Pub giant allegedly made workers falsify time sheets
ONE of Queensland's biggest pub and restaurant businesses allegedly instructed vulnerable migrant workers to falsify their time sheets to hide excessive overtime, a Courier-Mail investigation can reveal.
Staff who worked for Mantle Group Hospitality claim they were underpaid tens of thousands of dollars a year, in some cases slaving away below the award base pay rate for 50 hours a week or more.
The newspaper has spent three months documenting the accounts of former Mantle Group employees in Australia and overseas, as well as examining pay slips, time sheets, rosters and other company records.
It has uncovered evidence of a business model in which permanent staff on temporary working visas allege they were required to work 50 hours or more a week for as little as $53,900 a year, while being told to fill out timesheets showing a 38-hour week.
Mantle Group yesterday rejected allegations salaried staff were not paid for hours worked above 38 hours a week, saying it "meticulously follows all laws and regulations regarding visa holders" and had an "unblemished record."
"Visa holders are uniformly treated fairly and equally with resident permanent employees," a spokeswoman said.
She said staff had previously submitted timesheets recording hours of 38 hours a week, but at times may have worked more.
"The business has used those time sheets for the purpose of tracking and accurately calculating items such as leave and superannuation entitlements, which are at law calculated based on 38 hours a week," she said.
"The annualised salary paid to these employees includes all hours of work strictly in accordance with our current and registered workplace agreement."
Time sheets and pay slips obtained by The Courier-Mail for one former assistant manager on a company-sponsored 457 visa in 2018 indicate the excessive overtime pushed her hourly wage below the base rate of pay in the hospitality award for her position.
Another former worker, UK-resident Adam Hardwick, said he was told he would have to work a minimum 55 hours a week as part of getting sponsored by the company.
But at times, he says he worked up to 80 hours a week with no extra pay or time off - a claim Mantle Group has denied.
Owned by Brisbane millionaire Godfrey Mantle and wife Jenny, Mantle Group has become the ever-expanding success story of the Brisbane pub and restaurant scene.
It started operations in the 1980s with the state's first outdoor dining venue, Jimmy's on the Mall, followed by its British-styled Pig 'N' Whistle pubs, The Charming Squire at South Brisbane and restaurant brands including Phuc Deli-Viet.
Mantle Group has most recently broken into the fiercely competitive Sydney dining scene with a rooftop bar and Squire's Landing restaurant overlooking the Opera House on Circular Quay, boosting its venues to 15 across two states.
But claims of underpayments present a darker side to the homespun success story.
The Courier-Mail is not suggesting Mr Mantle is responsible for the time sheets.
It comes amid a series of wage scandals embroiling celebrity chefs, including Neil Perry's Rockpool Dining Group, which has agreed to back pay staff $1.6 million, and George Calombaris, who was hit with a $200,000 fine over $7.8 million in underpayments.
Reports by the newspaper on Mantle Group's 20-year-old "zombie" agreement stripping staff of penalty rates in December prompted UK-born Adam Hardwick, 34, to detail his experience of working for the company on a 457 visa from 2013-15.
He earned $70,000 a year as a venue manager, with his pay slips showing a $35 an hour rate based on a 38-hour week.
But Mr Hardwick claims he was told he would have to work a minimum of 55 hours a week, and on several occasions, clocked up 70-80 hours.
He said the company instructed him to fill out two separate time sheets, one with his real hours and another documenting a 38 hour week - the standard Australian working week.
Other ex-employees also said they had been told to fill out two time sheets for each week while on 457 visas, or of witnessing the practice.
The time sheet on which staff say they were told to show a fictitious 38 hour week has a footnote reading: "The hours detailed above are the EXACT times I have worked." And shifts cannot exceed the "authorised" 38 hours a week, it says.
Mr Hardwick said the timesheets were sent out to staff in batches, usually in blocks of six months at a time.
"I was instructed to fill these out with false hours totalling 38 (hours)," he said.
"All these hours were a total fabrication and were filled in months in advance to any shifts I actually worked.
"On a weekly basis I would also have to fill out my actual time sheet which documented the minimum 55 hours the company required me to work."
The second time sheet was titled "work experience record sheet".
It includes a typed statement that anything beyond the "authorised" 38 hours a week are "entirely at my own discretion" and unpaid.
"The more you work with (Mantle Group), you're like this is a piss take. They are just exploiting the situation," Mr Hardwick said.
He and a co-worker complained about their treatment to the Fair Work Ombudsman in late 2018.
Emails show Mantle Group then made an "an offer of resolution" via an FWO mediator. Mr Hardwick said they were offered $5000 and asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which they refused.
His co-worker alone was claiming at least $26,000 in underpayments, he said.
