker exploitation. Obviously, many other sectors in Australia are equally as liable, from retail to – yes – the media. This is not a problem contained to celebrity chefs.

The headline of this piece is somewhat facetious. I don’t necessarily think that jail is the answer, in much the same way as I don’t think Centrelink fraudsters should go to jail either. Prison is not a solution to many problems at all. There are other solutions we can take which don’t involve giving Calombaris a minor fine, a job spruiking Fair Work regulations, and free reign to continue running restaurants. At the very least, he should be barred from operating a business, and his workers should be given broader avenues of reimbursement – like perhaps a slice of the businesses themselves.

This case (and the underpayment cases which will no doubt follow) can be a landmark moment for industrial relations in this country. We cannot let business claim ignorance on wage theft any longer. This is their shit sandwich, and they have to eat it.

Image: AAP