The law firm also provided allegations to the Ombudsman of serious misconduct.
Among the allegations are claims that staff had been directed to alter records on internal systems that recorded the hours staff worked.
Staff also witnessed managers doing the same so the working hours recorded were reduced to 38 hours a week to comply with workplace laws.
Rockpool Dining Group is Australia’s largest high-end restaurant group and includes 16 restaurant brands and more than 80 restaurants across Australia. Its brands include “premium” eateries Rosetta and Sake, as well as casual restaurants Munich Brauhaus and The Bavarian and its flagship, Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.
One sous chef, a migrant on a temporary visa, said while working at a Fratelli Fresh restaurant in 2017 he was instructed by a manager to log on to the software at the end of each shift and manually change the start and finish times the system recorded for each chef in the kitchen. He said when he moved to a Rockpool Bar & Grill he witnessed senior staff do the same.
Another sous chef, also a migrant on a temporary visa, said that while working at Sake in 2017 they were also told to override the system and manually adjust the hours for each chef to 38 hours a week.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have, over the past 18 months, also been separately told by more than half a dozen chefs that their hours had been doctored or not recorded at all.
A Rockpool Dining Group spokeswoman said it had no knowledge of the Maurice Blackburn submission to the Ombudsman and declined to comment on its details.
“The allegations attributed to Maurice Blackburn are extremely serious in nature but have only been provided to us by [The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald ] and without any substantiation,” she said.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald provided a detailed summary of the allegations to Rockpool but did not provide the full document as it could potentially identify vulnerable migrant workers.
The spokeswoman said Maurice Blackburn is currently acting in separate court proceedings against Rockpool.
“It is unclear whether the allegations that have been put to us are relevant to those proceedings. It is not appropriate to provide further comment on active matters,” she said.
The latest serious allegations follow a 2018 investigation by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that revealed the systemic underpayment of wages at the restaurant group, which is part-owned by celebrated chef Neil Perry.
The investigation uncovered evidence that permanent chefs at Rockpool were required to do excessive unpaid overtime, a practice going back many years.
That practice pushed wages well below the minimum rates of the award, the wages safety net. Staff were being paid for 38 hours a week while regularly working 20 to 30 hours of unpaid overtime.
The Ombudsman has since launched an investigation into Rockpool Dining Group and the company has paid back $1.6 million for one year’s underpayment. Rockpool has since extended those repayments stretching back a further five years but has not detailed the total cost.
The Rockpool spokeswoman said it remains “engaged” with the Ombudsman and continues to assess “historical wage practices and remains committed to addressing legacy practices”.
The new complaint, drafted by Maurice Blackburn, relates directly to that investigation.
Rockpool Dining Group’s major owner is private equity firm Quadrant Private Equity with Perry the public face of the group. Perry is not in charge of the day-to-day operations of the business and has not been personally accused of being involved in the doctoring of hours.
Mr Bornstein said vulnerable workers had been “exploited” by Rockpool.
The law firm estimates that Rockpool Dining Group may owe its workers more than $10 million due to underpayment. It alleges that due to the “destruction” of hourly records and a “deficient” audit by PwC of the underpayments, the true extent of the underpayment may never be known.
“Based on information provided, Rockpool has been caught falsifying the time sheet records of staff in order to cheat them out of their wages,” Mr Bornstein said.
Mr Bornstein said three of the four case studies it provided to the Ombudsman involved migrant chefs reliant on Rockpool for their visa to stay in Australia.
“These chefs report having minimal knowledge of their rights and entitlements under Australian workplace laws. They have also reported feeling fearful that if they speak out about their working conditions, their employment will be terminated as a punishment,” he wrote in the complaint.
The push for the Ombudsman to seek large penalties comes as the regulator has been criticised for securing small “contrition” payments from employers who underpaid their staff.
The George Calombaris-fronted Made Establishment recently had to pay back $7.8 million to staff and also made a $200,000 “contrition” payment as part of a deal it struck with the Ombudsman.
A spokeswoman for the Fair Work Ombudsman said it was not appropriate for it to comment on its ongoing investigation into Rockpool.
“We encourage any workers with concerns about their pay to contact us directly for assistance,” she said.
Mr Bornstein said the “systemic, unlawful conduct” by Rockpool was one of the “most egregious cases of wage theft Australia has seen yet”.
United Workers Union national secretary Tim Kennedy – of which Hospo Voice is an offshoot – said “wage theft” at Rockpool was a “business model” and a “deliberate choice”.
“The fact that Rockpool was able to steal up to $10 million from its workers signals the breakdown of our current workplace laws,” he said.
Maurice Blackburn are also representing former Rockpool chef Rohit Karki who in a separate Federal Court claim alleges substantial underpayment.
Over the past 18 months, investigations by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have exposed some of the industry’s biggest names as fronting businesses engaged in wage underpayment.
They include businesses fronted by well-known chefs Heston Bluementhal, Teage Ezard and Guillaume Brahimi.
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Ben Schneiders is an investigative journalist at The Age and has reported extensively on wage theft, corruption, business, politics and the labour movement. A three-time Walkley Award winner, he has been part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.
Royce Millar is an investigative journalist at The Age with a special interest in public policy and government decision-making.