Law firm to examine pay
Class action firm Adero Law, which specialises in employment law, says it is now accepting registrations for an open class action proceeding against Mantle Group to recover underpayments and to seek civil penalties on behalf of Mr Hardwick and others.
The firm says it had performed two months of due diligence since The Courier-Mail first reported on workers' concerns about pay and conditions.
It will examine the validity of Mantle Group's long-expired 20-year-old workplace agreement and whether the "excessive, unpaid overtime hours caused salaried workers to fall below the base rates of pay" in the hospitality award.
Adero is currently running class actions against Woolworths and New South Wales' pub baron Justin Hemmes' hospitality empire.
"The practice of paying a fixed wage, regardless of the actual hours worked is an especially insidious type of underpayment because it's very difficult for the employee to calculate their entitlements if the employer does not keep accurate wage and time records," litigation co-ordinator Nicholas Driver said.
He said employers were often denied access to their own wage and time records, and fearful of their job security if they raise questions.
Adero principal Rory Markham said unpaid work experience or training was typically lawful, but only when it was part of accredited training or for an hour or two upon starting a new job to check an employee's competency.
"There is absolutely no question that the work performed during the so-called voluntary overtime hours was work from which the company benefited," he said of Mantle Group.
"We understand staff were doing the exact same duties during their unpaid overtime hours as they were doing during their ordinary hours of work."
He described the disclaimer on time sheets stating staff were not entitled to pay for working over 38 hours a week as a "potential misrepresentation of workers' rights."
Excessive hours triggered "exhausted" worker's resignation
One former Mantle Group-worker on a 457 visa told the newspaper she quit in 2018 just months before becoming eligible for permanent residency after being worn down by the excessive hours.
Jane, whose name has been changed in this story at her request, said she was required to work a minimum 50 hour week.
"It just wore me down," she said. "I was exhausted. It was just too much."
Jane said she was told to fill out a 38-hour week on one time sheet, and her actual hours on the "work experience record sheet."
"You basically just made up shifts," she said.
"It's just the situation where (you think) I'm on this visa and if I want to stay in this country I just need to accept it and get on with it.
"You fill out three months' of timesheets for 38 hours and then hand it back to them and then every week they send you back your regular time sheet so they can check you were doing 50 hours."
Jane was hired as a former assistant restaurant manager on the minimum visa entry salary of $53,900 a year.
Her pay slips show that equated to $27/hr based on a 38 hour week.
But that would be pushed as low as $20.73/hr based on the 50 hours a week she actually worked over a year - less than the base rate of pay in the hospitality award for a hotel management role.
Mantle Group yesterday denied the allegation, saying it operated under its workplace agreement not the hospitality award when it came to pay for extra hours.
It said its agreement continued to operate as an "approved and legally binding agreement" and it had an "unblemished record as an approved sponsor of temporary workers."
Another former employee, who quit MGH last year, said he questioned his superiors about why 457 visa holders in one venue were filling out time sheets for 38 hours a week when they were really working 50 hours a week.
He said he was told: "What the f**k are they going to do. They can't leave."
Excessive overtime was a familiar story of working in hospitality for another UK-resident formerly on a 457 visa at Mantle Group.
But he said the difference was "there was a conversation after you signed your contract that said you have to work 55 hours."
Multiple former staff also told of witnessing - in some cases signing off on - time sheets routinely filled out by casuals on student visas for the maximum 20 hours a week.
Like the 457 visa holders, the students then submitted a second time sheet for their actual hours, which several former workers said they were then paid for.
Company-issued instructions, obtained by the newspaper, spelled out the process.
It instructed student visa holders to fill out one time sheet with their "actual weekly hours worked including work experience" and a second showing "a maximum of 20 hours."
A company spokeswoman said it did not have any student visa holders working above 20 hours a week and no student visa holders had been underpaid.
Workers should photograph themselves leaving work
University of Sydney senior lecturer and employment lawyer Steven Clibborn said temporary visa holders could feel pressured to accept what pay and conditions were imposed upon them due to their dependence on the sponsoring employer.
"Not only for their ongoing employment, but also their ongoing right to be in the country relies on the good favour of the employer sponsoring them," he said.
"In a case where they have only 60 days to find an alternative sponsor once one sponsorship ends, it is for many not a practical thing and what it means is you don't have mobility between workplaces.
He said problems arose when employees on salaries based on a 38-hour week worked such long hours their hourly pay ended up dropping below the award rate.
Whether time at work could be characterised as work experience would depend on whether it differed from their daily duties, he said.
"If they were performing the same duties across the whole of those hours it is difficult to understand the distinction between what is paid employment and what is work experience," he said.
He recommended staff keep their own time records, even taking a timestamped photo of themselves arriving and leaving work.